Disagreements in politics: how to maintain friendships

In this Ask the Therapist column, a community member asks how to keep their social network together despite disagreements on politics.

Dear Dr. Barb:

This political season is tearing my social network apart. I am an autistic adult and I have a relatively small social network of family and a few close friends. I have strong feelings about the current political situation and the presidential race. Members of my social network also have strong opinions and sometimes they are very different from mine. I worry about ruining relationships, but I cannot be dishonest about what I think. Is there an alternative to not speaking to anyone for a couple of months?

-Frustrated with Fighting

Dear Frustrated:

This is a problem that is familiar to many, and for those with small social networks it can be overwhelming. You feel strongly about your values. That’s good! You might feel as if you have to convince your friends and family to agree with you. That can lead to some challenges.

It may help to remember that it can be difficult to change people’s minds when they are strongly committed to an idea and that it is impossible to change people’s minds if you make them feel belittled or threatened. It may help to set some clear yet respectful boundaries with friends and family about what you will discuss and what you won’t. Depending on what you want, those boundaries could be different things.

The strongest boundary you could set would be to ask your family and friends not to discuss politics. You could say something like “I know we have very different opinions about politics, but I love and respect you. Since neither of us is going to change the other’s mind, I will not talk about politics with you.” If people continue to try to talk about these subjects, you can politely (and repeatedly) say “remember I said I will not talk about that.”

You may prefer to have discussions about sensitive topics. If you have people in your network who are truly interested in a respectful conversation, you can ask them to set clear ground rules beforehand. Those might be:

We always will assume the best motivations on the part of the other person. Even when we don’t agree on how to make things better in the world, we can agree that we are both committed to improving the world.
We both will present our information and the reasons behind our choices respectfully without name calling or other belittling words.
We both will listen and try to understand why the other person has come to their conclusion.
We will accept that we may continue to disagree, but that does not mean that we do not value the other person.
I believe that the true strength of our democracy lies in providing a structure in which we can discuss different political ideas without violence and with respect for the legal process of deciding issues. I hope that we can all continue to hold on to the idea that ultimately we are in this together and need to listen to and respect one another.

Good luck, and remember that your network loves and cares for you.

-Dr. Barb

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