I’ve spent a lot of time over the past five years writing about how to overcome family rifts and estrangement. So, it’s no surprise that people frequently ask me: “How can I get through this election without my family falling apart?” An epidemic of family feuds has broken out, pitting President Trump and Joe Biden supporters against one another in that most intimate of spheres.
At worst, people are cutting themselves off from relatives, shutting them out of social media, refusing email contact, and avoiding virtual family gatherings. Some relationships may not recover. What should a family do to make it through November 3 and beyond?
Here are three strategies to avoid a lasting rift over politics. These recommendations are simple — but they aren’t necessarily easy. All are well worth a try.
- Stop talking about it
See? I told you a recommendation might be simple, but not easy. When enmeshed in pointless and intractable political debates, the clearest and best route is: Stop.
Here’s a test you can take to help you decide whether it’s worth it engaging Grandpa Greg, Brother Bill, or Niece Nancy around why they should love/hate President Trump. Yes or no?
Is there any chance that the discussion will change the other person’s mind?
If you fall in the rare case where your relative is genuinely asking your opinion and may shift his or hers, forge right ahead. But in most cases, there is no possibility of turning the person from red to blue (or vice versa).
Therefore, why have the conversation? Open communication is great in families, but only when there are issues to discuss about which people have some degree of an open mind. If that’s not the case with your election debates, just stop.
You neither have to initiate nor respond to the latest meme, say, that shows your candidate’s head on that of a frail and disabled nursing home resident. You can just say no. It is fully okay to create a “demilitarized zone” around political discussions, and to inform family members about it before your next get-together. For more guidance in that department, see point # 2.
- Set clear limits and stick with them
I learned a lesson from a wise older woman I interviewed. She had suffered through endless political fights in the family early in her marriage. She told me: “I made the rule that there would be no discussions of politics when we were all together. And I said to my husband: ‘If Dad starts in about politics, I’m going to walk out of the room, and you come see what’s wrong with me because I don’t want to hear this anymore.’” She and many others agreed that when buttons are pushed on a repetitive and sensitive topic, setting limits is an excellent — and potentially relationship-saving — option.
Here's an instance where a poet says it better than a social scientist. Robert Frost famously penned “Good fences make good neighbors.” In this case, a good fence around troubling political discussions is what’s needed. However, the limits cannot be vague, or they are too easily violated.
What’s needed is a statement along these lines: “I love you, but I refuse to discuss the election with you until it’s over. If you email me about politics, I won’t respond. If you insist on bringing up views you know I feel are offensive, I will leave the conversation.” Your loved ones may not believe you initially, but by the fifth time that you hold the line, they will let the conversation go back to what they are binge-watching these days. You will feel more in control and others will see how your stand defuses conflict.
- If you just can’t stop, use proven communication techniques
I had a conversation about this issue with one of my own loved ones, and she told me: “I’m sorry, but this election is so important, so world-changing, that I just couldn’t be quiet about my feelings – even with my family.” If that’s the case, then use evidence-based communication skills that increase the possibility you will be heard.
Of course, you have to begin with the most difficult thing: listening to your relative’s point of view. That means letting them get it all out, no matter how much you disagree.
After that, communication experts say that affirming something about the other person can work wonders. It’s possible in most cases to begin with something like: “I appreciate how concerned you are about the future of our country.” This kind of affirmation makes it much more likely that your relative will hear your message (and they may be caught off guard, since they were likely expecting a frontal attack).
Then frame your argument using “I-statements.” Here’s an example. You may be tempted to say: “People like you are ignorant about science and you are responsible for how bad the pandemic is.” Instead, use an I-statement to present how you are feeling, such as: “Because I am in a high-risk group, it makes me scared when politicians say things health experts don’t agree with.” This simple, science-based technique keeps your relative from feeling personally attacked and more receptive to discussion.
Why consider these solutions to interminable political battles in your family? Based on years of research, here’s my answer.
We live in a world that too many people feel is increasingly polarized. Divisions have deepened between political viewpoints, socioeconomic classes, ethnic groups, and generations. Most of us have little direct influence on these national and global divisions. Instead we watch them with growing alarm.
We do, however, have the power to overcome divisions in our own immediate spheres. St. Augustine wisely said, “Peace in society depends on peace in the family.” As hard as it is to believe, the election will be over, and you are likely to want your family members around. Saying no to pointless and frustrating political arguments, and communicating effectively when you can’t say no, can really work.
Karl Pillemer, PhD, is the Hazel E. Reed Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and the Director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging.