October 18, 2016
When I saw that my boyfriend received his voter registration details in the mail, I jokingly asked, “You’re not voting for Trump, are you?” I posed this not as a genuine inquiry, but as a way to distance both of us from the likelihood that a presidential candidate I consider hateful, ignorant and unqualified could ever ascend to such a powerful position.
Yet what felt like a rhetorical question to me has prompted one of the biggest disappointments of our four-and-a-half–year relationship. I anticipated an automatic “Of course not!”; hoped he'd tear into one of his favorite of Trump's misdeeds. Instead, my boyfriend quickly took umbrage with my question and smugly replied, “That’s personal. I’m not going to tell you. It’s a secret ballot.”
Technically, he is absolutely correct; we live in a democracy, and no one ever has to reveal who he plans to vote for or has voted for. I can't demand that he share his electoral choices with me, nor would I know with absolute certainty whether he was being truthful if he did. However, I’d like to think there’s some sort of relationship privilege that goes beyond the letter of the law. He’s the person who knows more about me than anyone in the entire world, yet the topic that’s on everyone else’s lips has him keeping his sealed?
His response felt less like a bold individual stance than a hostile, oppositional one. Of course I take it personally. The secret ballot was enacted to protect voters from intimidation at the polls, so his use of the phrase seemed to brand me as a villain, whereas I saw it as a way of getting to know him, and by extension, us as a couple, better. He’s positioned me as his enemy rather than his partner, as if I’m someone who would wield his voting plans against him like a weapon, rather than the person who lives with him and is supposedly his closest confidante. I’ve shared stories with him I’ve never told another soul because I wanted his support and entrusted him to keep those revelations to himself.
I admit that I asked my initial question with a brash, perhaps obnoxious tone, as if he couldn’t possibly have a different answer than the one I’d assumed. If I could go back and ask again, I would opt for a more neutral “I didn’t know you had registered. Who are you planning to vote for?” But I would still expect an answer; in fact, I feel entitled to one. To me, a more thoughtful reply goes with the territory of being in a long-term adult relationship, the kind where we discuss both the mundane and the vital aspects of our lives. We’ve disagreed on plenty of issues before, and it’s never threatened our relationship, but his secrecy feels like it could because it treats me like an outsider who should be kept at bay, rather than someone he wants to let into the inner sanctum of his mind.
His silence looms especially large because it’s in such start contrast to almost everyone around me. My neighbors have planted lawn signs, I’ve overheard co-workers loudly declaring their political preferences, and Hillary vs. Trump quotes and memes dominate my Facebook feed. But in our home, you’d hardly know that in under one month, we’ll be going to the polls for one of the most volatile, heated and important elections in our country’s history. I’ve had strangers at airports spout off about who they’re voting for, like the woman who insisted to me, unprompted, that Hillary Clinton should be put in prison over her emails, so to have the man I love refuse to offer even a small clue to his political leanings makes me insecure. Isn’t the whole point of being in a romantic partnership that you not only can, but do, tell each other the things you keep secret from the rest of the world?
I’m more offended that he won’t tell me his voting choice than I am at the prospect of him voting for Trump. Actually, I literally have no idea who he's voting for, whether he's planning to write in a candidate, vote third party, or simply opt out of voting altogether. His air of mystery and insistence that I don’t deserve to know represents a breach in the “us against the world” aspect of being a couple. We’ve shared plenty of information and experiences that I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t reveal to anyone else. I know his income, weight, food allergies and assorted skeletons in his closet. I’ve held him while he cried over the deaths of his idols Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Prince. In turn, thanks to making wills together, he knows I want to be buried next to my grandmother on Martha’s Vineyard. He’s treated an abscess I was squeamish about showing a doctor and seen me through a deep bout of depression. We aren’t legally wedded, but as I often say, “We’re as good as married in every way that counts.” Yet I'm no longer sure I believe that.
I often tell him he knows me better than I know myself, and because of that, I feel I should be allowed to know him equally well, including his presidential preference. Part of being not just lovers but true partners is letting down our guards, trusting the other one with our most intimate feelings and beliefs, no matter how outlandish or ridiculous they may sound. His not telling me who he’s supporting in the election feels like an affront to our united front. If he wants to keep that a secret, what else does he feel more comfortable hiding? Of course I think both halves of a couple deserve privacy. I certainly value my alone time and have plenty of thoughts I choose not to share with him. But this topic feels urgent and vital, not a secret to hoard.
When pressed, he told me that his will and health details are things I have to know about in the event of a worst-case scenario, but his voting habits aren’t. I disagree, because whoever wins, we’ll both have to live under the policies they enact and the cultural environment they foster. The stakes feel much higher than they did during the 2012 presidential election, which I can’t recall us discussing in depth. I wasn’t bothered then by skipping over detailed dissections of the news in favor of sitcoms. But this election speaks to our core beliefs on a deeper level, which is why it’s brought out such ardent supporters and detractors of both major party candidates.
I’m not some pollster simply looking to tally up numbers. While a ballot only asks you to pick a candidate, as a partner, I want a more personal political accounting from him. I want to know the thought process behind his choice, whoever it is (even if it’s no one), as a way of knowing what matters to him. In that absence of even a hint, I have to assume he doesn’t really care about what I see as a truly dangerous outcome.
His continued refusal to weigh in on even Trump’s most egregious missteps makes me wonder if our value systems can truly mesh long-term. How can I pursue having a baby with someone who has no comment on Trump kicking a baby out of a campaign event? We live eight miles from Atlantic City, but I’ve never heard his take on what Trump’s legacy for that crumbling metropolis is. We’ve watched a TV documentary on people killed trying to cross the Mexican border without a peep from him about Trump’s proposed border wall. My boyfriend values my ex-WWII POW grandfather’s military service and always thanks him on Veterans Day, but simply said, “I heard about that” when I commented on Trump disparaging the experiences of those like him who suffer from PTSD. When even prominent Republicans are denouncing Trump, it’s confusing and off-putting to have him remain so tight-lipped.
Every time I think he'll reach a breaking point where he just can't keep his opinion to himself, I'm disappointed. Not even his favorite TV show, “The Simpsons,” skewering Trump in a between seasons ad got a rise out of him. He had no commentary about the first debate between Trump and Clinton other than to say he didn't think there was a clear winner, and that no, Trump wasn't "mansplaining," but simply acting like himself. When we watched the second, he chastised both candidates for not answering the stated questions. Even the horrific Trump Tapes that have been wishfully called “locker room talk” by the candidate haven’t made my boyfriend speak out, even though I’ve always observed him to be gentlemanly and respectful of women. It seems there’s nothing Trump could do that would be far enough to make him distance himself from the possibility of voting for him—or if there is, he hasn’t shared it with me.
Maybe he thinks I wouldn’t love him as much if I found out he was a Trump supporter—and I certainly hope I wouldn’t. One of my best friends is a Republican who ardently defended Sarah Palin, and while I disagreed vehemently with her, I never for one moment thought less of her as a person or considered dropping her as a friend (though I was happy to see her denounce Trump as a disgrace to her party during the Republican National Convention). I’m not like the woman who told her husband, as reported by The New York Times, “If you vote for Trump, I will divorce you and move to Canada.” I'm glad that not all the people I care about think in the exact same ways, which is why I'm even more offended by what feels like his lack of faith in me, or else a perverse pleasure in lording over me the mystery of what he plans to do once he steps into that voting booth.
If I knew he was hoping for a Trump win, I'd be bothered, of course, but the first thing I’d want to know is why. Maybe there’s some wonderful aspect of Trump’s plans for America that I haven’t considered, or maybe we’d just agree to disagree. I wouldn’t try to change his mind, because I know him well enough to be sure that would backfire.
I would still value his viewpoint, because his political reasoning would give me insight into his heart, his mind his soul—all the parts of him I fell in love with in the first place. His answer would shed light on the kind of person he is—and help me figure out how to build a life and family with someone whose opinions so strongly differ from mine. I suspect I would feel both closer to him, for his having shared it, and simultaneously more distant, but we'd weather that as we have all of our other differences. As things stand, I'm not quite sure what to do with my discomfort. Though I do feel I’m owed more than a blanket refusal, I can’t force him to tell me.
When it comes to this election, I feel like I know hordes of strangers online better than I know the man I love. Instead of the level of political intimacy I crave, I’ll simply have to imagine him picking a side, or perhaps writing in some lone wolf candidate. Rather than bonding, commiserating or celebrating with him on election night, I'll simply be left wondering.