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A house divided: Spouses split over candidates

But ask Amy Ryberg Doyle, 38, Jonathan’s wife, about Palin and she says “I like her!”

Jonathan simply cannot fathom how his wife, the woman he loves, the woman whose qualities he shamelessly praises, the mother of his three children, can consider voting for the McCain-Palin ticket when the superiority of the Obama-Biden ticket is so obvious to him.

She, on the other hand, thinks her husband is flat wrong. “And he keeps trying to convince me,” she says. “He thinks I am undecided. He is nuts. I have told him I am supporting McCain. He’s delusional.”

Voter registration across the country is at an all-time high and the whole nation seems riveted by this election. A crumbling financial system, two wars, an uncertain energy future and half a dozen other big issues have combined to make this the most momentous election in at least a generation. It has also left emotions ragged and voters arguing, particularly couples like the Doyles, of Greenville, S.C., who find themselves rooting for opposite candidates. All around the country, some husbands and wives are facing the challenge of loving their partner even when they don't love their partner's political leanings.

“I was huge Ronald Reagan fan,” explains Ellen Gold, 51, over a cell phone while her husband, Bill, 58, stands nearby while the California couple tours Rockefeller Center in New York. “I really loved Reagan. Bill thinks that is a disgusting thing.”

Judy Ranieri also finds herself in a house divided.

“I just want the pain to stop,” Ranieri, 64, says plaintively during a visit with a relative in New Jersey. She’s a longtime liberal Democrat. The man she’s been involved with for 17 years is a conservative Republican. “I want the election over with. It is going on forever. It’s challenging. It really is.”

While these couples obviously share certain core values, they do have other differences. Ranieri is “spiritual.” Her partner communes with golf clubs. Amy Doyle is a morning person, often up at 4 a.m. for a run. Jonathan sometimes uncorks a bottle of wine at 10 p.m. and settles down with an Italian movie. But they don’t argue about those differences the way they can grumble about politics.

Psychiatrist, relationship expert, and Today Show contributor Gail Saltz has seen a few such couples in her practice lately — and there’s no mystery why.

“People are desperate for some sort of solution” to the country’s ills, she says. And when people conclude that one candidate or issue is the answer, “they become invested” in that position and defend it vigorously.

The key to arguing successfully, she says, is to recognize that a relationship includes two people who are different and then trying to respect those differences.

“Couples should think about avoiding two things,” when they talk politics, Saltz believes: personalizing and globalizing.

“A lot of couples personalize so one says ‘I think this, and if you do not, you must be stupid,’ so it becomes an attack about you as opposed to the issue.” Globalizing expands the argument into all sorts of other relationship issues. “It assumes that the argument involves everything about us, when it is really about gay marriage or whatever.”

(In fact, while talking on the phone, Ellen Gold and her husband disputed a California proposition to ban gay marriage, with this reporter as referee. Interestingly, she and Bill are newlyweds.)

'Sometimes I just scream'

Many politically mismatched couples have developed some of their own tactics to help survive this broiling election season.

“Sometimes I just scream,” Ranieri says, not entirely kidding. “Then it gets quiet for a day or so.” Mostly she tries to avoid triggers. She leaves the room when her partner watches Fox News, for example.

Ellen Gold tends toward avoidance, too. “We used to talk about politics a lot more until I found things getting personal and ugly. When that happens I disengage.” She just stops talking about it.

Disengaging seems like sound advice to Amy Doyle, too. When she and Jonathan have had arguments about politics, she says, “I just go to bed. That business about not going to bed angry? That’s crazy. That is exactly when you should go to bed. I am so cranky and argumentative that is what I need to do.”

Saltz advises against having an intense discussion at the end of the day, however. Both parties may be tired, can lose restraint, and create hurt feelings.

Of course, some people enjoy a good political brawl and may not want to “disengage.” “I would prefer to continue until we drop dead,” Ellen’s husband, Bill, says. “It is good, not bad. A heated conversation about politics is part of life. It’s fun.”

Jonathan Doyle agrees. “I like that Kennedy-dinner-table thing, the shouting, debating positions.”

Doyle’s in the minority at his extended family’s dinner table. The self-described Democrat “Yankee” from the northeast is surrounded by politically active conservative Republicans. Amy serves on Greenville’s city council as a Republican, and her father is a Republican state senator in South Carolina. Once, when the couple was dating in the 1990s, the words “Bill Clinton” and “impeach” were traded until “her dad finally leaned over to me — he’s a big guy — and said ‘If you want to get along in this family you better stop bringing up Bill Clinton’s name.’”

Doyle stopped.

“Thanksgiving dinner is perfect,” Amy says, laughing. “We do not talk politics. Jon would love to go there, but he’s outnumbered.”

San Diegans Nanette and Milt Lehr know exactly how to navigate this delicate terrain. Married for 33 years, Milt, 80, is Jewish and conservative. Nanette, 64, is Catholic and liberal. They both have children from previous marriages and those children, by and large, have opposite political viewpoints from each of their parents.

“The world will go on no matter what he and I say or how we vote,” she says. “We realize you do not cross a line.” And if a discussion does start to heat up, or get personal, “we cut it off and agree to disagree.”

“We don’t get rabid,” Milt adds.

All the couples, and Saltz, agree that a sense of humor, and a little perspective, may be the most potent weapons for warding off politically-motivated relationship meltdowns.

“I have realized I am not going to change people’s minds,” Amy Doyle says, “especially not my husband’s. In my twenties, I thought winning an argument was important. It’s not. We have three kids and a great life.” columnist Brian Alexander’s new book is “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction.”