How to Keep Your Friends in an Election Year

A month ago, a mothers’ group in Arizona asked me if I could come (via Zoom) and speak 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!”

Then I spent a month contemplating, studying, engaging in strained conversations with my own friends and family, making amends for calling people names, and finally having a tough and tearful conversation with my 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.

This is the most emotionally charged election I have ever lived through (I started voting in second Clinton administration), and the pandemic has split our country over who we should trust to save our lives – and in fact, 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 more than 50% of the friends you went into it with. Even better, that you may come out of this time with a deeper understanding of each other and 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 people are actually 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 saying 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 friends.

Consider: 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 find comfort and self soothe. If you’re hysterical, it’s historical. It also helps us have compassion for other people’s emotional reactions to the news and the main 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!”