How to fix relationships strained by politics
Unless we want to sit alone in cranky self-righteousness, we must find a way to at least try to repair our relationships. Experts say it will take honesty, transparency and forgiveness.
The 2020 presidential contest was so close, it revealed that, despite the hardships that defined the year, many Americans are far from united.
How do we share this planet, our world, this republic, our cubicles, our homes — and in some cases even our bedrooms — with people whom we may disagree with so vehemently?
Unless we want to sit alone all by ourselves in cranky self-righteousness, we must find a way to at least try to repair our relationships. Experts say it will take honesty, transparency, and forgiveness. And it won’t be easy.
Start with yourself
We’ve been in an abusive relationship with politics for almost a decade now, attacking others for their beliefs and being attacked right back. Add to that the months we’ve been in coronavirus hell and the all-nighters we pulled after the election, and we are exhausted.
Take care of yourself. At the very least, stop falling asleep watching cable news. Take a walk. Light a candle. Play games with the kids. Write in your journal. And most important, at least until you cool down, avoid those who stress you out over politics. Now is not the time for convincing. Now is the time to sit with your feelings. Don’t judge them. “What we need to do now is offer ourselves as much compassion as we can,” said Kristin Neff, associate professor of the department of educational psychology and coauthor of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength and Thrive. “This has been painful for everyone. We have to be kind, supportive, and patient with ourselves in the face of our own suffering. It’s hard and even I’m terrified.”
Remember your resilience. The idea of losing this election is devastating for many. Make a pact with yourself that regardless of the election outcome,you will take steps forward with a renewed sense of civic engagement. And only when you are ready to, start to engage with friends and family on the other side. “This is not new; civil society has always disagreed,” said Deanna Geddes, a professor of human resources management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. “It’s in our disagreement that we create dialogue and evolve. We will make it through.”
Take your time. There is no rule you have to be past your feelings by the holidays. Chances are, the pandemic might mean we don’t see our family — or much of them — this holiday season. Use the coronavirus as an excuse to heal and treat yourself with grace, says Sydney Spears, a clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and adjunct professor at the University of Kansas. “Listen to that inner voice,” Spears said. “And if you aren’t ready, you aren’t ready. The only thing we really have power over is ourselves. If we can’t show compassion to ourselves, we will be ill-equipped when it’s time to show compassion to others.”
Is this relationship worth saving?
This is among the hardest questions we’ll have to ask ourselves in the coming months. We may miss our friends on the other side of the political divide, but how can we bridge it, and should we?
How close are you? It would be a shame to cut off your parents, your child, your best friend, or your longtime neighbor because of a political tussle, says Heidi Rose, professor and chair of Villanova University’s communications department, so start from a place of love. “That foundation might open the door to healing,” Rose said. Let them speak freely about their politics. And when it’s your turn to speak, try to be as vulnerable and as transparent as you can. Consider the following statement: I know you support — insert politician here — but when he says — insert issue here — I feel — insert emotion here. Can you try to understand that?
Or is it better to walk away?
If the way this person sees the world is a threat to you and your well-being, you may have to put a pause on this relationship, Rose said. “It may pain you when you tell them you are not willing to continue, but at least you both understand why.”
If this person is relying on information that has proven to be incorrect, then you may not be able to go forward, Rose said. Not only will you always be on the defensive, it’s hard to have an authentic relationship with someone who is gaslighting you.
How to move forward
If you’ve decided that this relationship — regardless of its political strife — is too near and dear to you to cancel, we have pulled together some tips.
Actively listen. If this friendship is more important to you than politics, act like it. Leave your differences at the front door. When politics comes up, try to listen. Don’t interrupt. Don’t ask questions while they are speaking. Don’t change the subject. Suspend the need to be right, when possible. “Even in the moment you have to focus on letting it go,” Rose said. Don’t make any “you” statements as in “you are wrong.” And as best you can, she said, “separate the person from the politics. It’s OK. It’s over. You don’t have to defend yourself anymore.”
Don’t get into it on social media. Do not. Do not. Do not bang out that pithy response to your cousin’s political statements that rile you up. (Remember, you made it this far without unfriending them.) You won’t change their mind and remember, you don’t want to engage in unrest and unease for another four years, do you?
Don’t call names: In fact, Geddes said, consider removing the following trigger words from your conversations: radical liberal, snowflake, racist, hypocrite, Cheeto (unless you are talking about the fried, cheesy snack), fascist, socialist, sexist, misogynist. “When you name-call, you don’t move the conversation forward,” Geddes said. “People stop hearing you and you get stuck in the moment longer.”
If your candidate has won, don’t gloat. By gloating you are making the issue not about the politics but about the other person, Geddes said. “This is the time to let the other person know that you care about them and that you are willing not to let the passion you have for the issues interfere with the passion you have for them,” Geddes said.
You have the choice to forgive. And it doesn’t have to be today. But remember, Spears said, we can be angry at someone forever, or we can decide to let it go. There is no timetable. “We have to practice forgiveness not just for our sake, but for theirs,” Spears said. But forgiving doesn’t mean stop fighting for the things we believe in or keep it a secret, Spears said. Just as you have to accept them, they should accept you, too. “The more we are able to stand in our truth, the more we are able to respect others’ differences and the less we will feel threatened.”
Deanna Geddes, PhD, professor of human resources management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business
Heidi Rose, PhD, professor and chair of the communications department at Villanova University
Sydney Spears, PhD, clinical social worker, psychotherapist and adjunct professor at The University of Kansas