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Relationships Divided by Politics or Pandemic?

Check in with your priorities.

Matthew Bennett / unsplash
Sunday Strolls
Source: Matthew Bennett / unsplash

The election may be over, but the political divide in our country and in our relationships has not instantly healed. Relationships remain divided because of politics and different approaches to managing pandemic risks.

Every morning in the spring of 2011, I woke up to greet the Irish Sea and a day of reconciliation volunteering at the clifftop Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland. Over many cups of tea, groups come together to witness one another’s humanity and start to heal on neutral ground. These groups come from Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland but also include international groups such as Palestinian and Israeli youths. Their task of healing from sectarian violence is not an easy one after lifetimes steeped in deeply entrenched beliefs about the other.

We are now witnessing chasms developing in families and relationships in the midst of the United States’ political and pandemic turmoil. I no longer wake up to a sweeping Irish vista and a team of volunteers from around the world. I wake up and walk my dog, greeting my neighbors along the way, before settling in for a day of telehealth counseling. In my neighborhood, we are kind enough to pause the political conversation before it turns to name-calling (or worse) while the dogs sniff their hellos.

It’s a lot harder when that conversation is occurring on FaceTime with a family member isolated by COVID, or someone with whom there may be an extensive interpersonal history.

How can we manage a divide in our own relationships caused by a difference in political beliefs or approach to handling the pandemic, while maintaining personal mental health?

Focus on what you value in the relationship

What is most important to you about the relationship? If a simple connection over pictures of the kids maintains a relationship with a lot of history, light connections on a surface level might be the most important. If deep discussion of ideas and reflective listening are at the core of the relationship, truly hearing and engaging may be the top priority. Keeping in mind what matters most can guide your decisions.

What you value may change. If you discover your loved one has vastly different beliefs or voted in a way that devalues your personhood, your view of the person — and what you value most about the relationship — may change.

Match your actions to your values

Once you know what you value, it’s easier to match your actions to the values. This can also lead to less guilt down the line since guilt can occur when your actions and values don’t line up. Have in mind what you hope to get out of the conversation before it happens, to make sure your actions and values are in parallel. Do you want to voice your opinion? Do you hope for meaningful discussion? Or are you hoping to not rock the boat and simply maintain a pleasant connection?

What are you willing to risk?

Recognize your own internal conflict

You may have more than one emotion towards a person; that’s okay. You also may have more than one internal part that is active when considering politics and loved ones. You may have an informed political voice that wants to be heard, and there may be parts of yourself that have always been integral to the relationship (such as being a good sister, or a fun uncle). It’s useful to acknowledge all of these parts and emotional responses, though you may not choose to act from them.

Set boundaries where needed

Oh, boundaries. Not all relationships and interactions are healthy, or productive. If you know that a conversation (or a person) is going to cause harm, emotional pain, or abuse, setting a boundary can protect your own mental health. This could be as simple as steering the conversation away from an uncomfortable topic, or more broadly deciding not to interact with a person at all. You can set boundaries through the time spent with a person; the type of media used to communicate with a person; and setting consequences (such as leaving a conversation) when a loved one crosses a boundary you’ve already tried to set.

Connect where you can, if you can

If it is healthy to continue to engage in the relationship, consider what points of connection you would like to focus on. We can’t control other people’s actions, but we can control how we respond to them and what we initiate ourselves. Keeping in mind what you want to focus on in the relationship will help guide you to the connection points that feel safe and healthy.

Acknowledge the other person’s humanity, even when it’s not healthy to connect

Sometimes acknowledging someone’s humanity means hearing the person out; sometimes it means connecting on a deep level. It might also mean considering the person’s viewpoint (such as an unkind response based on fear) even when you decide not to continue engaging in a conversation or with a particular person.

The trend in our country recently has been towards hate. When trying to stay true to your own values (while also not engaging in hateful behaviors towards those you love), considering your values and your actions may help to sort out the path ahead.

And if sorting through these things on your own gets too murky, stop scrolling social media and start scrolling for your new psychotherapist. He or she can join you in the mud and help you lift up your boots to figure out a path forward.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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