If you’ve lost friends or family members over political disagreements in the last couple of years, you’re not alone. According to a 2021 study by the American Enterprise Institute, a full 15 percent of adults have ended a friendship over politics.
Lots of other folks have relationships that, while not lost, are definitely on the ropes thanks to political arguments.
So how can you rebuild your relationships with formerly close friends or family who sit across the political aisle? As a 25-year marriage and relationship coach who’s helped couples lower their walls and go from acrimony to harmony, and a former political op-ed writer who manages to maintain close relationships with family and friends on every side of the political debate, we have some ideas.
Tip #1: Talk About Values
Good relationships are built on a bedrock of commonalities; it’s hard to have a relationship with someone with whom you don’t have anything in common. When you’re discussing politics, talking about shared values rather than a specific policy position can help bring these commonalities to the fore…and re-establish a joint connection with each other.
For instance, let’s say that your wife is in favor of subsidies for solar and wind energy. You oppose this policy because you think it’s unfair to entrepreneurs who work in other energy sources (like nuclear) that wouldn’t get similar subsidies. Rather than arguing over President Biden’s latest green energy bill, it might be more useful to highlight how your opposition stems from the value of fairness. Your wife may disagree with you on this particular issue, but many liberal positions (wanting to raise taxes on the 1 percent, for instance) are often also rooted in a desire for fairness.
Highlighting this shared value can help you both become aware of common ground, and even build understanding around policy positions where you disagree.
To be fair, this won’t work for every issue. In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt identifies six core values, or moral foundations, that make up how people think about politics. These are: Care/Harm (wanting to care for people less well off, for example), Fairness/Cheating (wanting to prevent freeloading and unfair gains), Loyalty/Betrayal (caring for your own community first, and opposing people in your community who don’t care for it), Authority/Subversion (respect for justified authority), Sanctity/Degradation (a focus on cleanliness as a moral component, for example, “My body is a temple”) and Liberty/Oppression (a preference for freedom and a dislike of tyranny, which libertarians are famous for).
Haidt points out that conservative politics tends to tap into all six moral foundations. Liberal politics generally only taps into three (care/harm, fairness/cheating, and tyranny/oppression). Many libertarians (by no means all) care primarily about one.
What does that mean? It means that if your father is liberal and you are heavily patriotic, that may not be a value he’s primed to understand or empathize with.
But, crucially, Haidt points out that most of us do share some core values. Most of us care about fairness, whether it’s lambasting the “ill-gotten” gains of the 1 percent (liberals), criticizing crony capitalists who get rich by seeking favors from Congress (libertarians), or worrying about “welfare queens” who drive cadillacs on the public dime (conservatives). Most of us want to help the poor. And most of us are concerned about government overreach turning into tyranny, even if liberals and conservatives and libertarians tend to worry about that overreach in different areas.
Tip #2: Find Shared Understanding
Good communication is built on understanding and empathizing with each other, even when we disagree.
Here’s one powerful way to do that: when you’re tempted to talk about why you favor or oppose a certain policy, go deeper and talk about why your position is so important to you. What in your life made you care about that position?
For example, one of Julian’s friends disagrees with the vaccine mandate and refuses to get a COVID-19 vaccine. The reason is that her mother was strongly encouraged by her doctor when she was pregnant to take a pill that was later shown to have terrible side effects. If her mother had taken the doctor’s recommendation, the daughter would have been born very sick and probably not lived to see her first birthday.
This ingrained in her a deep skepticism of new or experimental medicine.
Opening up about why you care about a certain policy can help your partner/friend/sibling/child/parent empathize with your beliefs even if they still disagree. Done reciprocally, this can build understanding and compassion instead of anger and contempt.
This practice also requires humility, because you have to own the fact that you didn’t come to all of your ideas via pure perfect reason. Humility is a powerful antidote to acrimony.
Tip #3: See Your Shared Humanity
Like we said, good relationships are built on a bedrock of commonalities. Ideally, some of those commonalities will come from shared political values and experiences. But if there aren’t any, you can find another kind of commonality in experiences outside of politics.
For example, Julian is in Nairobi serving nonprofits, and one of his friends is a Trump supporter who tutors inner-city children. Whenever Julian is tempted to see his friend as alien because of their politics, he reminds himself that they actually have a lot in common outside of politics: in this case, a shared passion for taking action to help disadvantaged people.
Here’s one reason this is so powerful: as Geoff found in his relationship coaching practice, partisan rancor doesn’t come out of the blue. It’s generally a symptom of deeper conflict.
Commonalities between you and your estranged friend/sibling/spouse/child/parent can form two-by-fours that rebuild the relationship between the two of you on a stronger foundation. This can heal the relationship at its core, rather than just fixing the political symptoms.
Wanting to Change
We’ll conclude with a caveat.
One rule in relationship coaching is that both parties have to want to change. That is, the (perceived) pain of changing has to be outweighed by the pain of the status quo.
If the other person doesn’t want to mend bridges, there is unfortunately very little that you can do.
However, if both of you want to rebuild a healthy and thriving relationship, these tips can help you get there.