How to Fix a Relationship Hurt by Politics

As is by now well known, politics in the United States has become increasingly polarized.  People have always had a hard time discussing politics.  People have a hard time discussing political issues.  In recent years, relationships have been strained by political differences.  People have lost long treasured relationships – with friends, family members, and even spouses — because of their political differences.  Can such relationships be repaired?  How can one maintain a relationship with someone who holds a vastly different political orientation?

Yes, one can maintain relationships with people who have political differences.  Need proof?  James Carville is an outspoken advisor to the Democratic party. Mary Matlin is a time-honored consultant for the Republican party.  They have been married since 1993. They have two children.  Yes, it can be done.

And it is possible to mend relationships that have been torn asunder by political differences.  It takes some courage and time – but it’s possible. Let’s explore how.

Step 1: Separate the Other’s Politics from Who They Are as a Person

Why do political differences divide people who care about each other?  The main reason is that people often find it hard to separate a person’s political positions from who the other person is as a person.  Many people have come to think of a person’s political beliefs as an expression of their moral character.  We think, if my friend or family member has this seemingly horrible political belief, then they must be a horrible person.

This is simply not the case.  A person’s political positions do not define who they are as a person.  So, the first step to mending a relationship is to realize that the other person’s politics does not define them as a person.

Step 2: Ask Yourself: What Do I Value about the Other as a Person?

To see that the other person’s politics don’t define who they are as a person, ask yourself: What do I value about the other as a person?  What is it about them that I like, love, respect or admire?  When you do this, you will be able to identify the person behind their politics.

To do this, think of the other person.  Go ahead – think about what you hate about their politics.  Fine.  Now, circle that. Put brackets around it.  Put it in a box and put the box on the shelf.

Then ask, “what is good about this person?” “What do I like about this person?” “What do I most value about this person”?  For example, right now, I am thinking of a real person — Tom –who adopts political positions that I do not like.  Parsing away his politics, here is what I value about Tom.  Tom cares deeply about his family. He works hard at his jobHe deeply cares about his clientsHe will travel to his client’s home when they cannot make it to his officeHe apologizes and tries to fix things when he does something wrong.

When I focus on Tom, I see his care, compassion and authenticity.  Those are the qualities that define who Tom is to me.  When I look at Tom as a caring, compassionate and authentic person.

Tom and I share an interest in old Volkswagens.   When we get together, we playfully mock each other’s political views.  I marvel as his compassion.  And we talk about old VW Beetles.  He is more than his politics.  And so am I.

Step 3:  Choose How You Will Feel about the Other

Yes, that’s right. Choose how you will feel toward the other person.  Focus on the things that you admire and choose to view the other person using those attributes rather than the political ones.  If you admire the other’s care, compassion and authenticity – then value them for that.

See that you have the choice to do this.  You have the choice to use these attributes to define your image of the other person – and not their political views.

Go beyond choosing.  Take responsibility.  Say, “If I am going to relate to the other person, I am going to have to accept the fact that I don’t like their political views.  That’s okay, because what’s important is the goodness of the person that exists beneath those views”.

Step 4: Start with a Letter

Now comes the hard part.  Put all of this into action.  One way to do this is to write a letter.  Your letter need not be long.  All it has to do is to include five things:

  1. Acknowledge that there has been a rift because of political differences.
  2. Apologize for your role in fostering this rift – if any.
  3. State what you admire about the person
  4. State that you want to move beyond your political differences
  5. Identify something you have in common with the person that can provide the basis of a renewed relationship

Do not mention politics. Do not try to defend your political views.  Do not attack the other’s political views.  And be big: Do not blame the other person.  For anything.  Did I mention the need to be big?

Here is a sample letter:

Dear Robyn:

I hope you are doing well.  It’s been a while since we’ve chatted.  I miss talking to you! 

As you know, we have had our political differences.  I remember the last time we were together.  We got into an argument over politics.  I feel badly about this.  I wish I had handled my part better.  I wish we never got into that discussion. 

As I thought about that conversation, I realized all of the things I really value about you.  You are such a kind and thoughtful person. You are smart!  You are such a strong public speaker.  And you are a terrific gardener.  I love the hikes that we took together. 

I realize that I really want you in my life, and I miss our walks and our talks about nature.  I’d love to talk about taking a walk where we talk about plants and other things we share – and not about other stuff. 

What do you think?


What Happens If…

Feel free to tweak these suggestions in any way that makes sense to you.  If it doesn’t feel right to you, it won’t work.

If you do something like this, you will increase the likelihood of repairing your relationship. Of course, it may not work.  And if it doesn’t, at the very least, you will have planted a seed.  Things might change in the future.  And further – you have the satisfaction of knowing that you have done the right thing.

You might have some questions!  What happens if, looking beyond the other’s political beliefs, you try very hard to identify qualities of the other person that you admire – and then you find none!  Well, if this happens, perhaps the problem between you and the other person is not a political one.  Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the relationship anyway.

And what happens if you try very hard, and find that the political beliefs you dislike are indeed reflections of who the person really is? Well, when this happens, it is possible that, well, you simply haven’t dug deeply enough.  Really – does this person have no redeeming qualities?  And if they do not, well, it may be time to rethink the relationship anyway.

And what happens if you write the letter, and the person responds and starts to attack your political beliefs?  You can try four things:  First, ignore the attacks.  Second, remind the person that you are aware of your political differences, and that you want to base your interactions on something else.  Remind them on what you have in common.  Third, simply say, “I don’t want to talk about politics”, or, “I’m just not gonna talk about politics.”  Then don’t.

And finally, you can wait for the next installment of this series on how to manage conversations with people with whom you have political differences.

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