Worlds Apart: Maintaining Personal Relationships as Political Opposites

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Photo credit: AP

This election cycle has been characterized by an unprecedented amount of polarizing discourse and outright hostility. There are strong feelings of alarm and moral outrage on both sides of the political divide. Many have reported getting into a fight with a friend or family member over the election.

From the perspective of relationship experts, the turn our political discourse has taken this election can be seen as a case-book example of exactly how not to speak if you value your personal relationships. Marriage researcher and therapist John Gottman famously identified four styles of interpersonal communication that his studies revealed as key predictors for divorce, ominously dubbing them the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.” They are criticism (of a person, rather than a behavior), contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, and of the four, contempt has been found to be the greatest predictor of divorce.

As examples of contempt, the Gottman Institute lists “sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eyerolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor.” That kind of contempt is plain to see in one particular Presidential candidate who frequently calls people invectives like “disgusting” and “pigs.” But that spirit of contempt has spilled over into how people commonly characterize those on the other side of the political fence as well. It’s easy to see why speaking to your spouse with that kind of ugly animosity would not be good for a marriage. At the same time, this begs the question of how you can speak with a loved one when you find their political views deeply troubling and hurtful.

For some, the best policy seems to be avoiding the topic altogether. This is a matter of setting healthy boundaries that both respect, with the aim of setting aside these differences for the good of the relationship. Talking through these differences is a lot harder, and requires a good deal of moral maturity on the part of both partners. Those who do not possess that maturity, sensitivity, and sophisticated communication skills may need to go with the wisdom of “don’t try this at home.”

For those who do want to venture into talking about these things with a loved one who is a political opposite, it’s critical to be able to speak in a way that is not condemning, disrespectful, or degrading. That is not a matter of agreeing on the issues, but on how you speak with each other, even when there is strong disagreement. When we feel anger or anxiety – two strong feelings that this election has brought up in many people – our brains go into alarm-mode, making us cling to our beliefs, doubling-down on them, shutting ourselves off to the other.

The antidote to this is creating an environment of respect, where you both feel socially safe and connected. A debate is not a place where the two parties change their views, it is an atmosphere where each side becomes all the more entrenched and polarized. Change can only happen in an atmosphere where both feel safe, respected, valued, understood. That entails how you speak with each other, but it also will likely mean at first that you need to get behind the issues, and seek to understand the vulnerable feelings (such as feeling threatened, wronged, or afraid) behind them. In other words, you genuinely try to understand the other, while also expressing how you feel.

That’s hard to do, because it means both of you managing your reactivity. However, if the goal is to come together, if the goal is to resolve conflict... and even if the goal is to win over the other, the only way to get there is through this type of vulnerable and respectful dialog. If one instead has a diet of rage, resentment and contempt fed to them through their favorite liberal or conservative news outlet, the result will be a continued polarization – moving further and further away, fostering fear, anger, and otherizing.

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At 12:32 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

The book Crucial Conversations is really helpful at providing a framework to prepare for these types of conversations. Definitely not easy to do well.


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