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How to Keep Your Friends in a Polarized World

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

A month ago, a mothers’ group in Arizona asked me if I could speak via Zoom on navigating friendships with people of differing political beliefs. My first instinct was, “Yes! Because that is so needed right now!” My second (after I’d committed to doing it) was, “Crap! I have no idea how to do that!”

I then spent a month contemplating, studying, engaging in strained conversations with my friends, and making amends for calling people names. Finally I had a tough and tearful conversation with one of my very best friends in the universe. At the end of the conversation, I told her about my upcoming talk. She laughed and asked me to please stop taking such tough assignments. I showed up at her house with a bouquet of flowers adorned with an American flag and white flag of surrender. Then I logged onto Zoom and delivered my message to the Arizona moms. From what I can tell, it was well-received. No one threw bottles or un-followed me on Instagram. So, I want to share it with you. The 2020 election was the most emotionally charge one I have lived though. (I started voting in second Clinton administration). Even post-election, the pandemic split our country over who we should trust to save our lives. In fact, we fought over if lives are even at risk! The resulting strain on our friendships is an extreme version of a principle we are often grappling with in our friendships whether we realize it or not: How similar do my friends and I have to be in order to be compatible? And how do I know when’s someone’s issues are extreme enough that I need to exit this relationship? It’s never a good idea to make major decisions in a time of stress – including who you are going to allow in your life in the long run. So, here are some tips for sanity, so you can come out of this election season, the recession, and the pandemic with a least 50% of the friends you went into it with. Even better, I hope you come out of this time with the relational tools to navigate future crises. Take a deep breath, and read on.

1. Recognize first that we are all in crisis and we all need comfort. You’re used to having a bad day and calling your best friend who, odds are, is probably having a good day. But these days, she’s just as overwhelmed as you. How disorienting! So, adjust your expectations about what your friend will be able to offer you before you pick up the phone.

2. Work to understand your own feelings and triggers. The reason we argue about politics is that it touches our deepest moral beliefs as well as our deepest emotions and traumas. Our own stories and experiences with authority (both secular and religious) dictate some of the gut reactions we have to leaders and their ideologies. Meanwhile, many people are saying at the moment, “I don’t want to live in fear,” but what they might really man is, “I don’t want to do things that remind me of what I fear.” So, seek to understand your own emotions before you try to communicate them to your friend.

Which winds you up more? Loss of freedom or loss of safety? Someone speaking plainly (maybe even harshly) or someone who seems to be beating about the bush? A deficiency in compassion or a lack of boundaries? Being able to connect these triggers to personal experience helps us find comfort and self soothe. It also helps us have compassion for other people’s emotional reactions to the news and the primary issues in our culture. 3. Recognize that what you want more in your friendships is not to be right, but to be believed and seen. You can replace “believed” with “validated.” Even when you think you’re trying to convince someone of your more well-informed opinion, what you’re really saying, “See me! Recognize that my experience is valid!” Then, recognize your friends are seeking validation of their personal experience, too. Ask questions about what she is concerned about for herself and her family, or which populations she sees as most vulnerable. See if you can validate her feelings. Don’t get me wrong: One person’s personal experience may not be a good basis for public policy. But unless you and your friends are Senators, you’re not setting public policy while you’re talking on the phone or sitting at the coffee house. There is no danger to the Union to allow her to have her fantasy government wish list based on what is good for her.

4. See your friends as individuals and stop dealing with them in groups or ideologies. Not all Democrats and Republicans are the same! Don't make her responsible for everything her "side" says and believes. 5. Be a name-giver, not a name caller. In the beginning, the first task given to Adam was to name the animals. Naming people is a way of giving dignity. Calling them names takes away their dignity. Jesus said anyone who calls their brother a fool is in danger of judgement because it’s a perversion of our call to love. When you want to name call, find the emotion underneath. Are you afraid, sad? Find comfort. Don’t call people names. 6. Stay off social media as much as you possibly can. Seriously. Remember the good ole days when the worst thing that happened on Facebook was that you logged off feeling jealous of all the fun people were having? Those days are gone. Social media has become an outrage-delivery service. Information is 15-20% more likely to be shared on the internet if it is judgmental or anger-producing. (According to an article about Twitter on Do your best to find reliable and unbiased sources or news instead. My best friend and I found our relationship really improved when our conversations didn’t revolve around what had made us furious on social media that day.

7. Understand that at any given time, half the country doesn't have the man or woman they voted for in the White House. That means, half the country thinks the other half is wrong at any given time -- and in four to eight years, we all switch places. Feeling some humility yet? Consider this: Many people who disagree with you have read the same news articles, watched the same events unfold, and even read the same Bible and have drawn a different, long-considered conclusion. Dignify them. 8. And having considered point seven, set boundaries around words and phrases that are unkind or triggering. Your friend may not fully support her political party, but you pointing out its flaws is kind of like insulting her family; she can talk smack about them, but she doesn’t want an “outsider” to. It’s also okay to make some topics taboo. Make the ground rules clear: Please don’t say “right wing” around me. (Or, Don’t say “liberal.”) Please say “illegal immigrants” rather than “illegals.” "I don’t want to talk about abortion." "Let’s not discuss vaccinations." Then change the subject: "Let’s talk about how your kids are doing. What are your goals at work right now?" And even, for the friendship PhD: "How can I support and comfort you right now?"

9. Take a break. In times of crisis, tighten up your circle so that you can be fed emotionally. If it feels like a battle every time you get on the phone with certain people, don’t get on the phone. You may decide that there are friendships in which you have irreconcilable differences – your morality is just wildly incompatible, or they cannot express humility or play by the above rules. This might be a deal-breaker. But don’t break up today. Give it some time to let the dust, virus and ballots settle. 10. Authentic friendship takes sacrifice. Is this friendship worth enough to you that you can disagree? That you cannot be right? Proverbs 17:17 says, "A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need." Help each other. Be on each other’s side. And show the world that we can not agree and still love each other deeply.

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