Political Leaders Come and Go, Worthwhile Relationships Shouldn’t

I remember four years ago my little sister reminded me not to bring up politics at the dinner table on Thanksgiving, and this year I would do anything to even be with her at the dining table. The next election we will have to remind ourselves that the most important thing is being with family and friends, even when they can’t agree on everything.

Lots of clients have been sharing that this year’s election has created a lot of extrastress and polarization in their lives. Some say they are already dealing with job loss, deployment, and now the election is “catapulting their stress levels to all time high!” Their work is distracted by homeschooling and watching the news and scrolling through social media posts has become time consuming. Many admit they are fighting with loved ones. One shared, “my best friend and me haven’t spoken since the election,” and this made me sad.

If this has happened to you this year, you are not alone. Many have shared their disappointment when family and friends like a candidate they despise and ask me what to do. I share that I am struggling right alongside of them and we are able to see laughter in the fact that we are all taking things a bit too seriously. Is an entrepreneur who works in a field outside of politics but posts every political thought really focusing on their business needs? Are they detouring customers that would love the product or service they have expertise in? Maybe there is something to be said for those that can find ways to embrace a bipartisan brand. Do what feels right for you, but do it thoughtfully versus impulsively. If you love talking about politics, have at it; I love democracy and freedom of speech, but I also feel there is a time and a place to have these frank discussions. When a conversation starts feeling more stressful than productive, it might be time to “tap out.” I know that I have made the mistake of preaching to my unwilling listeners; sorry friends, but those rants are often followed up with a hope that our relationship isn’t impacted by our differences. So I think its time for us (myself included) to remember this is one election and maybe not one worthy of turmoil with loved ones, discourse with an admired colleague, or fighting with best friends you’ve cherished for a decades.

When my oldest daughter was in middle school, the pediatrician told her to hang out with friends who allowed her to be herself; I love that advice and try and embrace its reality. I don’t want my sisters to suppress their ideas, and I don’t want to make a hard rule with someone I care about saying, “we can’t talk about politics ever!” It’s not very fun to hang out with someone when you have to filter every idea. “Not talking about it” is a natural (albeit defensive) solution for many, but it might not always be the best one. Think of it as two people on the dance floor sitting on opposite sides of the room with their arms crossed. Sure, they won’t trip on themselves, but they could be getting out of the dance floor and doing their own thing without stepping on each other’s toes.

Clients and I discuss the benefits of creating rules for ways to cool down when their hot buttons are pushed, engage in meaningful discussions with peers, and make sure they do check ins so they don’t come across as sounding morally righteous. These strategies represent a much more obtainable goal than simply avoiding talking about politics. Although I am okay with people deciding not to discuss politics on social media, friends should be able to talk about the ideas close to their heart without stifling who they are. Just like military families experience an undercurrent of stress when their spouse is deployed or when they are changing duty stations, the pandemic has created an undercurrent of stress that has likely exacerbated the political polarization that is taking place. Many people have admitted that the issues they are personally facing drives their political decisions more so than ever. When a friend is voting for someone you despise, it may help if you can see they, just like yourself, are making the chess move that makes the most sense for them right now. No one solution or idea is perfect.

Another great way to make sure that politics don’t get in the way of meaningful relationships is to explore what you look for in your close relationships. Remindyourself that those amazing qualities are still there. When I ask clients to define an ideal “sibling or friend,” the competencies they describe are similar. They usually share things like, “they are fun to be with!” and, “I trust them” and “they have my back and want the best for me!” Come up with your own list of best friend qualities. My bet is that you didn’t start the list off with, “they must like everyone I like,” or “their ideologies must perfectly align with my own on every issue!” By looking at our list, we can see more clearly that it is okay if friends are both passionate about politics; this is okay and even expected. Political reviews are not the glue holding the relationship together. Focus on the bigger picture stuff, like enjoying this person’s pre-election company, the trust you have, and practice being happy for their successes versus focusing on a social issue that you don’t see eye to eye on in the moment. Lots of times people look at an issue through one lens and then modify their opinion as they gather new data. Be someone who offers a friend a fresh perspective to ponder versus assuming that you should personally attack them if they do not align with your values. No one leaves a political argument feeling like a real winner. Remember, your definition of a good friendship likely included someone who wants to willingly sing your praises, not someone covering their ears and shaking their head at your close-mindedness.

Focus back on how you can be a good friend to others and reflect on ways you can have fun with someone who isn’t exactly like you. If politics happen to come up, be excited when a friend can express the opposite side of an issue. Perhaps you can both agree that magic is often found smack in the middle of two opposing platforms. See where you are defensive or particularly sensitive, or where your own vulnerabilities are being triggered in a way that stops you from listening. Commit to expressing curiosity instead of expressing contempt and see if you like the place it brings you. When we can pause judgment and get curious, we allow our own internal ideas to take shape. Create a sacred space in your family, work, and friendships where all ideologies are allowed to dance freely. This way, both parties can improve their individual expression and, over time, the opposing dance moves may begin to look more similar than they did backstage. When your candidate wins, try not to boast. When your friend’s candidate wins, try to reframe instead of offering a condescending, “now you will see how bad they really are” jab. Celebrate that you are both able to live in a democracy where you can experience political discord and move past it, trusting that long-term benefits of being part of a family, a loving friendship, or fulfilling work relationship far outweigh the final outcome of this year’s tumultuous election.   

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