Q: Some friends are surprising me when they tell me who they are going to vote for in the coming election. Sometimes I feel that my reactions to them have not been very mature or civil. I am surprised to realize that it is affecting me at my very core values. I still value their friendships but feel there may now be a wedge in these friendships. My question is how do I salvage these relationships and still remain true to myself. Or is it time to simply move on?
A: Thank you for your thought-provoking and relevant questions; you speak for many of us. Every election year activates polarized political preferences and strong emotions that surprise and put a strain on important relationships. This year is no exception, to say the least.
It’s pretty simple to figure out that the easiest way to stay civil and connected when friends don’t share your politics is to avoid bringing it up – just don’t talk about politics. And indeed, this approach may well be the best under certain circumstances. Sometimes, you just don’t want to deal with it. Or, one or both of you may be a hothead, making civil dialogue impossible. Avoidance, though, doesn’t do anything to fix the wedge in the friendship and may even deepen it. Avoidance also does nothing to promote inclusiveness and diversity of thought. Both are vital components of enriching our personal lives as well as civil society as a whole.
Shouldn’t reasonably mature and intelligent people be able to discuss their political differences without risking their friendships, while also staying true to themselves and their core values? As with other dilemmas of a significant nature, I think the answer is a “qualified yes.”
It is human nature to resist loosening the grip on your passionately held political beliefs and core values. But that is what is required of you to engage civilly with your friends who have become political opposites this year. Doing so does not mean that you no longer hold those beliefs and core values. It only means that you loosen your attachment to being right, thus opening your mind to understanding your friends’ political beliefs and core values. Listening to understand is a primary function of friendship. Listening does not equal agreeing.
While most of us seek out friends with similar political beliefs, most of us are also comfortable with some level of bipartisanship. Other core values, such as trustworthiness and dependability, matter more to the success of the friendship. By mutual agreement, a valid wedge in a friendship can evolve into a bipartisan friendship. Bipartisan friendships are the platform for seeking common ground and healthy compromise. We aren’t just coming out of our political corners, ready to duke it out. Indeed, do we have the right to complain bitterly about the loss of bipartisanship in Washington if we are not willing to put our own friendships ahead of ideology?
There is a flipside to the adage that politics is never worth losing a friendship. Within a friendship, ideological differences about certain core issues can emerge that defy finding common ground. To paper over them for the sake of the friendship would trivialize the issues and trivialize each friend’s commitment to his position on those issues. Thus, some friendships end or are seriously compromised because the friends’ core beliefs can’t be tossed aside for the sake of camaraderie.
If you decide to approach your friend(s) about your current political differences, you might want to allow time for temporary flash points or disagreements to settle out. You may need some time to grieve the loss of your friendships as they once were – without political complications. Still, the wedge may or may not be lifted. But when you have friends whom you truly care about and who care about you, then you can have difficult conversations that are civil, kind, considerate, and respectful—in fact, just the way friends are supposed to treat each other.
Have you witnessed a random act of civility or have a civility question? Let us know about it at [email protected].
Susan McAninch is a retired clinical social worker and psychotherapist.