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Author | Photos Kristina Groeger

Ethical Dilemmas: What To Do When Your Partner Shifts to Alt-Right Thinking

Hey Jude,

I’ve been with my partner a long time. We have two small children together. The last few years, he has been reading more and more conspiracy and alt-right sites and has started spouting racist and homophobic sentiments – things he never did before. We used to have a common value system (I thought), but now he’s becoming a person I don’t recognize.

I don’t want to throw in the towel on my marriage, but I’m finding myself less attracted to him and I’m worried about his influence on the kids. When I try to reason with him, he accuses me of being “brainwashed.” He has no friends, no hobbies and spends an inordinate amount of time smoking pot and reading these sites on his phone. I’m at a loss. Please help.

[female, 32]

I can completely understand not wanting to bail on this marriage, because you have invested a lot of time and energy into it—including having and raising two kids. You’re in a very tough spot right now, and I think there is a “Plan A” and a “Plan B” for how to deal with this.

“Plan A” involves learning more about what’s going on here, and seeing if it can be fixed. “Plan B” comes about if you realize that things can’t be fixed. But as one former therapist of mine used to say, you need to do some “information gathering” before making any big decisions or resorting to “Plan B.”

First and foremost, it sounds like your partner is struggling with some mental health issues. He may be depressed, because it seems that his behaviour has changed pretty dramatically over the past few years: increased drug use, withdrawing from friendships/hobbies, pessimistic and paranoid view of the world, accusatory of others when they question his views. I am NOT a mental health professional, but those are some pretty common symptoms. In this regard, I think your husband should find a therapist and go regularly. If you can’t afford one, then he should see his doctor and ask about low-cost options for mental health care or support groups. Getting him to go to therapy when he is in this state may be difficult, but I’ll address that in a sec.

Let’s talk about you for a minute. I really feel for you because you seem to be a bit trapped right now. You have two kids that are still in a very needy stage in their lives, and your husband has a) changed into a different (crappy?) person, and b) seems to have “checked out” in a major way. Does he help with the child-care? Does he help around the house? Does he take the kids out to play/to activities? Does he interact with YOU in a loving way? Does he support you? Are your needs as a wife, mother, and woman being met? I’m asking these questions because this is the type of “information gathering” you may want to do in order to determine what next steps to take.

Clearly people change throughout their lives, and marriages are inherently challenging because of how different people can become over the long haul. I think there are superficial changes that life partners ought to accommodate: people gaining some weight, getting wrinkled, losing interest in some hobbies and gaining interest in others, making new friends and leaving old ones, quitting jobs and beginning new ones, and fluctuations in financial earning. This is what the “for better or for worse” element of a marriage is made of. The individuals are fundamentally the same, but the circumstances change.

But then there are the changes that can really shake the foundation of a partnership: shifts in the core of a person’s being. Changes that make them, in SIGNIFICANT ways, a different person than the one you married. Right now you’re living with a man who—in some very important ways—is not like the man you married. My guess is that you were originally attracted to him specifically because he was NOT racist, homophobic, bigoted, or drugged out; that you looked forward to raising kids with him and sending them into the world as beacons of compassion, tolerance, and acceptance. So the question then becomes: if my partner is a fundamentally different person than the one I married, and we are now significantly misaligned in our values and beliefs, then what is this marriage founded upon? Yes, a shared history, but what about our original shared bond?

To be clear, I’m not saying that change in a foundational aspect of a relationship REQUIRES that you end it; however, It does mean that a re-orientation is necessary: you have to figure out who/where you both are NOW, where you want your lives to go, and decide if you can and will re-build that foundation. BOTH of you should ask, can we go there together? Is that possible? What would need to happen for us to get there, and are we/you/I capable of that? That’s all part of “Plan A.”

I’d like to suggest an alternative way of talking to him—to see if this gets you anywhere in your “information gathering” phase: try Nonviolent Communication, a method of communication based on empathy, honesty, and compassion. It puts the focus on YOU and YOUR needs, and therefore makes it less likely that the person you’re speaking to will feel attacked or blamed. It was developed by Marshall Rosenberg, an American psychologist, in the sixties.

The beauty of Nonviolent Communication is that there is a very defined structure to it: observations, feelings, needs, then requests. You can look it up online, but here’s a quick example of what one instance might look like in your situation:

Observation: When I hear you saying homophobic of racist comments…

Feeling: …I feel sad/angry/scared/disappointed…

Need: …because I value compassion and tolerance, and I need to know that I share the same values with you (my partner), and that we are teaching our kids to be compassionate and open-minded…

Request: …so would you be willing to talk to me about why those sites appeal to you? / …so would you be willing to stop visiting those sites? / …so would you be willing to talk about the shared values that you and I would like to teach our kids?

Honestly, I don’t like that he says you’ve been “brainwashed” when you try to talk to him about this. That’s worrisome, and it’s dismissive. If you can’t communicate with him (or, more accurately, he won’t/can’t communicate with you), then there’s not much hope of resolving this.

I’m not saying that it’s all on YOU to fix the communication. Not at all. He needs to get his shit together and recognize who he has become. He also needs to figure out a way to tell you about what’s going on with him. I’m doubtful that he can do this without therapy, or without fixing any underlying mental health concerns.

But he might be in a state where he can’t truly hear you, no matter how you phrase it. And as I said before, you can’t force him to go to therapy. If he refuses, then you need to consider “Plan B” and think about the life you envision for yourself and for your kids: can you continue on in a relationship with someone who is racist, homophobic, isolated, and paranoid? Is the regular drug use okay for you and okay for your kids? Are you okay being married to someone that you’re no longer attracted to, who thinks YOU are brainwashed?

I know that I phrased those questions in a biased way, but I do have an opinion on this: I want more for you, and I want more for your kids. I want you to be with someone who can take responsibility for his shit, and fix it, and continually try to improve himself.

I don’t want you to be with someone who implies that YOU’RE in the wrong when you try to discuss HIS issues. You deserve more than an isolated, paranoid, high, bigoted roommate. Your kids deserve more than that too. And clearly, if you two were to split up, he would still be able to see the kids and spend time with them. Which is good, because they need their dad’s presence in their lives, even if you don’t agree with his worldview.

With regards to staying in a relationship with him—staying in a partnership with him—I think that is where you need to draw boundaries and clearly indicate what is acceptable to you and what isn’t. Your kids will see that, too, and they will know that while Dad may believe one thing, Mum believes something very different, and she is willing to stand up for those beliefs.

I want to make one thing very clear, though: you have no control over your husband’s actions, only your own. So you can only do so much here. He has to do the rest. Some practical advice would be: make sure you have a strong support system (friends, family, parenting groups); get a therapist if you can afford one; keep exposing your kids to situations and people that promote your values; keep trying to communicate with your husband; lay down some rules re: pot (i.e., no smoking in the house/no smoking around the kids/no smoking when you’re with the kids); engage in hobbies and activities that YOU like (with or without the kids); carve out a bit of alone time for yourself so you can do some thinking. Start “Plan A” and then, when you have more information, consider if “Plan B” is necessary. Hang in there, lady.

Do you have an ethical dilemma you need help with? Send your question to heyjudeadvice@gmail.com.

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