It’s often true that differing opinions can enrich and positively affect a relationship – whether that be a romantic relationship, friendship, or family dynamic. Not seeing eye-to-eye can oftentimes lead to embracing important values like empathy and can help broaden our personal perspectives. Stepping into another’s shoes and listening to his/her opinion on important issues can be an opportunity to learn and grow. This very principle is paramount to any successful relationship -- whether it be with a spouse, co-worker, sibling, or child.
Except when it comes to politics. Political viewpoints can so easily become personal and sensitive and polarize an otherwise healthy relationship. Families can be torn apart by political arguments and different fundamental perspectives on worldly issues can be create distance between friends, family, and even a romantic partner. In fact, CNN recently reported that a study by Ojeda and Hatemi (2015), found that “more than half of all children in the United States either incorrectly identify or reject their parents' party affiliation.” Therefore, we often end up in family situations in which our political views are more different than the same.
This truth explains much of the conflict that often arises during holidays spent with more distant relatives and broader circles of friends. If you find yourself dreading these inevitable gatherings with loved ones or hesitate discussing political beliefs with someone you’re romantically involved with fearing it will lead to ongoing tension, read on for some actionable strategies for dealing with political dialogue with the ones you love.
Like anything in life, use friction as a learning opportunity. If you feel you can truly make an effort to understand the origin of a viewpoint, although different than yours, challenge yourself to stand in your political opponent’s shoes and really listen with empathy and compassion. For instance, if this person believes that immigration needs to radically change in this country, step outside your own passionate opinion and ask challenging questions with the intent to understand their perspective, but not argue with it. Attempt this strategy if you can truly calm your ego and desire to “be right.”
This approach might be particularly effective for a partner or spouse as one-on-one conversations generally allow the expression of deeper underlying feelings, especially if you already share more comprehensive intimacy. If you spend time daily with this person, you also might be truly curious and committed to understanding the way they think about and approach the world’s most controversial issues. Approach these conversations as a new way to establish an emotional and intellectual intimacy.
Make politics off-limits
Sometimes, a firm boundary to protect your own feelings and values is the logical choice. Especially if there is a family or relationship history of heated political arguments or radically different viewpoints on heartfelt issues like women’s rights, it might be best to mutually agree to disagree and make conversation about politics completely off limits. If this feels like the best solution to what is inevitably a fight waiting to happen, have a candid upfront agreement with your family members or partner and agree to avoid any conversation about politics. If your wishes are not honored, be prepared to state your boundary and leave the conversation or leave the gathering.
Because we naturally spend more time with a spouse or partner, this approach might also honor and protect shared spaces like a home and not allow the negative energy of political disagreements to affect every aspect of life. Another boundary might be setting aside a finite amount of time to discuss viewpoints, such as the 30 minutes after watching the nightly news together.
Focus on doing rather than talking
Heated political battles almost always happen when family members are sitting around. They would be far less likely to occur if families were out in the world engaging in activities together. Instead of ending up around the dinner table or sitting in the living room with the news anchors sharing political opinions in the background, get outside and fully embrace activity as a distraction. Visit a zoo, park, or museum with loved ones. Chose positive public places to spend time together rather than falling into a pattern of having political battles after dinner. As a bonus, this strategy might just add more meaning to your gatherings and keep everyone a bit more active, especially during the holidays. The same goes for making date nights more intentional, and choosing activities over sitting through long dinners where politics might be more apt to surface.
Although changes in fundamental political beliefs happens very slowly, recognize that despite these radical differences, we are more the same than different. Although there may be wildly different opinions to overcome, we are always friends, loved ones, or family first and politics should never have the power to destroy those important bonds. In the end, we all want to live in a brighter and more positive tomorrow, and treating one another with love and respect should be core to any political philosophy.
If family dynamics or varying political viewpoints in a relationship challenges your day-to-day life, contact Center for Shared Insight to learn how talking with a psychologist can help you overcome communication challenges and establish healthy boundaries for managing political conflict.
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