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Why Are You Rethinking Friendships Because of Politics?

Thoughts on ending friendship over political views.

I am witnessing a spate of social media posts from real people (along with incredibly lifelike, physically attractive bots) that say something akin to this:

If you plan to vote for Trump, delete me. If you voted for Trump, we are no longer friends. Enjoy your “pro life” stance because now you are dead to me. If you think the world is a good place right now, return the lacrosse stick you borrowed and pour acid in your veins.

I can’t help but think … how do people define adult friendships today?

For most of us, childhood served up an easy platter of accidental friendships. The kids who sat next to you in homeroom, ate at your lunch table, rode beside you on the bus, quickly became part of your tribe. From unsupervised violent games of football against whoever showed up on an empty field to four kids playing Gauntlet together in a video game arcade to sleeping outside Tower Records to nab early morning tickets to Lollapalooza, sharing an activity morphed strangers into friends. Rapidly.

As adults, it becomes harder. Donating time and effort to friendships is pushed aside in favor of Saturday drywall repair, child soccer games, and hammock time. Something far more pernicious has taken hold with the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Existing adult friendships teeter on the edge of extinction with a single self-disclosure of political party preference.

I suggest that you reconsider the paramount importance of friendships, and the ease by which you relinquish them. This begins with an understanding of what friendship means (something I have written about before: here and also here).

What is the architecture of a strong friendship? There are at least three features of a solid friendship.

  1. There is a goal of pleasure. There is an expectation that both parties enjoy each other's company and show relatively equal amounts of appreciation and enjoyment. You know each other. You try hard not to offend and try even harder not to be offended. With little worry about whether you will do something wrong, the two of you are at ease just being who you are and making the best of shared moments. Goodwill offers a foundation for frequent pleasurable moments.
  2. There is a sense of duty. There is an expectation that you will act in your friend's interest without being forced to, without being told to, without being accountable. Their wins and losses are you own and you act accordingly. Shovel snow together, you split the money evenly. You are trustworthy and you trust them.
  3. There is a high level of empathy. There is an expectation that both parties will try to understand each other's perspective. You will not always agree but you put in the work to understand who they are, where their motivations lie, and attempt to seek agreement when discord arises. Your differences make each of you stronger as there is a pooled set of knowledge, insights, and resources for each of you to draw from. You will not necessarily meet at the midpoint during disagreements. You will not necessarily have an evenly balanced ledger at the end of a night, week, or month. But there is a commitment to being fair and including the other person within your sphere of moral concerns.

A solid friendship possesses each of the three features above but some friendships contain only one or two. There are friendship types based on the triad above.

  • Pleasure only = a “buddy” or the fun guy or gal who is just the source of an occasional good time.
  • Duty only = an old friend; the person you went to grade school with and feel you have to meet for dinner when they are in town but you don’t really know them anymore.
  • Empathy only = collegial and caring neighbors or colleagues; without a collection of shared moments of pleasure and/or vulnerability, the relationship lacks depth.

Friendship is a two-way street. In a solid friendship, both parties agree on the quality of the friendship. Both parties agree on the purpose of a friendship. Now, both parties might think a friendship is great. Alternatively, both parties might think the friendship is subpar. And weirdest of all, there might be a lopsided situation where the parties don’t agree on the quality or purpose. The last one is an interesting dynamic that receives insufficient attention.

This brings up to the fragility of adult friendships. The notion of discarding relationships because of the way a friend votes is a strange endeavor. It is a marker of the emotional difficulties of feeling uncomfortable. When agreement on political voting preferences is mandatory for a friendship to proceed, this script runs closer to a transactional business arrangement where people worry about their self-disclosures. If you fear losing a friend or creating turmoil in a relationship when being true to yourself, then your relationship lacks two of the three features of a firm foundation. Duty is missing. Empathy is missing. A solid friendship does not exist. When you are unable to reveal honest thoughts and feelings then it becomes increasingly improbable that a solid friendship could even form.

Scrutinizing someone else's value in your life based on their personal political views is antithetical to solid friendships. Asking someone to hold identical political views to your own or risk being negatively evaluated and banished is antithetical to friendship. In adulthood, spending time with close friends is crucial to our well-being, even more so than interactions with family members. It is not the number of friends that predict well-being rather is the quality of friendships.

Public proclamations that ideological allegiance is a necessary precursor to friendship is basically a threat to all of your friends: Above all else, my commitment to you is contingent on what I believe.

We must aim to be psychologically stronger by being more psychologically flexible. You are not as strong as you think without the benefit of other people's alliances. You are not as intelligent as you think without access to other people's lobes. You are not as emotionally stable as you think without the availability of a healthy support system. You would be bored senseless and bereft of wisdom if you happened to be surrounded by everyone who thinks the same thoughts as you. The tradeoff for these psychological benefits is some friction. A little distress is a small price paid for coming closer to reaching your human potential.

Before the presidential election, I want my friends to know that our relationship is not contingent on who they vote for. I do not remove people from my life because they possess belief systems that fail to mirror my own. Our friendship predated the presidential election. We have established a mutually reciprocal relationship where some combination of pleasure, duty, and empathy reign. You do not have to wake up each day proving your worth. You do not have to worry whether your every move passes an ideological purity test.

Being vulnerable offers a springboard to deeper intimacy and trust. Designing friendships to be fragile offers no such benefits other than a short-term feeling of moral righteousness.

Choose to maintain high-quality friendships. Political figures come and go; let your need-satisfying friendships outlast them all.

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