When Politics Destroys Our Relationships, How Do We Salvage What’s Left?

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We’ve all had a lot of time to think this past year: maybe a bit too much time. The world was much overdue for some reflection, but cancel culture doesn’t leave a lot of room for listening to the other side. We might not realise it, but most of us have been radicalised in even the most subtle of ways. And when our personal politics become very different from our loved ones, then it might put a strain on our relationships. All is not lost in a time of cultural unrest, however, because although we might not always agree with friends and family, there are ways to save precious relationships without abandoning our own convictions.

Whether politics for you means environmental issues, racism, transphobia, or less controversial conversations about free school meals for kids – a difference of opinion is not always easy to tolerate. When this happens, we’re tempted to bring someone over to “our side”, tirelessly pleading our case without really listening to why they aren’t hearing us in the first place. Before you decide to mute someone in your life, we reached out to two experts: London-based psychotherapist Emmy Brunner of The Recover Clinic, and Los Angeles-based mental health therapist Miyume McKinley of Epiphany Counseling Services to better understand how to salvage formative relationships when we can’t find common ground.

Navigating Differences of Opinion With Loves Ones

We have been in and out of lockdown for almost a year, and without our usual outlets of travel, fitness, and parties, we’re all operating at a much higher sensitivity level. In some cases, this has encouraged us to become closer with our loved ones, and in other cases it’s highlighted differences in how we see the world fundamentally, which can become a problem. Often, the reason why we get defensive over a difference in opinion is not necessarily because of the issue at hand, but the way we are communicating our needs to each other.

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“A basic boundary is not expecting people to see the world exactly as you do and to be able to tolerate somebody seeing the world slightly differently.”

Brunner explained that “a basic boundary is not expecting people to see the world exactly as you do and to be able to tolerate somebody seeing the world slightly differently.” McKinley agreed, and thinks that taking a moment to understand why our family, friends, or partner holds a certain belief, not only encourages a healthy dialogue, but can also strengthen our own convictions.

“Most people listen with the intent to be understood instead of the intent to understand,” said McKinley. Most of us are not coming from a place of curiosity when we’re having politicised conversations, and instead McKinley thinks that “people are listening to pick apart. They’re listening to see what inaccuracies there are and what they can debate, versus a true desire to understand where their loved one is coming from and the reason for their opinions.”

Brunner confirmed that “it’s really challenging for us to have different views from our parents, partners, or close friends, and in part we tell ourselves that because we want to illuminate them to some truth that we’ve become wise to. But I wonder if we really need to have them validate our belief systems? We can foster a sense of confidence in what we believe by sharing our views as an insight into how we see the world rather than an intent to persuade somebody into thinking the way we do. It’s a much more gentle intervention and it allows us to really strengthen our own conviction as well, when we’re not looking to have it validated.”

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When Differences of Opinion Become a Dealbreaker

Once we are able to understand where our loved one’s views are coming from, we must be able to decide if the relationship is worth saving or not. Politics is a huge word that includes a wide range of issues spanning from chronic racism and interracial adoption, to splitting the bill with a partner or buying fast fashion. It’s important to think about the seriousness of the issue, and if this disagreement is a threat to your physical, emotional, or mental wellbeing.

“Most people listen with the intent to be understood instead of the intent to understand.”

“Having a certain political view can sometimes be a plaster over having some really problematic views of the world and intolerances,” said Brunner. “When they get highlighted to you, they’re not just a difference in opinion, they’re really telling you something about the crux of who a person is at their heart and soul. We’re all guilty of projecting who we want onto the people that we’re in relationship with, and sometimes overlooking what they’re communicating to us about who they are. What we hope to gain through age and experience is a trust in our own intuition, and our own sense of safety that when somebody is sharing who they are to us, does that fit with our view of ourselves and how we see the world? Or is it something that we can maybe be challenged about and grow?”

Deciding if a relationship is worth saving is a delicate balance between how important the relationship is to us, and how at odds the disagreement is with our moral and value system. “If both of us get into a heated debate and we both say, ‘You know what? We agree to disagree’, and we kind of walk away and move on. We can still have some type of relationship going forward,” assured McKinley. “But if a person is disrespecting your point of view, then I think that’s where deal breaking may come into play. Do you want to continue being close with someone who, when you have differences of opinion, may be disrespectful of your values? That’s really important. But also just where does it fall with your own moral and value system? I think that’s a big difference. For some of these more deep rooted values, like around the issue of racism, for example, I think that’s where deal breakers come in, in terms of where this disagreement falls in your moral and value system.”

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Coping When It’s Time to Go Your Separate Ways

If coming to some sort of mutual understanding is not possible, then it’s okay to let go of a friend or partner, or create boundaries between ourselves and relatives. It is also okay to not be completely at peace with the decision of prioritising our wellbeing. “Give yourself permission to miss this person,” advised McKinley. “As far as moving on, it’s helpful to recognise that it is hurtful to miss someone regardless of their political opinions, or their religious beliefs. If someone’s been a part of your life and you really cared for them, that caring for them is okay after the grief and loss. Secondly, remind yourself of your own truth, your own moral and value system, and be secure in that.”

Brunner agreed that “part of what it is to be a human is to experience pain. And when we come to accept that, there’s beauty in that truth and there’s also an opportunity to learn from the challenges that we face, to honour loss with grief, and through that we’re able to grow and to heal. We’re so tempted to create a world where we’re able to control and manipulate how we and other people feel. And it’s very unsettling for us to experience the pain, and to move through a process of healing. But by honouring our own truth and our own experience we really validate how we feel, and that is more healing than anything. The future then becomes very different when we are able to let go.”

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