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Political Knots vs. Family Ties

Did the Election Open Rifts in Your Relationships? UMD Psychologist Steers You Toward Finding Common Ground

By Liam Farrell

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Photo by Shutterstock

Friendships and family relationships torn by political disagreements have a chance at redemption, says CJ Seitz-Brown, assistant clinical professor in the UMD Department of Psychology. But it depends on the depth of the disagreement.

It’s not just your eyes that might be strained after days of being glued to CNN. How are your relationships with family members and friends who voted for the “wrong” presidential candidate?

Dismay, disappointment and even disgust can easily surface at a time when Americans’ nerves are already jangled—the nation is politically polarized, and Tuesday’s election fell in the middle of a quickly worsening pandemic and shaky economy. Throw in the bombs carelessly thrown on Facebook and Twitter, and there’s a lot of potential for people to come out of the last few weeks—not to mention the last few years—with more than one frayed relationship.

Maryland Today spoke with CJ Seitz-Brown, an assistant clinical professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Psychology, for tips on how to take stock and navigate these treacherous tensions.

Figure out if the rift is irreparable
Seitz-Brown brings up a quote from the writer Robert Jones Jr. as a first step: “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

Political disagreements aren’t always rooted in small policy quibbles, he said. Sometimes they can be a question of fundamental human and civil rights, particularly for someone who is part of a marginalized community. A first step is to consider whether politics or the election exposed a disagreement that you won’t be able to get past.

“People get to decide for themselves where that line is,” Seitz-Brown said.

Listen and reflect
If you want to repair a relationship, a potential next step is to approach and determine whether the other person is interested as well, Seitz-Brown said. Consider whether they have shown a willingness to compromise or change in the past.

And when you talk about the problem, don’t just bring a stack of facts and figures with the goal of changing their mind—that could just kickstart another argument and drive everyone back to their respective corners. This is an opportunity for mutual understanding more than persuasion, and it’s important to listen to what they say and share it back to them in their own words before reacting with your own opinions. Ask them to do the same for you.

“Reflecting allows you to show the person that you care about what they are saying. It shows that you listen and allows you to check that you understood correctly,” Seitz-Brown said. “It also cools down potentially hot conversations.”

Set realistic expectations
Is your instinct to move on as normal and ignore your differences in opinion? That probably won’t work, Seitz-Brown said, since politics and elections are not only a routine part of our lives, but also reflection of our own identities and value systems.

It may be possible to set some simple expectations and ground rules within a relationship, wherein political differences manage to coexist alongside other interactions. Maybe you simply ask a co-worker about his or her kids rather than starting conservations about the news; maybe you disagree with a relative on gun restrictions but your similar upbringings provide joyful memories.

“Explore whether you can focus on those fun and meaningful commonalities,” Seitz-Brown said.

But ultimately you have to be vigilant in determining whether such a situation is actually working.

“Keep checking in with yourself and your support system about how much time and energy it takes you to manage this along the way, relative to the progress you are or are not seeing,” he said. “Be kind to yourself.”

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