Illustration by Daniel Zender
Every four years around election season — and particularly this year — the media fills with appeals: Why can’t we just get along? Sure, we may have strong opinions about politics, but that shouldn’t get in the way of our unity as family members, neighbors, or friends.
In an ideal world, that’s true. Yet in the world we live in now, disagreements about politics often evoke our deepest values. Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW, a Talkspace therapist, sees several major types of political tensions show up in her clients’ relationships: either one person is conservative and another is more progressive; or a family group splits into different political factions.
Unsurprisingly, Chapple has also witnessed many relationship disagreements over President Trump. “There have been lots of issues with people wondering why family members continue to support Trump,” she said. “I have seen an increase particularly this year because of fears of repeating 2016.”
Political Disagreements Speak To Our Deepest Values
These disagreements affect us so deeply because they reach to our core beliefs about our dignity as human beings. For marginalized people in the United States — especially people of color, LGBTQ+ people, those living in poverty, and women — politics has never been a simple intellectual agreement.
Instead, the elected officials and policies we put in place have a vast impact on our right to maintain our bodily autonomy; to access housing, education, and medical care; to vote; to partner with whom we please; to stay out of jail; and even to stay alive. What’s more, arguments that we should be more civil in our political debates have historically targeted people of color, in an attempt to silence them for demanding equality and justice.
Because of this, political disagreements with people in our lives — including our family members, friends, romantic partners, and broader communities — can often indicate more than a simple difference of opinion.
“During the Trump administration in particular it appears that majority identities — white, male, cisgender, straight, Christian, etc. — are being told that their rights are being given to marginalized or minoritized groups,” said Chapple. “This is causing a type of victimhood being displayed by those in power.” That, in turn, can lead to heightened oppression of those who are already marginalized and who are fighting for their rights.
When Is It More Than Just a Disagreement?
So how can we tell the difference between a simple difference of opinion, and a political disagreement that reveals deeper disrespect?
If the person you’re having a political disagreement with generally demonstrates respect for you and for your identity, and is open to learning more about your experience in a truly non-judgemental way, your political disagreement may be merely that. If, on the other hand, this person has shown disrespect toward you in other circumstances, has disrespected you based on your identity, minimizes your personal experience, or refuses to be accountable for the ways in which their political comments have harmed you, that’s a sign that there is a deeper issue in the relationship.
Chapple said that we can scan our body for warning signs that a relationship may be bad for us. If you feel angry or physically ill when trying to make a point to a loved one, that’s a sign that the interaction is having a negative affect on your health.
You can also look out for instances where your family member’s political opinion causes concrete harm. If you are a person of color and you have a white relative who repeatedly uses racial slurs, it can be an act of self-care to minimize contact with them; same goes for relatives who make racist comments around children of color in the family. If you may need access to abortion, and you are dating or having sex with someone who is strongly anti-abortion, it may be a good choice for your reproductive autonomy to leave.
Create Healthy Boundaries
If you’ve identified that you would be better off limiting contact with someone in your life, how do you go about creating space?
Chapple advises three steps, ask yourself:
- What you need from yourself and from the relationship to feel truly healthy and respected?
- What are your deal breakers? What is a deeply held value for you?
- What you’re willing to compromise on, and what is a hard-and-fast value.
Taking space from someone in our communities, friend groups, or families can feel extremely high-stakes, and we may fear that it could start wider-spread conflict. We also commonly assume that taking space from a loved one requires us to permanently cut off contact. But creating a boundary with someone can look however you want — anything from setting ground rules to interacting less or only in certain circumstances.
“Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves that it is okay to create boundaries to protect ourselves, even against our loved ones,” said Chapple. “They could be toxic and take advantage of us in the same manner a stranger can.”
When setting a boundary, it can help to consider what, exactly, of this person’s political values or behavior harmed you, and set your boundary accordingly. If, for example, they are vocally against marriage equality, you may be okay interacting with them one-on-one, but no longer want to invite them to gatherings with LGBTQ friends who may be harmed by their comments.
Take Time To Mourn
Losing a friend, or spending less time with a relative, hurts — even if you know they were bad for you. “It is okay to grieve toxic relationships,” Chapple said.
You deserve time to process the loss or change in this relationship, just as much as a romantic breakup. So take time to let yourself mourn. If you feel sad, it’s okay to simply acknowledge and sit with that sadness, without trying to fix it, and to choose comforting settings and acts of self-care to help yourself process. You may want to take a little time to invest in yourself, and engage the same routines you may already use to deal with romantic breakups: eat something delicious, get lots of sleep, meet with trust friends, learn something new.
It’s also totally okay to take some time away from political media, gatherings, or debates while you process your feelings about this relationship. While the pull of politics is strong, especially during election season, we don’t have to all be present at every big event or debate. Give yourself the space you need, which will allow you to later reenter the fray stronger.
Rather than dwelling on an impossible — and often, racially and gender-inflected — notion of “civility” when choosing who we surround ourselves, it’s okay to first prioritize our well-being. “Remember to create healthy boundaries, pay attention to red flags and violations of your boundaries,” said Chapple.
If you feel that someone’s political activity or values are harmful to you, it’s okay to set boundaries to keep yourself safe and well. “Healthy relationships should not be manipulative, isolating, or generally make us feel bad,” said Chapple. Chances are, if you begin to notice manipulation or harm in your relationships around election season, that’s a sign of a deeper problem that has been festering for some time.
While the rat race of election season can create a very narrow idea of what political engagement means, politics is, ultimately about the ability of each of us to live with health and dignity. So do what you need to do to keep yourself safe and well — because you deserve deeply supportive relationships.