There’s an old adage that says never to discuss money, religion, or politics. Whether you agree with this sentiment or not, one thing is certain; nearly all of us have encountered a situation where at least one of these subjects has found its way into the conversation. And if you live in the United States, chances are more of these encounters have happened over the past few years. In today’s environment, these subjects (which now often bleed into one another) have become the hottest of topics. So hot in fact, they have burned the relationships of many.
As a therapist, I have seen the unfortunate toll today’s political divide has taken on many of my clients and their relationships. What were once passionate discussions during family dinner have turned into pointed attacks on one another’s character. What began as reposting memes aligning with your political views became reevaluating everyone you follow on social media. And what started as fervent yet civil disagreements during happy hour drinks with friends turned into accusations of one another being brainwashed or acting like sheep. These days, political debates are no longer limited to topics like government policy or international relations. No, these days you can pick a topic, ANY topic, and someone will find a way to make it political. That same someone will then interpret your opinion on the topic to mean you align with a specific political party. “You like the color orange? Orange is associated with [insert opposing political party to the one you identify with]. That makes you a terrible person!” (You think I’m exaggerating, but I have some similar true examples that I am unfortunately bound by HIPAA not to repeat!)
While this theme may be a bit tired by now, it is one that will be recurring for the foreseeable future. Now that midterm elections are over and the family/loved one-filled holiday season is upon us, I felt it a good idea to have a refresher on how to navigate situations that could become as sticky as your Aunt Linda’s questionable green Jell-O mold.
Have a strategy for entering a political conversation. Is having a discussion with your conspiracy theorist uncle really a good idea? Even if the goal isn’t necessarily to change his mind, would the debate be enjoyable or productive? If you believe it will be, begin by asking him if he is interested in or willing to listen to your point of view without becoming immediately defensive or dismissive. However, if engaging with your uncle has the strong potential of creating further conflict and cause more of a headache, perhaps it is worth reconsidering. Be forthcoming about your boundaries from the beginning and make sure he knows that, unlike your gloriously juicy holiday turkey, discussing politics is off the Thanksgiving table.
Be prepared to refocus the discussion. If the original conversation begins to veer off course and heads toward rocky waters, politely but assertively direct it back to the original subject. You can say something like “I think we’re getting a bit off track here. I’d really like to return to the topic of [x, y, z].”
It’s ok to disengage from or end a conversation. There is a difference between peaceful discourse and argument, and it is possible to have productive, civil discussions about differing opinions. However, if a conversation becomes uncomfortably heated or unproductive, you can choose to respectfully decline to engage further. Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth A. Silvers, co-hosts of the podcast “Pantsuit Politics” suggest saying: “Thank you for talking to me about this. I have reached the point where I’m not up for any more today, but I would love to do this again.”
So now what? If you leave the conversation feeling discouraged because you and your loved one couldn’t see eye to eye, it can be easy to feel defeated. However, it is important to keep in mind several things. Just like you, there are factors that have shaped their political identities. Is it possible to develop a sense of compassion for them? It may also be helpful to ask yourself why the other person’s disagreement personally bothers you, beyond moral or political reasons. Is this person someone you admired or looked up to, and now you are beginning to question their identity? And lastly, while it may be difficult to accept, the other person is probably not going to change their mind at this point, particularly if the discussion between the two of you became heated.
Now, there are circumstances that make it nearly impossible to “agree to disagree,” particularly when a loved one’s dialogue is filled with hatred. For many people, deeply held political beliefs are reflections of underlying values, so when racist, bigoted, or xenophobic comments are inserted into political discussions, it is only understandable that one may be leery about continuing a close kinship with that person. In these circumstances, it may be in your best interest to take a “time out” from this person while you process what you want for the future of your relationship. And what is the best way to process this decision? Talk to your therapist, of course.