Together Yet Divided

When you and a loved one are at odds politically.

Posted Oct 08, 2018

Pixabay/Mohamed Hassan
Source: Pixabay/Mohamed Hassan

Politics and religion have a long tradition of being tender territory – especially when you and a loved one disagree.

Perhaps never have the divisions been so deep and volatile than in the wake of many recent events: the 2016 election, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, the newest findings on widespread sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. Strong feelings abound. And arguments gather heat, particularly among those who love each other.

So many questions can come between people otherwise in sync: Is Trump a disaster or a savior? What temperament is appropriate – or not – for a Supreme Court justice (or a President)? Does the appalling history of sexual abuse and coverups by clergy signal a need to walk away from the Catholic Church or to double down efforts to work from within for necessary change? 

There are no easy answers and, at the same time, many impassioned opinions. And many people these days seem to be losing sight of the fact that disagreement doesn’t have to be hateful, demeaning, and dismissive. 

Increasingly, however, our differences are divisive. I’ve seen spouses, siblings, and friends locked in tense conflict. Even a pair of identical twins I know quit speaking to each other for months due to their differing political views and allegiance to vs. antipathy for Trump before making peace with each other once again.

It’s one thing to brace yourself for occasional though impassioned holiday dinner discussions with extended family members whose political views you find appalling or whose religious convictions you do not share. It’s another challenge entirely when the division is with your spouse, family member or close friend whom you see daily.

So how do you deal with contentious differences when the other person is a vital part of your daily life?

Let go of the need to convert the other to your point of view.  Agreeing to disagree has saved many a relationship. Consider the possibility that if we all agreed on everything, this would be a much less interesting world. One can own and voice an opinion without demanding that the other come around to full agreement. And you’re more likely to be heard in this instance than if your partner or friend feels assailed by your insistence that you alone are right.

Respect your loved one’s right to an opinion, even if you think it’s crazy.  There are so many issues today that have no quick solutions nor easy answers. What sounds crazy to you may seem quite reasonable to your loved one. And some people live to debate. There may be more to his or her different opinion than mere politics. Some people in close relationships seek to develop their own voice and point of view by not falling in line with everything that a spouse or sibling or parent believes. 

My father and his sister Molly were orphaned at an early age and suffered a childhood defined by poverty and grief. Their shared experience bonded them forever. But their quest for individuality meant many loud and passionate battles over politics. She was a liberal Democrat, he a conservative Republican. Their Saturday night fights at the kitchen table were legendary. And yet, in hindsight, they weren’t so very different. She wasn’t quite as liberal as she imagined. He wasn’t the diehard Republican he purported to be, since the only Republican president for whom he ever voted was Eisenhower. He loathed Nixon. He couldn’t stomach Reagan. And yet they fought – to be distinct people, to process some of the pain of their youth, to revel in the adrenaline rush of a good Irish family fight.  Those of us on the sidelines came to understand that and backed off. They had their reasons for fighting, some of which had nothing to do with politics. 

While fights can be a catharsis for some, others find peace in simply respecting each other's rights to hold different opinions and leave it at that.

Embrace the concept that silence, in some instances, is truly golden. There are times when it’s best just not to talk about the issues that divide you. There are, indeed, many good, loving and viable relationships where certain areas are off-limits for discussion. Contrary to the common belief that all differences need to be processed and resolved, some relationships are enhanced by having mutually agreed upon "don't go there" zones along with a celebration of areas of agreement.

Develop signals to enforce limits. This might be a word, a phrase or a gesture that you both take seriously – perhaps with a bit of good humor – as a signal that you both need to keep quiet. 

“My dear friend Bev and I have a phrase ‘No Torture!’ that we use to call a halt to what could be an unwinnable argument about our differing political views,” a former co-worker told me not long ago. “It came from a phrase she used when I was visiting and her husband wanted me to watch Fox News with him. She said to him ‘Let’s not torture our dear friend with our political beliefs!’ And we all laughed. Now the term 'No Torture' is our signal that our discussion needs to stop before it heats up. This limit has never compromised the quality of our friendship. It is a very emotionally intimate and treasured relationship. We just don’t discuss politics.”

Celebrate what you DO share.  There are so many reasons we choose the spouses and the friends we do – and why we maintain close relationships with certain family members who may have very different views. Think of the qualities you value in each other, the opinions you do share and the life experiences that have shaped who you are together and as individuals.

The twins who stopped speaking for a time over their differing views of Trump came together again because of all they shared. Taking a more expansive view of their lives, they realized that their political differences were only a small part of their relationship, dwarfed by their passion for playing online bridge together, their penchant for sharing – with equal pleasure – both good and bad jokes with each other, their strong commitment to family and, most of all, their love for each other. “My brother and I may never agree on politics,” one of them told me. “But what matters most is that we love each other – deeply and forever!”