With the 2020 presidential election just around the corner, there’s no doubt that family debates about politics have reached a fever pitch. (Unless, of course, you’re all politically like-minded — in which case, lucky you.)
This election cycle is one of most divisive we’ve seen in recent history, with a highly polarizing president running for reelection, a viral pandemic wreaking havoc across the country, and ongoing protests against police brutality all in play.
But even before the Black Lives Matters protests and COVID-19 broke out, the chasm between highly partisan family members was growing. In 2019, 35% of Republicans and 45% of Democrats said they would be unhappy if their child married someone from the opposing political party ― a sharp uptick from attitudes on the same subject 50 years ago.
Now more than ever, Americans are subscribing to a kind of political tribalism, sticking close to those who think like them and sneering at those who don’t.
But what about your actual tribe ― your family? How are you supposed to stay civil and above the fray when you can’t believe they’re voting for “that guy”?
To help you get through the election cycle without becoming estranged, we asked marriage and family therapists what they do when a family member draws them into a political argument. Here’s what they said.
I try not to match snark with snark.
At one recent family gathering, marriage and family therapist Sean Davis and his wife were the lone Californians in the room. Seemingly out of nowhere, Davis said a family member went for the jugular, asking the couple, “How do you guys feel about the fact that everybody else in the country thinks Californians are stupid?”
“I had to process the ignorance of such a blanket statement, but my wife handled it deftly,” said Davis, who’s also a professor at Alliant International University. “She told him, ‘Californians don’t think about the rest of the country’ and left it at that.”
Her mic drop moment admittedly felt great, he said, and did defuse the situation while maintaining their dignity, but “matching snark with snark has rarely worked outside of that situation,” he said.
“Tell yourself that it’s OK that everyone has their own opinions, even if they’re completely different than your own. Remind yourself that you don’t have to change anyone’s minds, it’s not your job.”
– Deborah Duley, psychotherapist and founder of Empowered Connections in Maryland
Davis said he usually prefers to be clear and direct about what he believes and why when talking politics. To that end, he uses nonconfrontational “I” statements.
“I use phrases such as, ‘As I see it…,’ ‘To me…,’ ‘I see it differently…’” he explained. “I make sure to validate: I let the other person know I heard her even if I disagree with what they said.”
That conversational trick has helped him avoid intense arguments with his sister, whom he describes as a Fox News-watching, Rush Limbaugh-loving conservative. (Davis himself is a centrist.)
Even just saying, “I understand you see it that way. I see it this way…” can shape the conversation for the better, he said.
Davis also tries to remind himself that he and his sister have had very different adult life experiences; had he lived her life, he may have the same political ideologies.
“Basically, I try to focus on understanding the life experiences that have led her to her beliefs more than the beliefs themselves, then I share my life experiences that have led me to my beliefs,” he said. “It’s been much easier for me to have compassion and understanding when focusing on understanding her context rather than arguing her beliefs. The latter gets you nowhere and always damages the relationship.”
I manage my expectations about what I’m going to accomplish.
If your family members are open to having a conversation, ask yourself what is realistic to hope for during and at the end of that conversation, said Jesse Kahn, director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City.
“You may not radically change or impact anyone in a single conversation, so are you OK with just laying the groundwork?” he said. “Are you OK with having multiple conversations? Can you provide some insight or resources that helped you grow as your politics were changing, and allow your family the time to explore them as you did?”
I’m quick to disengage if things get too heated.
If you’ve been the political lone wolf or black sheep in your family your whole life ― say, the sole liberal in an ultra-conservative family ― any family gathering can be anxiety-inducing (or eye-roll-inducing, depending on how you see it).
There’s always that one relative who’ll reliably prod you on the political news of the day. That’s always been the case for Deborah Duley, a psychotherapist and founder of Empowered Connections in Maryland.
“For me, it was always my dad who was a die-hard conservative and not open and accepting at all,” she said. “I’m the opposite as a feminist, women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights activist. It was Groundhog Day every time I had to share the same space with him.”
The arguments ended when Duley matured and opted to take a different tack with her dad: At family get-togethers, she’d completely ignore the barbs and missiles he’d send her way. Now, that’s the advice she gives to clients who are tired of political taunts from family.
“You have to take a step back, or away, and then take some deep breaths,” she said. “Tell yourself that it’s OK that everyone has their own opinions, even if they’re completely different than your own. Remind yourself that you don’t have to change anyone’s minds, it’s not your job.”
I remind myself that my goal is to educate and listen, not argue.
Ibinye Osibodu-Onyali, a marriage and family therapist in Murrieta, California, doesn’t consider herself a political black sheep in her family, more of a “rebel without a cause.”
“Within my family, I am probably the most liberal and outspoken,” she said. “I speak up regularly about social justice issues and prejudice: I often have conversations with my family about protecting the rights of people who are often on the fringes of society, including individuals who struggle with substance use, those who are currently incarcerated or have come out from incarceration, and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.”
Through the years, Osibodu-Onyali has learned not to let the tenor of these conversations get too heated.
“The way I see it, it’s my job to educate and listen, not argue,” she said.
If she’s on a phone call with a family member who doesn’t understand her beliefs on social justice issues, she tries to reset the conversation: “What are your thoughts on the subject? And what experiences led you there?”
“When I feel myself getting triggered during a conversation, I remind myself to take a deep breath and try to understand the other person’s point of view,” she said. “If I want to be seen or heard, I also have to see and hear others. This is how true dialogue begins.”
I know that if I speak civilly, I’ll likely get spoken to civilly.
Unless your family member has some truly toxic views, the goal of these conversations should be to get your point across all while maintaining the relationship, Davis said.
“When I get into arguments with my sister, I try to communicate through body language and I-statements so that I can hold our discordant beliefs and our relationship at the same time,” he said. “She then usually follows my lead, since we both value the relationship.”