By Susan Melendez Doak, LPC
I remember the feeling of my heart starting to beat quickly as I had a conversation with a friend about immunizations just as the newest COVID-19 vaccines were starting to roll out. The topic of vaccines had never come up before in our relationship, but now the reality of the pandemic was dominating daily life. I also remember the way we each talked about our fears and history with vaccines as children. We took turns listening with empathy and discovered we were on very different pages about this topic. We respected the different choices we were making and didn’t try to convince each other of our views. Our friendship continues and we have made space for one another. But all of us likely have examples of relationships that have turned in quite different directions on issues like this.
Relationships with friends and family have come under more pressure in recent years after two contentious general elections, the COVID pandemic, the racial justice movement of 2020, and the recent rulings from the supreme court and state supreme courts. There is a sense of great division in our country, to put it lightly. These differences are not superficial and have been brewing for hundreds of years. In only the last decade, I have seen my own political and religious views diverge from those of my family, despite many important values that we still hold in common.
With so much on the line, how can we keep engaging in productive ways—rather than employing the strategy of relational cut-off? Are there ever times when a total relational “break up” is the healthy thing to do? How can we balance being true to ourselves and still be graciously open to others?
Here are some guiding principles for being in relationship with those we disagree with, and tips for putting these principles into action.
- All relationships start with respect and safety. If someone does not respect you, then you don’t have a foundation for a productive social relationship. Respect and psychological/physical safety are the pillars that hold up all functional relationships. If someone does not pass the safety and respect test, then relational cut-off might be your only option to maintain security and health.
- People are beautifully complicated. You can’t know someone from social media posts, clothing, flags, and affiliations. Sure, you can learn a few things about a person by what they put out in the world intentionally. If we don’t want to be judged quickly, we may want to refrain from judging others so quickly and from reducing our own identities down to a few social media posts or yard signs.
- Be aware of your body’s threat responses to others. Does your heart rate speed up, your muscles tighten, or your stomach turn in certain situations? You might find that because of past experiences or trauma, that you feel threatened by certain people or that they feel threatened by you. Listen to yourself; if you need space away from someone or need to take a moment to clear your thoughts, do so. Find ways to regularly take care of yourself through exercise, movement, or mindfulness. Seek professional therapy if past trauma is interfering with your ability to interact with others.
- It’s not all or nothing. There are many levels of relationship. You may never be best friends with someone with vastly different views than you, but you might be great co-workers or fellow PTA parents. Being gracious and kind to those we don’t know well in life can take us a long way.
Here are some ways to move from these guiding principles, above, into action:
- Find a secure base of your “people” and then branch out from there. Build deep friendships with people that align with many of your beliefs and values and do life together. Support one another through the ups and downs and take turns listening to each other. These are your “go-to” people to vent to and receive support. They are safe, affirming, and have permission to call you on your stuff. In other words, these are the people that are meeting your emotional needs. If you have a sense of belonging with this level of love and support, you are more likely to have the strength and energy to expand outward to people that are less like you.
- Seek out relationships with people that look, act, and talk differently than you. Intentionally expose yourself to opportunities to interact with others and learn from them. Reflect on your common human experiences. If you are religious, find non-religious people. If you are a democrat, find a republican. If you are married, find someone who is single. If you are young, find an older person to get to know. Ask questions…and then truly listen.
- Draw lines when you must. We may have to draw boundaries with others to maintain our own health and sense of safety. I have known parents who have had to pull their child out of a school where they felt their child’s safety was in danger because of their race, disability, or sexual orientation. Attacks on the safety or humanity of a person are different from respectful disagreements and demand that we make boundaries.
- Examine your own feeling of anger, hate, safety, happiness, love and joy. What makes you feel safe and at home? How can you offer this safety to others? The more work you do to understand yourself and your own identity, the more open you will be to others.
- Question the narrative you are being fed about your “enemies.” If it seems like your list of enemies is growing daily, it’s time for a reality check. All media sources have an agenda. If you are finding yourself being filled with anger and fear when you watch TV, browse social media, or read the newspaper, consider the source. Broaden your sources of news and information and be wary of narrative spins that seem to only paint things as “black and white.”
- Try to refrain from bragging about what you think you know about a given issue. Instead, be curious. Ask people about their experiences and feelings and simply listen without offering suggestions or opinions. Show respect when someone says they don’t want to talk with you. Respect the boundaries of others as a way towards healing.
- Don’t underestimate the power of an apology, knowing that you are not entitled to forgiveness. Own up to your mistakes and be willing to accept the apologies of others who own their own mistakes. Relationships that have made it through conflict pave the way for deeper and more meaningful connections. Be slow to jump to conclusions and give others the benefit of the doubt.
- Accept ambiguity. It’s okay to not have an opinion on every topic or to feel different ways on different days. Every person is a work in progress. There are also simply some problems that have no answers for us in this life. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
Lastly, I don’t want to gloss over the fact that the most contentious issues we are dealing with are ultimately about the edges of life: being born, dying and disease, and the value and rights of each human and their right to live on and impact the planet we call home. Abortion, transgender rights, gun rights, inequality, vaccines, race and racism, disability, war, and the care of the earth: these issues are heavy and painful, both for groups and individuals, because they touch on our ultimate values and the meaning of life itself.
There will be times in our lives when we feel too wounded or hurt to engage outside of our comfort zone. Those that have been marginalized and traumatized might not be eager to jump into conversations or relationships with those that “don’t get it.” That’s okay. It takes time and safety to heal.
We don’t all enter these conversations on a level playing field. You’ll notice that this article does not cover how to heal racial trauma, religious abuse, and the suffering and injustice experienced by the LGBTQ+ community (not to mention countless other forms of trauma, violence and systemic injustice). Your experience matters and my thoughts here don’t even scratch the surface on issues of injustice. My hope is that some of these strategies could act as a starting place for some, with a long way to go. It takes courage to move through new zones of discomfort and to continue to have a stance of learning and humility. This same courage is also a gateway to deeper and more vibrant human connection.