Recently, one of the couples I work with as a therapist in Washington came to me with a new concern. The couple (let’s call them Sally and Steve) had been working to strengthen their communication and feel more connected, and the relationship was improving. But something was bothering Steve:
“Sally and I value that our political views are compatible. We have always enjoyed discussing current events, and our careers relate to politics, as you know. I initially took comfort in the fact that we went through the shock of Trump’s victory together, but something has changed. Sally is constantly reading news updates on her phone and watching CNN, even in the middle of the night. It’s gone too far. It’s no longer something that connects us; it’s now a wedge between us.”
It’s a dynamic I’ve seen with other couples and individual therapy clients I work with. To be sure, a heightened political anxiety has been with us since the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump voters in Washington feel like outcasts, shunned by family and friends. Democrats and Republicans who oppose the president are struggling with a sense of uncertainty. A remarkable number of clients report experiencing nightmares in which the president makes an appearance. It’s not unusual for clients to recount their personal challenges in a calm and contained tone and then burst into tears while describing their concern about our political climate.
One particular aspect of this stress is, in my experience, increasing — the stress associated with news consumption.
Clients frequently admit to excessively checking Twitter and social media, to the point that it interferes with their relationships and professional productivity. People struggling with these habits typically describe a growing sense of isolation, difficulty concentrating, increased anxiety and a feeling of distraction. A surprising number of couples in therapy are fighting with each other about their respective modes of news consumption. These couples report less sleep, growing disconnection and less sex. And this includes couples who share the same political views.
Research on media consumption confirms that my clients are right to be concerned. A 2017 study reported in the Journal of Media Psychology finds that increased levels of consumption of news about current events compromises emotional well-being over time. Another 2017 study confirmed other research that increased use of Facebook has a negative impact on over-all mood and compromises intimacy in real-life relationships.
My clients often prioritize political awareness and a passion for dynamic political discussion as a personal and relational strength. But something is shifting in the way we consume and experience the news, and people are fighting about it:
“My housemate announced during a dinner party that I’m addicted to NPR. She actually asked our friends to support an intervention, I’m not kidding.”
“My boyfriend says he’s sick of me screaming at the television. I’ve started watching Fox to branch out of the so-called bubble and it’s all lies; I can’t stand it!”
“I’m disgusted — my husband says I should stop reading the paper. What is this? The 1950s? I’m an educated and informed woman; I thought that was what he loved about me.”
“I never thought I would hear my husband say he needs to stop following the news. Even worse, I never thought I would agree. But he definitely needs to step away. He says it is like political porn and he can’t stop. I’m seriously worried.”
Often, the underlying source of an individual or relational problem is not a straightforward pathology. The difficulty frequently involves a strength, a good quality, that has gone too far. For Washingtonians, daily news consumption and an expectation to be informed about current events appear to fit this classic presentation. Instead of keeping us grounded and self-aware, news consumption has kicked into overdrive and grown into a collective obsession that is creating barriers to relationship intimacy. The bizarre and intense news cycle is seriously messing with people’s lives. Individuals who used to say that morning coffee and reading the newspaper was a highlight of the day now describe impulsive, constant news consumption. Couples who used to enjoy Sunday mornings in bed, flipping through the paper and scrolling through news sites while sharing thoughtful conversation, now say they are concerned that one or both partners are “obsessed with” or “addicted to” the news.
When a strength becomes a pathology, the solution typically does not require total elimination of the source. Those experiencing tension or feelings of disconnection related to the news don’t need to take extreme measures such as indefinite news blackouts or canceling their cable and newspaper subscriptions. The goal is to recalibrate — to celebrate the underlying strength by reining it back into its proper place and replacing excessive news consumption with action.
Taking action that directs energy away from your Facebook feed and toward the underlying source of anxiety is essential. Volunteer in a local political campaign. Participate in a political activity of mutual interest with a friend or partner. Reach out to organizations that represent your values.
I also suggest that clients consider political anxiety as an opportunity to prioritize and improve sleep habits. Clear all news and screens from your bedroom and find a nonpolitical book (paper, not digital) to read if you awaken in the middle of the night. Make a commitment to turn off all screens by 10 p.m. and avoid checking them later on. Losing the screens an hour or two before bed is conducive to better sleep and more sex.
When people feel stuck and are struggling to control a strength that has mushroomed into a pathology, reflecting on the importance of autonomy is often helpful. Take time each day to cultivate gratitude for the sophisticated structure of our Constitution. And take pride in your ability to be an informed and active citizen. If the current political climate has corrupted what was once a strength, allowing this deterioration to continue gives the current state of affairs too much power over your personal and relational experiences.
Those willing to commit to even one of these tactics will notice reduced anxiety, a stronger sense of power and enhanced relational intimacy. And, hopefully, the news will return to being a source of information, not stress.