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Tiffany McLain LMFT
Tiffany McLain LMFT

What to Do When Politics and Family Collide

New brain research reveals key differences between Republicans and Democrats.

“It can be difficult when splitting goes on. When people start talking about ‘crazy republicans.’ I love my dad and my brother. They are lovely human beings. I see them as human beings, not as republicans first and foremost.”

Tegan is a liberal surrounded by liberals, but growing up, the political climate in her home was not nearly so homogenous. Her father and older brother are staunchly conservative, while she, her younger brother and her mom are dedicated liberals.

As children, many of us are surrounded by a like-minded political community, but this wasn’t the case in Tegan’s household.

Kai Chiang/
Source: Kai Chiang/

“Dad’s best friend from childhood was a raging liberal,” Tegan tells me. “And I always remember these long political conversations going on for hours. Seems my dad really enjoyed this. Many of his friends were liberal.”

Conversations between Tegan and her conservative relatives can be loaded. When she’s around her liberal friends, their tendency to demonize conservatives is equally challenging.

“In the past, they made me feel ashamed and want to hide a part of my upbringing or self.”

While we can choose to surround ourselves with peers who share our viewpoint, we cannot choose our relatives. Unless we’re planning to cut off family members who disagree with us, we must find a way to navigate a divisive two-party political system while remaining under one roof.

Tegan got experience with this divide early on. But watching her parents negotiate this difference has been a painful transition for Dev that started when he began to adopt more democratic beliefs.

“It goes nowhere,” he says when describing political discussions with his parents. “We just scream at each other ultimately. We try to talk calmly at first, but it digresses very quickly.”

Unlike Tegan, both of Dev’s parents are conservative or, as he puts it, die-hard republicans.

Erik Emanuel Vieira Reis/
Source: Erik Emanuel Vieira Reis/

“Southern evangelical types,” he describes. “With right-wing conservative Christian views on abortion, civil rights, guns — pretty much down the line conservative on major controversial issues.”

As Dev entered adolescence and began to think differently, it created a huge rift between him and his parents, which resulted in being cast out at 18 years old and a subsequent estrangement for some years. After he was kicked out, the reality that the people he was closest to could pull away over ideological difference had a deep impact on Dev.

Even for Tegan, who has extensive experience with both party perspectives, was shocked and astonished when she learned that her Aunt was voting for Trump.

“I couldn’t wrap my head around it at all.” She told me. “I understand it's fear-based. That’s the power and terror of the kind of campaign that he’s running.”

And she’s right.

One reason political discord can be so damaging is that we are not simply engaging in an intellectual disagreement, but rather bumping up against differences at the level of brain chemistry. The disparity between neurological responses to fearful stimuli is key.

Researchers had Republicans and Democrats undergo a series of tests and the findings told a remarkable tale. In the 2012 article, Emily Laber-Warren broke down the science, saying, “Psychologists have found that conservatives are fundamentally more anxious than liberals, which may be why they typically desire stability, structure, and clear answers even to complicated questions.”

More recently, researchers have discovered structural brain differences between conservatives and liberals that back this up. The findings? Conservative brains have more volume in the amygdala — the part of our brain that is related to emotional and fear-based learning. Their amygdalas fired at a greater rate than their democratic counterparts.

Liberal brains, on the other hand, show a larger volume in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC “has been linked to several functions, including conflict detection, which enables us to regulate our behavior by identifying discrepancies between instinctual, habit-driven impulses and our actual intentions.” Likewise, brain scans show that those who identify as liberal have their ACC’s firing at a much higher rate than those who identify as conservative.

When we have political debates, we’re not only operating in terms of our beliefs and values, but also our psychology and biology in terms of the way we perceive and respond to others and the world around us.

Conservatives and liberals are starting from a completely different foundation, neurologically speaking. While on the surface, conservatives and liberals are discussing a singular issue, it is as if we are missing one another completely. And, often, we are.

While Dev now makes an effort to relate to his parents with insight and empathy, when I asked him about the impact of this latest election on his relationship with his parents, he found himself at a loss.

“I just, I just… I just. I can’t f*cking respect my parents if they do vote for [Trump]. I don’t even want to open the box. It’s more than normal totally off-limits. In 2012, we did have some conversation and I don’t want to go there again.”

While Dev may be making political decisions with his ACC firing, his parents may be operating from fear as their amygdalas fire with similar rapidity.

And therein lies the struggle.

Ion Chiosea/
Source: Ion Chiosea/

As much as we want to listen to and respect our differences, political beliefs are linked to the most fundamental aspects of our being. In simply avoiding political discourse, we are, in essence, saying, “I don’t want to know about that part of you.”

There have been some novel attempts to decrease the political divide.

One such attempt is Living Room Conversations, a non-profit, “transpartisan” collaboration started in 2010. LRC strives to bring humanity back by inviting people from differing political backgrounds to sit together in a private home and have conversations about issues that are important to them.

Arlie Hochschild has also made gains towards bridging the divide. She’s a Berkeley-based journalist who has spent the last five years in the deep south talking with individuals who have a very different political ideology than herself and those in her community. Most recently, she has engaged in conversations with Trump voters in efforts to understand what is important to them when considering our next president.

In fact, this idea of approaching one’s politically different loved ones with empathy is a strategy that both Tegan and Dev have employed for the sake of maintaining family ties. Each makes it a consistent practice to set aside their own frustration, disappointment or sadness in favor of attempting to see the world through their loved one’s eyes.

And they’ve become better people for it.

While it is sometimes frustrating that Dev’s parents relate to him like the prodigal son who has yet to come around, he works to keep the frustration out of the conversation in order to find, not only common ground but things he genuinely respects about his parents.

For example, Dev really cherishes the sense of community back in his home town.

“I miss that a lot,” Dev says when talking about his parents’ community. “No community out here, I miss that. Every time I go home, it’s warm. Neighbors come over for no reason. It’s much more open in that way.”

This skill, the ability to put aside one’s own frustrations, hurt, and anger in order to truly understand where the other person is coming from has allowed him to excel in other areas of his life.

“I can understand their thought process which has given me the ability to understand different political cultures, different points of view in all areas of my life, to code switch.”

Tegan agrees.

“There is something freeing about growing up in a bipartisan household. It has allowed me to connect with people. To find those connections, despite the initial appearance of difference.”

While it can be heartbreaking to sit down for another Thanksgiving dinner and feel the rise of tension that comes when grandpa slaps down his turkey leg and makes a declarative statement about his political views on abortion, Obamacare or “locker room talk,” developing the capacity to stop, breathe, and approach the conversation with kindness and respect is a valuable skill.

Source: rawpixel/

The more you’re able to step back and remember that liberals and conservatives may be starting from different psychological foundations, the more patience you’ll have to address these differences with empathy. This practice — seeing the world through a variety of perspectives that are different from your own — will equip you with key skills to navigate an ever-changing social, political, professional, and cultural landscape.

About the Author
Tiffany McLain LMFT

Tiffany McLain, LMFT, is a marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with young professionals who straddle multiple sociocultural identities.

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