Don't Let Politics Ruin Your Relationships
Many of my clients in private practice occupy that strange phase of life known as the late teens. One of the first things I do when they turn 18 is to hand them a brochure for Project Vote Smart (www.votesmart.org). It's an organization which provides unbiased and thorough information on candidates' and sitting politicians' positions on a wide variety of issues. Usually, my clients just give me a funny look. After all, on your average 18 year-old's “To Do” list, politics comes in just south of “start flossing.”
But these are highly charged times, politically. I have seen more than one relationship slam hard into a brick wall of opposing political views, and there doesn't seem to be a proper air bag in sight. Take Health Care (please!). If you support the current Health Care Reform, be prepared for someone to accuse you of being a Socialist who wants to mortgage your grandchildren's future. If you oppose it, someone will accuse you of wanting poor people to die. Tends to make rather awkward affairs of family dinners!
But it doesn't have to be that way. One of the things I do as a psychologist is to understand, from the inside, how people put their worlds together, how they make sense of things, and how that sense leads them to make the choices they do. This is not a magical ability which only therapists possess. Much of it is a simple matter of asking questions.
The next time someone endorses a political position with which you disagree, take a moment and catch yourself in the act of assuming things about that position...or, worse, about that someone as a human being. Note the flood of images and adjectives which rush into your head (“Greedy Fascist;” “Fuzzy-Headed Hippie;” “Just A Kid...”). You know what I'm talking about.
Stop yourself. Ask them to help you understand their reasons for believing what they do. Listen as they lay those reasons out. Don't interrupt, even if you have the Perfect Argument for why they're Dead Wrong. Take the time to summarize what they've said, and wait to see if you've got it right. Then summarize your position, and politely ask that they extend you the same courtesy. Don't expect to change their mind, and try not to be defensive if they seem to be out to change yours.
Remember the overall context of your relationship with the person. Ask yourself if the fact that you sit on opposite sides of a given fence is a good enough reason to torch both properties. When all else fails, be prepared to Agree To Disagree.
After all, we're all alone behind that voting-booth curtain. No sense being just as lonely everywhere else!