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Is the Presidential Election Wreaking Havoc On Your Relationships?

Over six months into the pandemic, the prolonged strain of living a restricted lifestyle along with greatly reduced in-person contact with the outside world has challenged even the best of relationships. Adapting to the limitations, many of us have made adjustments and settled into a new equilibrium. Enter the final stretch of the presidential election and the current political climate feels more polarizing and emotional than any in recent history. Where politics may have once felt distant and theoretical, the issues in front of us now feel personal and potentially life altering. Formerly passive observers have become passionate activists.

Wherever you land on the political spectrum you are more likely than ever to have strong reactions to the daily news cycle. For many, the outcome of the upcoming election raises anxiety and fear… it feels personal. However, not only is it affecting us as individuals it is also affecting all kinds of relationships: romantic partnerships, close and extended family, and even friendships. Combine the opportunity to reach friends and family through social media and more time at home and we are exposed to views, opinions, requests for involvement, money and even rants from anyone and everyone. There are two major factors posing challenges to these relationships: whether or not your views are aligned, and how those views are expressed.

Let’s start with the first one.

When you find out someone in your life falls on a different part of the political spectrum, you may begin to question the viability of the relationship. If this is how they view the issues, is there room for this person in my life? If it’s a partner or close family member it probably feels like less of a choice and you most likely need to try everything in your power to preserve the relationship. But what if it’s a friendship? How close can you be if you don’t agree about important social and political issues? How strong does a friendship need to be to survive such profound differences?

My answer is – it depends. If this is a friendship you value, one that has been meaningful and fulfilling in your life, I would pause before discarding it. Just because you don’t agree on politics doesn’t mean you don’t share certain values and don’t have anything to offer one another. Unlike romantic partnerships where we rely on one person to meet many of our needs, friendships offer something else – you don’t turn to the same friend for all your friendship needs. There are the friends you confide in, the ones you have fun with, the ones you have history with, the ones you shared a pivotal experience with, etc. Ask yourself where this person fits in your life, what you would miss if you cut off contact, and how much your differences cut to the core of your values. The answers to those questions should tell you whether or not there is room for the friendship despite differences. It could be as simple as agreeing to disagree and not following each other on social media. However, if the person’s views are extremely disturbing and offensive they may cross a line from which there is no turning back. There are some issues that are insurmountable and you will need to give yourself permission to let go of the relationship.

Secondly, how do your friends choose to express their views? Bear in mind that there is a high level of passion which can easily veer into anxiety surrounding the election. We all have our ways of managing anxiety. For some, it involves getting it out and finding support and comfort in shared beliefs. For others there is a strong pull to action; fund raising, marches and rallies, phone banks, and recruiting friends and family to do the same. For others, too much talk triggers anxiety and flooding. And lastly, there may be people in your life who just don’t feel that strongly and aren’t that interested in talking politics. If it’s a close friend who manages anxiety by talking and venting you may want to cut them some slack and listen. But know your limits, when it begins to feel draining and causes resentment you should cut it off and let them know you can only listen to so much.

A universal truth of all relationships is that there will be common bonds and there will be differences. Often it is those differences that make friendships interesting and enriching. And yet, all relationships need good boundaries—that delicate dance of where you are intimate and close and where you are separate. The election is tugging on boundaries in every which way. As with any relationship, sometimes an adjustment is needed. If you are not feeling good about your friend’s calls to action or attempts to engage you, tell them you respect what they feel and what they are doing but you need to handle this last leg of the presidential election your own way. If it’s not an important relationship it may be time to let it go. There are friendships that come into our lives for a reason and a season. Views regarding racism and social justice may rise to the surface in such a way that they become deal breakers. It is deeply disturbing to learn someone you previously connected with is on the other side of a non-negotiable core belief. It may mean the end of the relationship in the case of friends, or drastically reduced contact in the case of family members.

Here are some tips for preserving your relationships or letting them go in the home stretch of the election:

• Separate the person from the opinion…good people can have beliefs you strongly disagree with – there are however exceptions to this when views feel too extreme or offensive.

• Remember – our views are formed by our unique life circumstances; background, experience, influences, and even trauma. Until you walk in another person’s shoes, be careful of how you interpret their beliefs.

• If you value the relationship or if it’s a family member, do what you can to preserve it. It’s easy for relationships to thrive when you are aligned and tempting to cut off or distance when you are not – strong relationships require time and attention and can withstand some tension.

• Set boundaries, if you don’t want to talk politics or you don’t want to discuss the election with a particular person let them know and if need be, un-follow them on social media.

• If you have the band-with, take a different approach – be curious about the other person’s beliefs, ask them questions and really listen to the answers. Nothing strengthens a relationship (be it friend, family, or romantic partner) like feeling listened to, heard and even understood without judgement. If you can do this your bond will be stronger even if your election experience is vastly different.

• In more extreme situations letting go of a relationship may feel like the only option; bear in mind the rules for family and friends are not the same – every effort should be made to avoid a family cut off while in the case of a friendship if you are certain there is no turning back, let the person know.

This blog was first published on Yours, Mine, & Ours.

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About

Tracy Ross, LCSW is an NYC-based counselor with a nationwide practice, who has helped couples and families for over 20 years to redesign their relationships and move them from volatility to versatility: from a state of breakdown to a new relationship in which all can thrive.

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© 2018 Tracy Ross, LCSW.