Do any of these comments sound familiar to you?
- “My granddaughter came home from summer camp saying things that were so against the values we’ve given her. I’m afraid to bring this up to her mom, but it’s gnawing at my insides.”
- “I looked across the table and was horrified that my son-in-law supports someone for President that I thoroughly detest. Family get-togethers haven’t felt the same since we clashed about our political differences.”
- “My family used to have fun conversations at holiday meals. But lately, there’s been a lot of disagreements about our different ways of practicing religion. It’s starting to drive a wedge between us.”
If your family is among the millions that are having painful disagreements about politics or religion, what can be done to restore the civility and the sense of family teamwork even when you have opposing views? Can you still love each other despite the fact that you sometimes cringe when certain family members start spouting ideas that make your skin crawl?
While researching my new book, We See It So Differently, I found that even in the best of families, these past few years have been extremely tense and challenging as our country has become more polarized and volatile. Here are three ways to rebuild peace and family closeness in 2020.
1. Listen with an open heart to the underlying pain and vulnerability that is often behind someone’s preachiness or extreme views.
Quite often the family member who sounds like a bossy extremist is actually a fragile soul who has felt isolated or disrespected (either recently or long ago). Even if you don’t agree with his or her ideas about politics or religion, can you look deeper into this person’s soul or essence to see the unique individual that is longing to be heard and understood? The next time you have a phone call or family get-together with this person, ask yourself, “Can I see beyond the differences and instead reconnect with the fact that we are family, we care about each other, and we need each other in so many ways?”
2. Set guidelines for civility and mutual respect at family gatherings.
For a family holiday meal, a visit, or a phone call to go well, there needs to be some planning ahead of time about, “What are we going to do to make sure our differences of opinion don’t drive a wedge between us.” One option that many families use is, “Let’s avoid discussing politics or religion with each other because it tends to get us all agitated and self-righteous.” Instead, these families make sure to focus on gratitude, being supportive of the kids and grandkids, and what they appreciate about one another rather than where they see things differently.
Another option practiced by some families is to discuss ahead of time a “No Snark” or “No Negativity” rule for the family gathering. This means that each person can say something positive or supportive of their own spiritual, religious, or political ideas and activities, but no one is allowed to say anything sarcastic, snarky, or critical of someone else’s views or practices. If someone starts to break this rule, then the most respected family member is assigned ahead of time to be the one to tap his or her water glass with a spoon and say, “Time out. We’ve agreed to say positive things about our own ideas, but no one is going to say anything harsh or negative about someone else’s ideas. We need this to be a safe and supportive place for all of us to be who we are, even if we are each very unique and different.”
3. Find and focus on the teamwork you need as a family and how to build bridges rather than walls.
As you think about each of the people who will be at a family gathering, or that you will be talking with on the phone, ask yourself, “What is something that this person and I can do together that would bring us closer, even though we are so different from each other in certain ways.” Maybe the two of you will plan or cook the shared meal with excellent teamwork. Or you and this person who has sometimes been your adversary in heated conversations can wash dishes together or take turns reading books to a grandchild and feel a sense of teamwork and accomplishment. Or help arrange for your grandkids to do a skit, a song, or an art project. By working together as family members who love one another (rather than as adversaries in a closed-minded debate), you can rebuild the sense of teamwork and closeness that your family desperately needs.
As one of my counseling clients said to me recently, “I’m so glad that I haven’t alienated my daughter and my son-in-law by getting into political or religious disagreements with them. We used to get bent out of shape each time certain topics came up and it was starting to ruin our family events. But now we just appreciate that we each have a very different way of repairing the world and we don’t turn it into a power struggle over ‘whose way is the one and only correct way.’ So our get-togethers are much more enjoyable now and I get to spend a lot more quality time with my grandchildren, which makes me extremely happy.”