Political opposites, yet inseparable

A lobbyist for a power company, Heather Teilhet drums up support for coal-fired energy. Every day, she runs up against people fighting to reduce Georgia’s dependence on coal.

The head of a nonprofit environmental group, Rob Teilhet believes coal is dirty and spews toxins into the air we breathe. Every day, he locks horns with people who claim coal is good.

It makes for a typical energy-versus-environment debate: Get real or get green.

Except the Teilhets — pronounced ‘Tel - A’ — are not typical adversaries. They are also Mr. and Mrs., husband and wife, sharing a passion that puts them at opposite poles in their work lives.

Yet, political differences seem to bring out the best in the Teilhets.

In 2004, when the couple got engaged, Heather was Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue’s spokesperson; Rob was a Democratic state representative. Even then, they had a reputation of being able to be party loyalists who were warm and fuzzy toward each other.

After six years of marriage, they are still at political odds. Heather works for Georgia Electric Membership Corp., a trade association representing 42 electric corporations. Rob recently went to work for Georgia Conservation Voters, an eco-minded advocacy group.

Marriage is hard enough, but when couples grapple with big differences — whether age, religion, politics or something else — it gets increasingly complex.

The Teilhets believe respecting your partner and being respectful even if your interests don’t coincide is the key to making a marriage work. It doesn’t hurt that they are still crazy about each other. She finds him wickedly funny. He lights up when she enters the room.

“I respect the heck out of her opinion,” said Rob Teilhet. “I think more highly of her than anyone. And just because she has different viewpoints, that would never lead me to question her character.”

Most people avoid mates with different political or religious views, according to experts.

People, by and large, are “conflict avoidant,” said J. Kip Matthews, an Athens psychologist. In other words, we like to make it easy for ourselves. For people with differences, Matthews said it’s imperative for couples not to slip into win-lose discussions, but instead focus on the reasons behind the goals.

David Woodsfellow, an Atlanta psychologist specializing in couples therapy, said the key is “agreeing to disagree” and moving on.

“About certain things, that may be as good as it gets to a resolution,” said Woodsfellow. “So you move on and reassure your partner about other things, about how you love each other.”

In an era of vicious, uncompromising politics, it may seem hard to believe the Teilhets can pull off a successful marriage with seeming ease.

Early on, the Smyrna couple established ground rules and turned to humor to help keep the peace.

When they were in the Capitol — on opposing sides — they decided to never discuss each other’s strategy sessions. Heather would get advance notice of plans to file controversial bills; she would never give Rob a heads up. If Rob was planning to publicly lambast Gov. Perdue, Heather would find out with everyone else.

While some areas were off limits, they talked openly about their views on issues such as education, transportation and health care.

“We’ve always tried to contain the things we can’t talk about,” said Rob Teilhet, 37.

They each hold the power to table a discussion at any time. They try to avoid getting into a debate too close to bedtime. They avoid jousting about politics around their daughters, 3-year-old twins Harper and Maddie.

These days, they often engage in — and enjoy — lively debates during date nights.

“I think it would be boring to be married to someone who thought just like me,” said Heather Teilhet, 35. “It makes for more fun this way.”

Some friends, including Tim Santelli, a trial lawyer in Atlanta, watch the couple with admiration.

“I have never seen them talk over each other,” said Santelli, former treasurer for Rob Teilhet’s recent unsuccessful campaign for Georgia attorney general. “You can tell they aren’t just waiting their turn, but really listening, taking it all in.”

Santelli wishes he, too, could engage in in-depth, but also civil debates. He referenced TV — CNN and Fox — where it’s commonplace to see people yelling at each other, interrupting each other all the time.

“That’s pretty much how I do it. I have even done that to Rob a couple times.”

Areas of agreement

Humor and politics often go together in the Teilhets’ household. Take this recent exchange over coal. Insinuating that building more coal-powered plants is taking a step backward, Rob Teilhet said, “Should we also travel around in horse and buggy?”

Heather Teilhet didn’t miss a beat.

“When you turn the light switch on, do you like that there’s light or would you rather stay in the dark?”

While they disagree on health care and the environment, they agree on many issues, including being in favor of the death penalty and stem cell research. (They also have many nonpolitical issues in common. One example: they are diehard University of Georgia football fans.)

On some issues, such as education, they deliberate the nuances and, over time, have come to be on the same page. Until recently, Rob took a hard-line, traditional Democratic position of opposing any voucher proposal that would take funding out of public schools. But now he agrees with his wife that there should be flexibility built into the system.

People today can inundate themselves with slanted news outlets, hear what they want to hear, and block opposing voices. “We don’t have that luxury,” said Rob Teilhet. “I’ll hear the other side from someone who means more to me than anyone else in the world, so I can’t discount it as some crazy person,” he said.

Twin peacekeepers

The biggest motivators for helping keep the peace in their marriage has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with the birth of their twins. Born two months early (Harper weighed 3 1/2 pounds at birth; Maddie weighed just 3 pounds), the twins required a two-month stay at the neonatal intensive care unit.

“We were solely focused on those babies,” Heather Teilhet said. “We can be on different sides because we are on the same side on what’s most important: our faith and our family. Party affiliation comes way down the line.”

At their Smyrna home, issues come up, but they are rarely colored by politics.

“Rob caught me teaching the girls to dance to ‘Party in the USA’ by Miley Cyrus,” Heather said, “and he’s been censuring my music choices ever since.”

New political tone

Heather recently addressed her congregation at First United Methodist Church of Marietta, where the Teilhets are members. She called for a new tone in politics, with more civility and less name calling.

“Not only do we not show basic respect for people with different viewpoints than our own, now we don’t even have to listen to them,” she said. “Conservatives watch Fox News, liberals watch MSNBC. It’s hard to be heard at all if your view isn’t extreme. Whether you watch Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow, we all, in this room, are the same. Whether you like President Bush or President Obama, we are the same. We’ve all hurried through the airport, late for our flight, only to stop dead in our tracks, watching a tearful child in a soldier’s embrace. And we’ve all said the same silent prayer that that soldier will return safely to that child.”

Heather’s former boss never had any doubt the Teilhets could make it work.

“Heather and Rob really understand what’s really important in life,” former Gov. Perdue said in a recent telephone interview.

“We seem to demonize opponents and have this ‘win at all costs’ attitude, and Heather and Rob have the right perspective. I knew there would sometimes be tense moments when [Rob] would defend his party’s position, but when Heather told me about [their] engagement, I knew she had the capacity for love and I knew they had mutual respect for each other.”

To this day, Heather said the most intense debate between she and Rob was over bumper stickers. During the 2006 gubernatorial race, Heather wanted to put a Perdue sticker on the back of her Acura; Rob was insistent on putting one for Mark Taylor, Perdue’s Democratic opponent for governor, on the back of his Chrysler.

Heather said she felt the bumper stickers were like billboards symbolizing each of them being on opposite sides, on different teams. Ultimately they agreed that each would place their candidate’s sticker on their own car — and that they’d never switch cars during the electoral race.

Those driving by their house and seeing their cars side by side may have gotten the wrong idea. They may be on different sides, but they are very much on the same team.