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Dear PoPville – Advice for Dealing with a Family Divided by Politics?

by Prince Of Petworth November 8, 2012 at 11:00 am 38 Comments

Photo by PoPville flickr user JoshBassettPhotography

Dear PoPville,

Is there therapy for families with differing political views? Don’t laugh – I’m actually serious. Does anyone have sincere advice for how to handle tensions in a family that’s divided on party lines? My situation is this: my mother is a Republican, while my father, siblings, and I are Democrats. Many of us even worked or volunteered for one or both of Obama’s campaigns. Over the years, it’s gotten harder and harder to even have a discussion with my mother about politics. Four years ago, we engaged in spirited discussions in which one or both sides would eventually get angry, but at least we tried to air out the issues. This time around, no matter how hard I try to be calm and respectful, she gets defensive, angry, and shuts down. I have also tried avoiding the topic altogether, but she often brings it up herself, plus it makes me sad to just give up. If we can’t make it work in our family, what hope is there for Congress to talk frankly with one another?

I would love to have lively debates and agree to disagree, but it just feels impossible. If we didn’t get a reprieve from the election cycle, I really feel it might destroy the family. What do I do?

  • fellowpetworthian

    I would suggest downloading this past weekend’s This American Life from NPR. It is all about this issue.

    • Meg

      I was just going to say this.

      Also, you know she’s going to disagree with you. You can be the adult and change the subject or walk away from the discussion. If a relationship falls apart because of politics, you have no one but yourself to blame.

    • Caroline

      Ha, I was going to say that too. They even talk about a book that might be helpful in your situation.

    • Anonymous

      This was my immediate thought. The book they discussed (You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong) has strategies for how to talk about these issues with people who disagree. Their basic point is that you have to put aside your desire to persuade the other person of your beliefs and focus on understanding their viewpoint and how it leads them to their own beliefs. I thought it was a really worthwhile interview: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/478/red-state-blue-state

      • Matt

        Love that this was the first response. I only opened this because I had the exact same thought.

  • djdc
  • PolicyGeekette

    Dear Poster – Trust me. You are not alone at all in this issue. I am confident that most families have the same problem – including mine. I had to defriend my brother/sister on FB (which was the BEST decision) because it was really difficult for me to handle all their political postings. I have worked in politics/policy for the last 25 years so I live this every day. I explained to them why I did it. We still talk periodically, but our relationships are definitely strained but I was personally insulted by each comment – especially since I financially support one of my siblings!

  • md

    POP: Love the picture you posted for this!

  • KMB

    I’m assuming she’s a loving, caring mother and this is your one issue, so even though it “makes you sad to just give up,” wouldn’t it make you more sad to lose an (otherwise) good relationship with your mother? I would just be mature, even when she won’t, and walk away/change the subject.

  • DJ

    Strike a deal. Offer to pay her cable/satellite bill each month so long as the package doesn’t include Fox News.

    Done and done.

  • BEST ADVICE FOR VISITING FAMILY ON HOLIDAYS: Stay in a hotel. That way you can take part in family affairs but then go back to your own room at night and regroup. Works very well and I wish I had done it sooner.

    • hotel. this is truly good advice. in fact my therapist recommended it to me for the upcoming holiday season. BUT, how do i tell my parents this without hurting their feelings??

  • I propose that you and your family just don’t talk about politics. If you really can’t find anything else to talk about then you probably should not spend time together in the first place.

  • Dupontdweller

    I have the same problem with an in-law, in the sense that they want to bring it up a lot but get very emotional and argumentative about it. I refuse to engage most of the time. My only allowances for speaking up is when things get bigoted or super-biased. I then remind her that she is getting aggressive towards my family and friends and that I will leave if she continues. You have to be firm and stand your ground without engaging in any debates. You will NOT be able to change the way she thinks through debate. You WILL be able to change the way she respects your personal political beliefs if you don’t allow yourself to get wrapped up in debates with her to the point she gets emotional. Don’t think of it as “giving up” because you’re not giving up. Your actions speak louder than words. What matters is that you vote for your beliefs. If you are a person of character who has an educated opinion about a political party, it doesn’t matter that your mother disagrees with you. She may have similarly valid opinions but is unable to voice them as successfully as you before emotions take over. Even if she gets incredibly upset, I bet she’s proud of her kid that can so easily articulate his/her stance. Draw a line in the sand about what you will and will not discuss as a family, and stand by it. Good luck and chin up! (If all else fails, I agree with the cable package sans FOX News!)

  • My brother in law and I disagree on a number of issues that I feel strongly about. We’ve talked about them, realize we will never see eye to eye on them, and now we just don’t discuss them. Other than his idiot views on these issues :) he’s awesome and I love him, so it’s worth it to me to just not bring them up.

    I was always taught that you don’t bring up politics, religion, or money in polite conversation and I find that it’s a wise rule to adhere to.

  • Anonymous

    I have a great relationship with my conservative parents, because we don’t talk politics, at all.

  • Blingg

    What about Co-Workers…Yeah I know politics have NO place in the office, but the day after elections my co-worker came in and did not acknowledge me(black/democrat). Everyday we all greet each other. How can I even respect him after that. Shows that possibly there are deep rooted issues there.

    • Anonymous

      check yourself. that’s a bold assumption you’ve made based on your co-worker’s race.

      maybe they were just hungover like the rest of the people in this city…

      • Anonymous

        yay for assumptions!

      • Blingg

        I’m not making this up…He is mormon and don’t drink. He was visibly upset about the outcome and this was noticed by other co-workers(whom are white) but I was the only not greeted/acknowledge. So thanks for your assumptions buddy!

        • Anonymous

          Anyone would expect that a person was unhappy with the result of the election if they clearly affiliated with the losing party. Your definition of this normal behavior as being part of ‘deep seeded’ issues related to race is absurd in the given context.

          • Disagree

            Actually, I have to say that I’ve witnessed the same types of behaviors myself. I think that this anger is starting to show it’s true roots.

          • Anonymous

            Obviously, I can’t speak to Blingg’s specific situation and the psychology of those co-workers, but given the incidents that happened post-Obama victory at a couple of college campuses (small groups of students hurling items and racial epithets at a minority student organization’s building), the notion of racially-motivated vitriol and hostility is not entirely farfetched. I think–or at least, I hope–that those types of incidents were few and far between, but the point is, there IS some of that anger out there.

    • Anonymous

      I think there are deep rooted issues. I experienced something similar in my office.

    • Anonymous

      Deep seeded issues like his guy lost and he’s still bitter about it the next day and wasn’t friendly. Especially if you are gloating about the win (blatently or not) he might just need some “me” time. Everyone is going to forget about it in a week anyway with the next news cycle.

  • BinDC

    As hard as it might be, don’t engage with your mother when she brings up a politically charged issue. My political views tend to be of the socially liberal and economic conservative variety, which means that my family members and close friends who are super hardcore Democrats or Republicans often say things that I find truly, mind-blowingly ignorant. I just don’t engage them. I know it’s difficult, because the knee-jerk reaction is to respond to whatever your mom says, especially if it’s something you disagree with or something you think is just a complete fabrication. But I’ve found that my relationships with my family and my friends, particularly the ones who are a little more extreme, are better if I just don’t say anything and then change the subject to something non-political.

    Also, I try to put myself in other people’s shoes to understand where they’re coming from in regards to what they say. Sure, some people are just jerks, but I bet your mom probably isn’t. Most likely, she’s not saying things to get a rise out of you. It’s probably just something she says offhand because that’s genuinely how she feels and she may be worried about you and your future, based on her political views. That may not make it any easier to hold your tongue when she says something you strongly disagree with or think is flat-out wrong, but it may make it easier to deal with it if you feel like it’s coming from a place of concern and love.

    Also, if she’s a Republican surrounded by Democrats all these years, your mother probably feels like she’s being “attacked” at many family events. That may not be a fair assessment, since as you said, you just want to engage in spirited discussions, but again, putting yourself in your mother’s shoes, that may be how she feels. Whereas you may feel like talking about politics is fun and something you want to do at family gatherings, as you’re surrounded by your father and other siblings who think the same way you do, your mother may feel otherwise.

    • OP

      You’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s not that I don’t understand her point of view – I’ve put myself in her shoes and while I don’t agree with her, I’m more than happy to agree to disagree – or not engage at all. But she really and truly believes we are all hopelessly lost and feels like she’s failed us as a parent when she can’t make us change our minds. I think you’re also right that she feels “attacked” and alone. So even if we decline to engage in the conversation, she feels no better. As some others have said, I can be the “adult” and walk away, but I still feel sad for her.

      • BinDC

        Well, that is very sad that your mom thinks she’s failed you or that you’re all hopelessly lost. It would be nice if she could at least acknowledge that she hasn’t failed as a parent and that she doesn’t think you’re lost just because you have different political views.

        What about your dad? Totally none of my business, so please feel free to ignore me, but from your post it sounds like your parents are still together. If that’s the case, how has your dad dealt with your mom over the years? Even though I’m sure you and your dad and your siblings have probably talked about this among yourselves before, I wondered if maybe your dad had some special insight into how to deal with your mom, given that (assuming they’re still together) he’s been disagreeing with her politically for much longer than you have.

  • Change the subject.
    Talk about sex, money or religion instead.

  • Anonymous

    Lots of good advice posted already. But I don’t think that needing to avoid political topics within a family has much to do with dialogue in Congress, etc. For those people it’s a job (albeit one that they may feel very strongly about), and they have a different stake in the individual relationships involved than you do with your mom or other family members. For a member of congress to avoid potentially antagonistic conversations because they will disagree is irresponsible; within a family it may be necessary.

  • Anonymous

    Pretend like you’re commenting in PoPville, state your perspective and either choose to defend your point to the end or agree to disagree. Seriously, though, it’s possible that your mother feels “alone” in her pov since you say everyone else in the family is a Dem. You all know how the other will think on x topic, so why need to hash it out. Unless there is a *new* topic and you are genuinely curious as to her perspective on it. Why is it important for you to have these spirited discussions? Are you trying to convince her to the other side? It looks like that she is living in a family of Dems, if she wanted to change her mind, she probably would have by now. I hope that wouldn’t be the intent of these spirited discussions. Why not take the energy that you would put into a spirited discussion into valuing your mother’s opinion, even with it being different from your own, and loving her for who she is and what she believes. She probably is a good mother who did well by you in terms of having a child who is intelligent and thoughtful. Why not show some or extend some thoughtfulness to her opinions. Best of luck to you.

  • Anonymous

    If you think your mom might be trying to persuade you to her side of the aisle, an easy response might be something like this: In a few years or xx number of years, I might move towards that way of thinking about y issue. Right now this is what I believe but my experiences may change my perspective down the road. I don’t know how old the OP is (not asking, it’s a rhetorical statement) but they say that as you get older, your political views may become more middle of the road. Anyway, the response is a little cheeky and a little true.

  • for a long time I would just freeze up (in shock) when my parents or sister said something outrageous, now I’m pretty good at changing the subject quickly. Unfortunately, there aren’t many ‘safe’ topics, so the relationship isn’t that deep, which sucks (i used to fall back on the weather, but since they are climate change deniers, those are tricky waters too. it’s truly draining). i see a therapist to help me deal with being a stranger (and unable to be my true self) in my own family.

  • Ronald

    Turn off cable news.

  • I used to have this issue with my dad, who is among the Fox news audience; I just learned to kind of nod my head until the subject changed. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that you don’t have to speak just because someone is wrong.

  • elmopancakes

    I have the same issue with my boyfriend. However, I vote Republican and he votes Democrat. Politics are not a topic we usually discuss – but he always has to work them into pretty much everything.

  • same here

    My parents marriage goes through a crisis every four years and they are suffering that fall out now; Mom is doing a victory dance, Dad is weeping for the future. Also, my brothers and I are a total ‘hand that rocks the cradle’ example so we are gleefully sharing in Mom’s celebration.

    My parents used to be able to have a lively debate, huff and puff under their respective breaths and then shrug it off in about 30 minutes but the Bush administration changed everything. They can’t even watch the news in the same room and anymore; Dad takes the TV in the bedroom, Mom takes the TV in the living room. The fact that they live in a battle ground state doesn’t exactly help temper their passions, either.

    As for us kids, we only discuss politics with Mom and amongst each other in an effort to avoid rubbing it in with Dad. He also doesn’t angle for a fight by bringing up issues and frankly, I think he’s just sick of hearing his pinko-commie loved ones whip themselves into a frenzy over this issue or that. So fine. We love each other but we are very selective about what comes up in family conversations these days. The good thing is that the respect goes both ways; no rubbing it in and no bating really works for a house divided.


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