Every couple has one core fight that replays over and over again, in different disguises, over the course of their relationship. In this series, couples analyze the origin and mechanics of their One Fight. To pitch your own One Fight (we’ll also accept pseudonyms, if necessary), email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Brookhiser, a historian and senior editor at National Review, and Jeanne Safer, a psychoanalyst and writer, have been married for 38 years and live in New York City. Jeanne Safer is the host of the podcast I Love You, but I Hate Your Politics and author of a forthcoming book of the same title. Richard Brookhiser’s book John Marshall: The Man Who Made The Supreme Court will be published in November.
Richard Brookhiser: We agree on what we like to eat, on what we like to read, on where we like to go, and how we conduct our lives. We met in a singing group, so we have the same taste in music. Where we disagree is politics. And while we disagree on economics and foreign policy, that’s not so inflamed. The hot buttons are the social issues, and the hottest of those buttons is abortion.
Jeanne Safer: I think our really radioactive fight, at least from my point of view, was over the Webster decision. This was early in our marriage, in 1989, so we’d been married nine years. I picked up the New York Times, which we both read at the breakfast table, and I saw a big piece on the front page about the Supreme Court’s Webster decision, which allowed states to limit the number of abortion clinics within their borders. They could make it one clinic in a place nobody could get to. I saw this and my heart sank. And I lost control in a way that I rarely have and it taught me a lot. I said, “Oh my God, this is the end. And I’m going to have to join a demonstration.”
I never have joined a demonstration for anything—I’m not the demonstrating type. But I felt like I couldn’t let this stand. I didn’t even think so much about the fact that you were sitting there and I knew you were probably in favor of this. I was just beside myself. So I say this to you—you never rise to the bait. Never ever.
Richard: And I rose. I said, “If you march, I march.”
Jeanne: And there we were. Uh, which was a hell of a place to be.
You normally don’t rise to the bait because you’re not a provocative person. You have your platform at National Review …
Richard: And the other thing is that I grew up—though my home life was as a conservative, much of my time at college was spent among people who disagreed with me. I went to an Ivy League school, and although I had a coterie of conservative friends, it was mostly a liberal place. I had a lot of liberal friends, including liberal girlfriends.
Jeanne: Your girlfriend was an ex-Communist!
Richard: It was a liberal environment and I just got used to dealing with that. I think you hadn’t had a similar experience, so you hadn’t had that training in avoiding needless animosity.
Jeanne: The only Republican whom I was aware of growing up was my father. And he was pretty mainstream, actually pretty liberal on social issues. You really do live in an echo chamber in the world, and I had zero experience dealing with this. The Webster decision had a lot of personal meanings for me and I didn’t yet know how to use profound self-control. We were really wretched, both of us. We hardly talked for the whole day, which is the only time in all these years that that happened.
Richard: There was an acrid smell in the air like an electric fire.
Jeanne: Yes! That’s very well put. (It helps that I love the way you put things.) I think part of it was also that I was shocked because you’re generally less of a martyr than I am. At this point I had already lived with National Review as part of my world for years, but never in a personal way like this. And it really felt frightening to me. Did you feel frightened?
Richard: Yes, because here it was at the breakfast table. Again, you knew my colleagues. You knew one of them who was also the publisher of a magazine called the Human Life Review. But he had never brought this up in conversation with you, so you had never gone head-to-head with him or any of my other friends and colleagues on this matter.
Jeanne: I had never gone head-to-head with anybody on this. Most of my female friends had actually had abortions, legal and illegal. But it felt like a door was being slammed shut. Abortion had been settled law at that point, and suddenly it wasn’t. It felt unbearable. And I don’t usually feel like that with you about almost anything, even gun control or issues like that—I guess because they’re not about me in the same kind of way. We really had a lousy day. I don’t remember which of us—maybe both of us together—at the end of it said, “We can’t let this happen. We can’t do this again.”
It taught us something. Our personalities and our opinions have changed not one iota in all the years since. But we really have learned not to do what we did ever again, because it hurt too much and accomplished nothing.
It probably helps that we met in 1977 in a singing group that performs Renaissance religious music for free on the streets of New York City. I noticed your sweet baritone and your deep-set blue eyes—and was pleased to hear you were a writer, even though you wrote for National Review. So I knew right away what I was dealing with, and so did you.
Richard: When we met, I did not bring up politics first thing—I knew my place of employment would do it for me. It was probably good that this was during the Carter administration, which, though it was full of problems, was also rather dull. By the time politics became radioactive in the Clinton years, we had already learned to live with each other.
Jeanne: We were both much more vocal about our obvious political differences early on in our relationship and discovered that trying to talk about our various hot-button issues was a bad idea. It’s actually gotten easier in recent years, since we know the limits. And it definitely helps that you oppose Trump. It’s wonderful to be on the same side for once—I’m savoring it.
But we had the opportunity to relive this all over again a couple months ago when Ireland legalized abortion. We were getting rid of it in this country and Ireland legalized it. And guess what I said? Nothing. I said nada. But you mentioned it!
Richard: I just mentioned it. I didn’t say, “Oh, what a terrible thing.” But there was the headline in the paper.
Jeanne: So I think I should get a reward!
Richard: Yes you do. Yes you do.
Jeanne: Did I have feelings about this? Absolutely. Profound ones. But something had changed in what I felt was important to do about my feelings. In a long marriage you have to learn a lot of things or else you’ll kill each other or get a divorce. And I had finally learned, for this and hopefully for other things too, that there was no upside in my talking about it with you. Also, I had other people I could talk to about it.
Richard: As you said, we haven’t changed our opinions at all. You send a check every year to NARAL and I send a check to the Human Life Review.
Jeanne: I’m closing my ears. I don’t want to know!
Richard: Well we don’t announce this. We don’t say how much we send!
Jeanne: But do you see how we’re talking about it now? That’s the important thing. If you can laugh about abortion, you can laugh about anything.
Richard: No, we’re not laughing about abortion. We’re laughing about arguing about abortion.
Jeanne: Yes, you’re absolutely right. The number of things we agree about, or find intriguing about each other, or exciting about each other, or constantly new about each other, trumps, to such a great degree, this subject for us.
Richard: We’ve also passed the Cancer Test.
Jeanne: That is: When you’re lying in bed getting chemotherapy, you don’t ask the party registration of the person who’s standing by your side, getting you through it. That’s what matters.
Richard: We each have had cancer. You twice, me only once. You learn a lot about the person you love, caring and being cared for. First, you realize the sheer effort involved—showing up at the hospital, keeping track of meds and doctors, keeping track of the sick person’s ordinary life. Second, you appreciate the devotion that propels the effort.
You’re funny and lively, smart and wise, feisty and true. I was lucky to meet you and am lucky you love me. Let the pollsters make of that what they will.
Jeanne: As long as you’re getting me through whatever it is I’m going through, or delighting me in every kind of way, you can think whatever you want! I don’t feel a need to discuss something that doesn’t go anywhere anymore. I don’t feel I’m betraying what I believe in. The world’s a big place and people have legitimate reasons for disagreeing with things that I feel are absolutely essential. I think this is part of real adulthood and maturity. I’m not going to lose you over how you think about abortion. I would be losing the center of my life.
Correction, Sept. 19, 2018: Due to a production error, this illustration originally made National Review look more like a newspaper than a magazine. The illustration has been updated.