Politics and Relationships: How to Navigate Different Opinions

You know the feeling: you're tapping through Instagram Stories when you land on a coworker's fiery political rant — one you wish you hadn't seen. You're in a long-standing text chat with your closest friends when someone shares a funny election meme. A minute later, another friend leaves the group without warning. You're swiping through a dating app when you spot an intriguing suitor. After a night of virtual flirting, you find yourself crushing by the glow of your phone screen — until they drop a bomb that explodes in your head. How could you possibly date someone who voted on that side? And, as the holidays approach, you're looking forward to your mom's delicious Thanksgiving spread, yet you cringe at the thought of what might come up over the family dinner table.

In the age of the coronavirus, we've experienced no shortage of plot twists and high emotions, which makes political talk stormier than ever to navigate. Yet with critical issues like racial injustice and an unraveling economy, there's also danger in staying quiet. So what do you do when differences threaten the harmony of a relationship? We chatted with the experts about the motivations and potential hazards behind impassioned political exchanges, along with guidance for how to create boundaries or communicate in a way where everyone wins.

Political talk [is] stormier than ever to navigate [right now]. Yet, with critical issues like racial injustice and an unraveling economy, there's also danger in staying quiet.

A recent study by Pew Research Center revealed that 55 percent of social media users are "worn out" by politically driven posts. You've probably encountered your share of angst-fueled rants a dozen times or more — ones that include words like "bigots" and "sheeple" and phrases like "Wake up, America!" And, interestingly, those emboldened warnings come from many angles. It can be hard to remember that no two people see life through the same lens — that our communities, parents, major life events, generational influences, and privileges (or lack thereof) are the components that built who we uniquely are. So something that appears disturbingly obvious and nonnegotiable to one person might not be immediately clear to another, even if they hold a similar intention.

Dr. Kevin Gilliland, PysD, clinical psychologist and executive director of Innovation360, said there has never been a worse time in history to harshly impose our opinions onto others, whether online or in real life. This especially applies to those we know on an intimate level. "In the mental health community, we were already seeing increased rates of depression and suicide before COVID-19, but it has since increased dramatically," he told POPSUGAR. "With the political opposition in play, it has become a poison not only to our relationships but to us as individuals."

Let's say a close friend shares a stance on family rights or foreign policy, and their words thunder wildly in your brain. You might question their intelligence, their humanity, their morals, and their sanity, even. You might feel inclined to launch a firestorm in their comments or avoid them for the foreseeable future. If it's truly someone whose central character you trusted, do all of the precious moments you've shared — laughing over platters of sushi, swapping hilarious TikTok videos, consoling each other during times of sadness — become less meaningful once political differences are illuminated? Not necessarily, but navigating where you go from there is the tricky part. And harshly imposing our views onto our loved ones might not always work, because that's when connection shuts down.

Gilliland said that, as a society, we've become so highly emotional and reactive over politics that trying to have a calm, nonthreatening conversation has become exhausting, yet more necessary than ever. "We have lost the goal of critical thinking at the cost of divisiveness and a hatred-filled community," he said. So if someone you love voted for a candidate you loathe or, perhaps, holds an alarmingly polarized view about an issue like healthcare, you should attempt to discuss these important issues with them calmly in order to have an open and honest line of dialogue that doesn't immediately turn hostile. You can do this by asking them questions about why they believe certain things and what positive things they think can come from certain policies. Instead of shutting them down with anger, try explaining your point of view, asking them what they think, and going from there.

Monica Berg, author of Rethink Love and host of the Spiritually Hungry podcast, stresses that, whenever possible, a calm, thoughtful approach is the most effective way to narrow the gap of understanding with loved ones. "There is no question that politics, especially during a pandemic, are triggering. And while it can be difficult to pause and formulate a measured, loving response in the midst of a heated discussion, it's important to remember that meeting aggression with more aggression often leaves both parties feeling disrespected," she told POPSUGAR.

This calm, thoughtful approach could involve bringing vivid examples and metaphors that will speak straight to the heart and are accompanied by a buttress of credible resources. For example, let's say you wish to educate a loved one on an issue like systemic and interpersonal racism, sexism, or xenophobia. You could share a variety of disturbing scenarios you've witnessed in the workplace and offer to bring them a stack of excellent resources on the topic.

Dr. Judy Ho, PhD, clinical and forensic neuropsychologist and author of Stop Self Sabotage, believes that, when it comes to the relationships you cherish most, active listening can be a magical elixir. This involves putting your knee-jerk reactions to the side and listening quietly. "Set a time limit on the conversation, and make sure the goal is not to change the other's mind but to seek to understand and safely share ideas," she told POPSUGAR. And while you're at it, ditch the booze. "Alcohol should be off limits for these talks, because it increases impulsivity," she said.

"Depending upon the nature of the political conversations in your family, you may have to make the difficult determination of whether you can continue to participate in large familial gatherings."

Still, while political disputes might be the oxygen of democracy, the same cannot always be said for all of our relationships. It can be immensely hurtful when a close friend, parent, or sibling supports a person or cause you feel is a direct threat to your human rights or the human rights of others. And if you've tried numerous times to have calm conversations with them and nothing has changed, it is completely OK to set new boundaries for these relationships for your own mental health. While it's incredibly hard to cut people out of your life or limit communication with people you were once close to, not seeing eye to eye on some issues that face the world today is nonnegotiable for many people. But how do you honor your truth and have your own back through this confusion and grief?

Rhonda Richards-Smith, psychotherapist and relationship expert, suggests standing even taller in your beliefs by shining a spotlight over the issues that keep you awake at night. "Consider volunteering your time and energy in your local area for the causes that mean the most to you," she told POPSUGAR. "Your family and loved ones will most certainly take notice and might even take a closer look at what you are advocating for."

Richards-Smith also advises that boundary-setting is intrinsic to protecting your internal peace. "Depending upon the nature of the political conversations in your family, you may have to make the difficult determination of whether you can continue to participate in large familial gatherings," she said. "Opting for smaller, more intimate gatherings can allow for more meaningful dialogue."

And it's not just the established relationships that are vulnerable to fiery and impulsive social media habits, however. Those in the infant stage often crash and burn, too. Natalie Pennington, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada who has spent years studying what motivates individuals to either share their political views online or stay mute, believes that, because we live in an age of vetting people before deciding whether we'll welcome them into our lives, a practice she calls "social information seeking," potential romantic partners and new friendships can get nixed before a hangout happens. In other words, if a potential beau cancels your Zoom date without warning or if a fellow mom ghosts you before confirming your playdate plans, it might be because they discovered something on your Facebook page they didn't like. And in a year like 2020, chances are high that it's political in nature, at least in some facet.

Pennington's advice? She believes it's imperative to remember that online posts and comments boast no voice, facial expression, or mannerisms to decode, so don't be too hasty in giving someone the axe. But if political posts are contaminating your mental health, there's always the option to get off social media for a while or, perhaps, remove, block, or mute anyone who is filling your feed with hate, negativity, or false information of any kind.

But while removing certain people from your life is OK, you don't necessarily want to only talk to like-minded people. Gilliland stressed that, if you require that everyone in your social circle, whether life-long or brand new, align with your political views, you might consider where that thinking will end. "Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, 'What kind of person am I becoming if everyone in my life has to see things exactly the way I do?' That comes from narrow thinking and is tragic to relationships of every kind," he said.

Ho agreed. "Our biggest achievements as humans have come from spirited debate – from science to art and, of course, politics. So we must remember that we need our differences to progress. What we absolutely don't need, however, is a lack of compassion — for others or for ourselves," she explained.

Berg said the most essential takeaway here is that, whether virtual or in real life, differences are rarely a death sentence to an otherwise healthy dynamic. "Relationships have the ability to not just survive vehement disagreements but to thrive because of the insights and growth those differences provide," she said. "It's unrealistic to expect agreement on every front. What you should expect is to be heard, respected, and accepted."

At the end of the day, the point is not that you should ever keep quiet about the injustices that inspire you to stand up for what is right, but it's also not necessarily about yanking everyone completely over to your side, either. It's about exploring, sharing, and sparking awareness to issues that are crucial to preserving our humanity, with the common goal of moving forward as a collective and for the good of all people.