Donald Trump may be the only candidate for president who has a dating site especially for his supporters, but a new study shows that in 2016, politics is playing an increasingly important role in many Americans' search for a mate.
In a survey of users of the dating site OkCupid, 25.5 percent of respondents who are “looking for love” now say that having similar political beliefs is more important in making a good match than physical chemistry, up from less than 17 percent back in 2012. Liberals led political groups, with 40 percent of them looking for fellow partisans—a nearly 16-point increase in four years—compared to 29 percent for conservatives.
The dating site polled almost three-quarters of a million users in the U.S. who joined since January 2016, starting with the question, "Which is more important to you right now—love, or sex?" Of the people who answered "love," and went on to answer the question, "What is more important for a good match—having similar political beliefs or having good sex?", more now put political compatibility first than four years ago, though sex is still winning overall.
Don Cole, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Houston, Texas, who is certified by the Gottman Institute, another data-driven institution in the field of relationships, is surprised, though not shocked, by the trend. Cole said that 40 years of basic research convinced him that healthy relationships have three essential components: friendship, including love and romance; a conflict-management system for dealing with problems; and a "shared-meaning system."
"We all want our lives to be meaningful, and we want to create a sense of shared meaning," said Cole. "People can find shared meaning in other ways—we both have Harleys and we go to South Dakota every year, or we build through common experiences, or raising our children. More and more, though, it's through involvement with the political process and our views."
"Most people would agree that our country's politics are becoming more polarized," Cole continued. "Folks are more strongly red or blue, and their commitment to that position is more essential." He also cited the ever-increasing entanglement of religion and politics as a potential factor—adding in religious beliefs makes political affiliation even more of a “shared-meaning” value.
The dating process offers ample opportunity to suss out political beliefs, and among all OkCupid users in the survey, there has been an uptick in interest in discussing politics since last summer, when the 2016 presidential race kicked off.
Lawrence Josephs, a therapist in private practice in New York City and a professor at the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University, points to research in evolutionary psychology that may help explain the yen for compatible politics in a long-term partner.
“For casual sex, traits clustering around liveliness, vitality, and dominance are preferred—but for a long-term partner, warmth and trustworthiness is preferred,” Josephs said. He also mentioned social-psychology research showing that people generally trust members of their “ingroups”—with whom they share an interest or identity—more than members of “outgroups.”
“Perhaps when politics becomes more polarized and contentious, it feels too risky to establish a long-term relationship with someone with ‘opposite’ political beliefs,” Josephs said. “You can't trust them.”
Stories are beginning to emerge about existing couples straining under the stress of this particularly wild presidential election cycle. But Cole said he has seen this phenomenon in his red-state marital therapy practice for some time.
"Since the election of President Obama, people have come in with a lot of anger and scorn," Cole said. "My practice is mostly heterosexual couples. What I usually see are these women who feel turned away from because their husbands are so wrapped up in this stuff. 'Can't we talk about anything else?'—that argument I've heard a lot. 'Why every time we go to dinner, every time we talk, do you have to be talking about how evil Obama is?' They're disagreeing with the over-focus, and the hostility. That conflict has increased, and it's almost always in that direction, with the males being extreme political creatures, and the women feeling like they're going too far."
Cole hypothesized that the relationship conflict in such cases could stem from the intensity of the conversation as much as the political position itself. To women, "the anger they're hearing feels off-putting. Men are more comfortable expressing anger than other feelings, but women are saying, 'every time we talk about this, your face gets red and your veins bulge. Can't we talk about something else?'"
Looking at the partisan breakdown of OkCupid's user base, interest in discussing politics roughly tracks with the weight each group gives to the importance of political compatibility.
Of the three groups, liberals like to talk about politics the most, and are most likely to value simpatico conversations over physical compatibility. Centrists and conservatives enjoy discussing politics less than liberals do, but conservatives are the second most-likely group to hold shared political values over good physical chemistry—among centrists, sex is more important than among their more partisan peers.
OkCupid is coy about its algorithm, and will only say that its questions—like "would you consider sleeping with someone on the first date?", "do spelling and grammar mistakes annoy you?", and "in a certain light, wouldn't nuclear war be exciting?"—are “distinctive, authentic, and broad.”
"Many of them are user-generated, so the questions themselves are an interesting barometer of how people think when it comes to love, dating, and relationships," says Elie Seidman, the site's CEO. "We try not to weigh any one topic too heavily, but rather are continuously balancing which topics are the best indicators for compatibility."
In an election year like this one, it seems that potential partnerships, like many other things, will be increasingly partisan. As Don Cole puts it, "people are really looking for ways to connect with their partner and share something meaningful in life, and politics has become more central than it maybe ever has been. Maybe we're not bonding around sex as much as other meaningful conversations."