Politics and Pain: Staying Connected through the Post-Election Divide

Choosing not to walk away from the relationship may be the only thing you have in common for awhile.

Photo by Harriet L. Schwartz

This election has caused or deepened divides within families and created new divisions among friends and colleagues who “thought they knew each other” but now feel threatened by each other’s views.

How do we stay connected amid differing political beliefs when the political is personal and the barrage of emotionally-charged news stories, misinformation, and social media posts seem endless?

Whether or not to even stay connected is a valid question. Choosing to withdraw from a relationship in which you feel unsafe may be an essential self-care strategy or expression of self-advocacy. But for people who are trying to stay connected with family members or close friends or colleagues even amidst profound political difference and pain, I offer the following:

If your disagreement is philosophical, there may be room to agree to disagree. For example, you and your cousin have opposing views on the Affordable Care Act. If the issue doesn’t hit close to home for either of you then you may be able to recognize each other’s views and move on. However, if either of you feel that the issues at hand will impact your personal well-being or rights, agreeing to disagree may not be a viable option. If you disagree about immigration and one of you is married to an immigrant, the intensity of the conflict may make it impossible to agree to disagree. In those cases…

Even if you disagree with the assumptions that shape the fear, acknowledging the other person’s pain or distress may provide a point of connection. Agreeing on the existence of each other’s pain and fears and expressing authentic empathy is one of the most powerful ways to stay connected amid a deep divide. Radical empathy, finding empathy for someone with profoundly different views, can be incredibly difficult. This requires valuing the other person’s well-being and the connection more than being right. In addition, this will likely only work if both people can find empathy for each other.

For example, if you can say “I understand that your despair about being unemployed motivated your vote, I want more jobs in our region too” and if your friend or family member can say “I get that you are afraid that the incoming administration will roll back LGBT equality, I wouldn’t support that,” these expressions may begin to rebuild connection.

Empathy becomes much more difficult and some would argue irrelevant if one person’s position directly demeans or diminishes the other person’s humanity. Some would say that caring for and even loving a person who demeans or hates you for who you are is a spiritual move while others find it intolerable. Both of these positions are valid. When empathy seems beyond reach…

A failure of empathy is an inability (or perhaps sometimes, an unwillingness) to attempt to feel a situation from another’s perspective. A failure of empathy is a failure to let another person’s pain into your heart. As hurtful and disappointing as this can be, resist the urge to perceive the lack of empathy as a loss of love. Someone who cannot access empathy may indeed love you. While for many people, empathy is an expression of love, a more complex view of love allows that it may exist even without empathy.

While an unwillingness to engage in a conversation can feel like a rejection, it is a rejection of dialogue and ideas and not necessarily of you as a relative or friend. People may decline to engage in conversation for a variety of reasons, including because they think it is the best strategy to avoid destroying the relationship.

Choosing less contact in times of great distress is an option and may be a much better alternative to withdrawing completely. Make visits shorter or less frequent rather than stopping all contact. Connect with trusted others for support and you will be stronger when you choose to re-engage.

You and your family member or friend may not find common ground on issues and may not be able to summon empathy. If despite this, you both decline to sever the relationship and you both make even small steps to stay connected, this is a powerful indicator of love. You might even address the wish for connection in spite of difference directly, “I know we disagree, but know that I love you” or “I wish this weren’t dividing us, I’m committed to finding ways to stay connected.”

Choosing not to walk away from the relationship may be the only thing you have in common for awhile and for those who wish to stay connected, that may be enough.

This article is inspired by Relational Cultural Theory, particularly the work of Maureen Walker and Judy Jordan. To learn more, visit the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute online (winter 2020 update: to learn more about RCT, please visit the International Center for Growth in Connection and www.harrietschwartz.com) and look for our RCT learning community on social media. Special thanks to RCT colleagues and friends who reviewed earlier drafts.

Thoughts And Ideas

For People Who Think