December 5, 2016

Dealing with the Divide: Navigating a Politically Divided Family.


The country is reeling after a hugely divisive presidential campaign season and election, and now many find themselves turning away from the media to get a much needed break and to spend time connecting with friends and loved ones.

However, for some there is no escaping the fresh wound of this divide. I have a client who voted Democratic, whose father and brother voted Republican, and whose mother voted third party. I have a dear friend whose parents voted for different major party candidates, and I have a friend whose entire family voted for a different candidate than him.

Some are faring better than others but everyone is struggling and it is either difficult or impossible for them to escape the tangle of emotions and beliefs. Feelings of anger, rage, shock, disbelief, betrayal, hurt and pain are among the most common.

Having a family member vote for a different presidential candidate than you has always been tough to reconcile. However, from what I have been hearing from clients, friends and family is that something feels different about this election. It seems to be so much more personal for people than ever before.

The 2016 presidential campaign was one of the most divisive in recent history and at times seemed to bring out the worst in people. Now that it is over and we have a new president, what will happen to this divide and how will people cope who are experiencing it within their own family?

I see loved ones struggling deeply with this dilemma right now and in this post I hope to explore their unique struggles, provide help through a step-by-step process for navigating these murky waters, and use this process as an example and microcosm of how we can move forward as a nation. Even if you don’t belong to a politically divided family, chances are you know someone who does and I encourage you to pass along what you think might be helpful.

The Divided Family

It’s far easier to demonize and vilify the “other” when they don’t share your DNA. For this very reason I see political splits among family at this time as one of the most difficult but rewarding places to find growth and help pave a peaceful way forward for our nation, one family at a time. However you may feel about your family, the fact remains that they are your family, they aren’t going anywhere, and they probably aren’t changing much. So, what do you do now?

If you find yourself within a politically divided family you might be saying to yourself right now, “How could I be related or married to this person/s?” You might be in shock and utterly mystified by the reasons behind their presidential vote and trying not to label them “wrong” or “bad.”

I have great compassion for anyone going through this experience right now and I know that it is taking an emotional and psychological toll on many people. I want to provide both encouragement as well as (hopefully) helpful advice for what you can do to transform this struggle. You have been blessed with the unique burden of being forced to deal face-to-face with some of the seemingly intractable differences that make up our national political divide, and for that I thank you.

Step One: Honor and Feel Your Emotions

Whether you expected your spouse or family member to vote differently than you or not, and regardless of if you now find yourself on the “winning” or “losing” side, you are likely feeling disconnected and having feelings about what has happened. These feelings can’t be ignored.

In order to create space for anything new, for any transformation to occur, these feelings need to be felt and expressed in some healthy way. Though it may be compelling, I don’t recommend expressing them by dumping them on the person/s that voted differently. You can share with them that you are feeling upset, angry, or whatever it is, and that their choice impacts you, but that is different than taking it out on them.

I also recommend not doing this alone. Reach out to others who share your beliefs and lean on them for support and as a place to express how you feel. However, again be careful of the pull to put the politically divided family member/s down and make them bad. Stick with your own feelings and allow them to flow. Do the things that you know help you express and feel. You may want to write, to play music, to make art, to go for a run, or sit quietly in nature.

If you have a meditation practice, now is a great time to dive in even deeper because it helps you to feel without being overwhelmed by, or too identified with, the feelings. If you don’t, you may want to look into mindfulness meditation to see if it appeals to you. (See my previous post Your Brain on Mindfulness for more information.)

Step Two: Stay in Contact and Listen

Once you feel calm enough to come back into contact with your family member/s without being overwhelmed, it is important to put forth an effort to show a willingness to listen and understand their world. I know that this is far easier said than done—but it’s worth it.

One thing I have noticed since the rise of the terror threat over the last 15 years is that almost no one talks about listening to one another, who these people are, how they came to be, and why terrorism seems like a good option for them. If we do not seek to both emotionally and psychologically understand where the “other” is coming from, then whatever divide and conflict exists will rage on indefinitely.

Your effort to stay in contact with, listen to, and understand the family member/s with different views is actively part of the solution. We are more interconnected than most can fathom and everyone has a piece of the responsibility for the state of affairs the world is in. When we drop our need to feel and be “right” for long enough to deeply listen to the “other” then we come to see that the commonalities that connect us will always be bigger than our differences. You cannot both demonize someone and deeply listen to and understand them, it just can’t happen. This doesn’t mean however that you have to agree with or like any part of their belief system.

In order to be willing to do the hard work of listening we first have to feel our pain. So, if you don’t feel ready to do this then you probably have more to feel. Don’t worry! This is totally fine. In reality it is not a linear process. You will likely have many rounds of feeling, listening to a point, and then needing to feel and express more. The important piece here is to refrain from disconnecting and vilifying, and instead work to humanize by staying open, staying in contact, and listening. What you find may surprise you.

Step Three: Look Within for Common Ground

If you have made an honest attempt to listen deeply, then you probably have some contemplation and soul searching to do. Perhaps you found yourself relating to the other person, if not their beliefs, and maybe even the emotion underneath. You may find yourself challenged and confused by the fact that you love and care for this person but do not agree with them in areas that feel important and deeply personal.

The things that you disagree on may seem irreconcilable and facing them may bring up feelings of hopelessness or anger, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop loving them or make them bad. Now is a time to look within for common ground. Pay special attention and note what you do share. Maybe it’s as small as a mutual love for pumpkin pie. It really doesn’t matter where you start; just start somewhere. We are human first, and unless we start to realize this person by person, family by family, and community by community, we will never reach a global sense of citizenship, which is vital to all of us coming together to solve the real problems humanity faces.

Step Four: Cultivate Kindness and Compassion

Having a family member or even close friend who voted differently than you and whose worldview likely differs drastically from yours is not easy! You must pay special attention to taking care of yourself right now. I suggest by starting with being generous with yourself through cultivating kindness and compassion.

Compassion begins with acceptance. Only when we accept what is are we able to move forward (this is why step one is all about feeling your feelings). The next time you realize you are struggling with the thoughts and feelings associated with this family member/s simply pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and with the out-breath see if in some small way you can let go of your sense of struggle or resistance. In that moment say, “I accept my experience as it is no matter how much it hurts.”

This doesn’t mean you have to like it or want it to stay this way forever. If you are feeling daring you can also try to extend this generosity to the family member/s by saying, “I accept this person as they are no matter how much I may disagree with them.”

Then, if you have a few minutes, you can practice maitri, or loving-kindness meditation, by sitting down, placing one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly and repeating these four age-old phrases either out loud or in your mind:

“May I be happy.”
“May I be healthy.”
“May I be free from suffering.”
“May I live with ease.”

Keep breathing and repeating these phrases. Stay with it for a few minutes. You may be surprised by what happens. If you find phrases that fit better for cultivating the experience of compassion, such as “May I be joyful” then feel free to change them.

Then, as you walk through your life keep compassion alive by being kind and generous to others. Little things like holding doors, giving money or food to someone in need, smiling at strangers, all have an impact on how we feel about ourselves and serve to keep our hearts open and shift our worldview toward one of connection and love over hate and separation. We all have the innate capacity to be compassionate with ourselves and with others. However, we often have to consciously work to remind ourselves of this ability and to strengthen our tendency to lean into it through cultivation and practice.

Step Five: Take Positive Action on Your Beliefs

If we are feeling our feelings, listening and attempting to understand the other’s perspective, looking within for common ground and cultivating kindness, compassion and generosity, then we are able to take what the Buddhists call right action. Action completes the cycle. We must feel like we are acting positively on what matters to us and taking part in making the world a better place, even if just one small step at a time. However, to be effective it has to come from your heart.

Right action is essentially acting from our hearts out of a place of kindness and generosity without harming self, other, or the world around us. When we act from kindness, compassion and love, whatever we choose to do has a positive impact. Inversely, when we act out of hate and hurt, no matter how lofty our stated intentions, our actions will in some way have a harmful effect.

This does not mean that hurt and anger do not have a healthy place in taking action. In its purest form anger is the desire to protect and fight for what is right, but for right action to take place it must be an open hearted anger, an anger at the act of injustice and not at the actor. To do this, feel the hurt deeply and let it open you up. In this way we can take right action and fight for what we believe in and do our part in creating a world in which we would like our children to live.

Tackling the National Divide One Step at a Time

This post was about politically divided families and the individuals that make up those families. However, our country is made up families that make up politically divided communities, cities, and states. Everything stated here also applies at all levels.

If you find yourself fortunate enough not to live within a politically divided family then I encourage you to make every effort to reach out to someone who is and provide them with support and compassion. I also encourage you to take these five steps to heart and instead of vilifying and demonizing individuals on social media or otherwise, who may have different views, try to reach out, listen and understand with compassion.

By all means, be enraged by viewpoints you don’t agree with and that you feel are hurtful, but don’t mistake the belief for the individual, the act for the person. Behind every belief is another human being who is likely hurting just like you. They may not be aware of it, or willing to admit it, but they are. Please fight against the injustice in the world, but make sure to do so with an open heart. Only then will we be able to make progress healing the wounds of a divided family and a divided nation to create lasting positive change.

If after applying these steps you still find yourself struggling to cope within your politically divided family or relationship, it may be time to look for outside support. Individual and couples counseling can help tremendously in times of conflict, and getting support in feeling difficult emotions and relating to others who you deeply disagree with is sometimes necessary. If you find yourself struggling I encourage you to reach out and get the support you need in this difficult time.




Author: Dan Entmacher

Image: SNL

Editor: Travis May

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