A look into the rare purple marriage

Election 2020. In an era of ever-more polarized politics, these couples have found ways to live with their differences.

28 Sep 2020 | 12:55

Katie Myrick and Chris Watkins live in Milford, Pa., with their blended family of six kids, in a neighborhood thick with dueling political signs. Their driveway sports a Biden/Harris 2020 sign and a flag with a peace sign supporting Black Lives Matter, science, women’s rights and kindness. Watkins, meanwhile, is decked out in MAGA paraphernalia: a T-shirt with President Trump ripping off his button-down to reveal he’s Superman and a red Trump 2020 baseball cap. They are the increasingly rare breed: a marriage of mixed political views.

Myrick, 32, a full-time mom, grew up in a well-to-do conservative Irish Catholic household in Warwick, N.Y. Watkins, a key accounts manager for Red Bull Energy Drink, grew up in a liberal household in Pine Bush, N.Y. He is very close to his Biden-supporting grandparents, who were teachers.

After becoming parents, both found themselves migrating politically away from their families – and in opposite directions from each other.

“I have a son who isn’t straight, and I have kids who aren’t white, and I’m a woman, and I don’t like being told what to do with my body,” said Myrick, explaining her political awakening. At first, she said, “anything I could do to be different from my parents was probably my goal.” But until May, she had never registered to vote. “I think when I had kids, and the older that they got, my liberal came out even more so than before.”

Watkins, meanwhile, had voted Democratic, but after President Donald Trump’s election found himself getting disillusioned. “I started kind of changing my mind on it all,” he said. “I felt like Democrats – it felt like we were sitting around and watching the world turn without making any improvements.” Trump, meanwhile, “went straight down headfirst into the gutter to go meet with Rocket Man. It just blew my mind.”

Watkins said he hoped the border wall would stem the flow of illegal drugs into the country. Drugs are not a hypothetical in his life: someone close to him to struggles with addiction, and he has seen the suffering it can cause.

“I’m not saying he’s not sometimes racist, sometimes a pig,” said Watkins, of Trump. “But I think he’s made a huge difference in America.” Watkins sees it as a sign of integrity that Trump has no qualms about pissing everyone off. “Even as stupid as some of his Tweets are, he’s not paying somebody to write this stuff for him or to look over it,” he said.

He also likes to yell “Space Force!” frequently, Myrick says with an eye roll.

“Oh yeah, the Space Force was amazing,” Watkins said. “I mean, I just want one of my kids to go into the Space Force program.”

Myrick is vocal about her hatred of Trump. She thinks he’s a “racist, sexist, homophobic pig,” and it scares her to think that her queer son is coming of age at a time when homophobic slurs are tossed about casually, as had happened on the school bus that day. Still, she prides herself on being a “badass believer in human rights, so I would be a hypocrite to tell him he’s wrong for his choice.”

She explains her guiding philosophy like this: She doesn’t want to be lectured because she chose to “just have babies” and be a stay-at-home mom instead of going to school and working outside the home, when women fought so hard to be able to do all the things men do. That was her choice. Voting, likewise, is an inviolable right, regardless of anyone else’s ideals – even if that person happens to share your bed.

Their kids, too, have strong – and differing – opinions. The three who participated in a mock election at school in 2016 all voted for Trump. Now the oldest, 14, has a Black Lives Matter poster on his wall; the 11-year-old is equally anti-Trump; and the 12-year-old goes back and forth.

Though Myrick and Watkins have plenty of friends on both sides of the aisle, they don’t know any other mixed couples like themselves. In fact, ever since the day Watkins came home in MAGA gear, their marriage became an affront to some in their circle. Myrick has friends who’ve told her they can’t believe she’s okay with her husband voting for Trump. Five people unfollowed her on Instagram, including her cousin and his husband out in Oregon. “And I’m like, but there are people in the world who are going to vote for him, what do you want me to do? I can fight, I can be an ally, I can be there. But I can’t make him change his mind.” Meanwhile, from the other side, she gets called a “liberal snowflake” and a “sheep.”

The intolerance on both sides is only getting more extreme. “There’s people that are taking to a whole different level where they’re vandalizing signs, attacking, overall just bullying, and that’s not what this is about,” said Watkins. “You should be able to have a conversation.”

Watkins lightens the mood the way he knows how, by being goofy. Like when he put on all his Trump gear and went straight to his grandparents’ house five minutes away, and they brought out their Biden gear. “The next time that we’re around we’re going to take a picture,” he said. “We have fun with it. They’re not happy I’m a Trump fan. I’m not happy I can’t change their minds.

“His grandmother is livid at him,” Myrick interjected. “Sometimes you just have to make a joke out of it, or, like, how else do you survive?”

Political debate pops up in the house from time to time, though the couple tends to avoid the topic – with six kids, there’s plenty else to talk about. It drives her crazy that he doesn’t see his own white male privilege and is always saying that marginalized groups are being victims. He rolls his eyes when she gets worked up about every overhyped issue she happens to see on social media. But their difference of opinion is just one item on the list of things you live with in a spouse. “Isn’t that what marriage is?” Myrick asked. She acknowledges that she’s no picnic to live with, either, with her Type A meticulousness. “I pick up his dirty socks and he deals with my rants.”

Besides, their next-door-neighbor, who’d brought over the Biden sign that day, had shared the word on the street, said Myrick with a shrug, “that couples that have mixed political views tend to have a really hot love life.”

‘I throw vegetables’

Piper Bowman has a rule for her partner: Don’t discuss it. Jeff Johnson doesn’t always follow that rule, partly because, he admits, “I think she’s extremely hot when she’s mad.”

Bowman, a Democrat, grew up in Oregon with an anti-establishment mother who believed in Universal Energy, in a family that had lively political conversations around the dinner table. Johnson, a registered Independent, grew up in Kentucky with his mom and grandfather. As a kid there was no “politics.” The only difference he knew about was you either went to church or you didn’t.

Now they live in Chester, N.Y., in a blended family that includes two kids, 18 and 9, and Jeff’s parents. They co-own a gym, Core 2 Extremity, which since the pandemic they have retrofitted into a personal training business that operates out of their garage. Training clients together means they spend a lot of time in the same space, often in the role of listener. Bowman keeps her opinions to herself, while Johnson likes to engage. He’s gregarious, known for dancing around the gym, ready and eager to talk politics – which not infrequently these days results in someone getting offended.

Bowman tries not to let that someone be her by avoiding politics like the plague. She has been known to drop into a yoga squat when Johnson starts up, with that thousand-yard gaze in her eyes. When she does get “goaded” into a conversation she doesn’t want to have, “I get angry. I throw things at him – vegetables are my choice. And then I shut down.”

“It’s challenging because with our gym, we have uber police officers, right, and then some on the other side,” said Johnson. “When I talk to people, and that’s part of my job is talking and engaging with people, they all make great arguments of why they believe in what they believe. I would come home and talk to her about it, and she would get really frustrated, so I respected her space with that.”

For Bowman, talking politics is not worth the candle. Most of the time she finds herself outnumbered, so she would end up having to defend herself – and why? “It’s my viewpoint and it’s personal. It’s not up for debate or discussion. That’s how I feel about it.” It’s not as if anyone changes their mind based on something they hear anyway. She believes political beliefs go much deeper than that. “I think each individual person comes up with their own politics, based on family, background, history,” she said. “We’ve had the conversation so many times, that has just led to frustration. So it’s like, okay, on our list of things to be frustrated by, I don’t want that to be on it.”

Did politics come up when they were dating? “No,” she said, deadpan. “We were too worried about the sex.”

Johnson likes to “stir the pot,” but the instinct comes from a genuine desire to “make this a better place. Not just for our instant gratification right now, but for our grandkids’ future. And I’m sorry if I offend someone who doesn’t want grandkids. Cause that’s what it feels like. Like, how dare you talk about grandkids?”

He wishes people were more open to discussion with the other side, and not just talking back and forth. “If I ask you a question and then you start talking, and then I talk again, I’m not really listening to what you’re saying,” he said. He’s learning, he says, that sometimes actually listening requires not responding right away.

Then there’s the question: whom should he be listening to? Growing up, the news you saw on TV was true, you didn’t question it. Now you see a picture online and immediately wonder: did someone Photoshop that? You overhear something while getting your hair cut, repeat it in casual conversation, and get lambasted as a moron. “I’m in a confused state right now, because I don’t feel like I know what’s up,” said Johnson. “Where do I find out the real truth? Where is the real truth, where?”

It’s a widespread conundrum: Where exactly does one go these days for unbiased information? A news feed on Johnson’s phone serves up stories from two sides, so that he can look at it from multiple standpoints. He’s begun sending stuff he hears to a friend and client at the gym who’s a scientific fact checker for verification.

Neither Johnson nor Bowman voted in 2016. It’s common among politically mixed couples to feel that since their votes would just cancel each other out, they might as well stay home. If Johnson – a business owner himself – had voted in 2016, it would have been for Trump. “Obviously I was wrong,” he says now, but he thought a businessman might be better at the job than a career politician. It was the same thing that drew him to Ross Perot back in 1992, the business magnate who ran as an independent against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. That was the first vote Johnson ever cast, and as it turns out, a sliver of political common ground with Bowman, whose family was also into Perot.

They both do plan to vote this time around, although Johnson hasn’t yet decided who he’s voting for. “If Ross Perot were on the ticket...” he half-joked. “I liked that guy.”

“Sometimes you just have to make a joke out of it, or, like, how else do you survive?” --Katie Myrick