Rescuing Election-damaged Relationships
The aftermath of this presidential election looks like the house party from hell. What a mess we’ve made, with stand-offs between former friends, newly invisible neighbors, and dismayed family members—a win/loss line drawn with exacting resolve between Us and Them—with many of us silently thankful that a horrifying pandemic will at least excuse us from holiday gatherings with familiar faces we no longer recognize.
With our contentious national divorce now a matter of global record, at times it seems our biggest commonalities are fear, pain, and embarrassment.
How then, do we begin to rebuild and restore the damaged relationships we cannot—must not—release? Those who remain part of our lives, even if pushed to awkward corners? Our partners and spouses; friends, parents, and children; our neighbors and co-workers; the fellow human beings in our daily or weekly orbit?
1) Understand the other factors already at play.
- COVID19. This year of broken routines, cancelled plans, relentless stress, and persistent ambiguity stole our usual release valves, and with them, precious opportunities to reset. With our bandwidth and focus narrowed to a heavy diet of social media, news, and health alerts, none of us are operating at our best.
- Existing Issue of Loneliness. Widespread disconnection already plagued us, and unstemmed loneliness changes how we perceive and process information about our world, impacting our approach and response to others. Neutral skews to the negative, and we grow more defensive.
- Digital Divide. Our reliance on emojis, texting, emails, and social media —absent the visual and vocal cues of expression, tone and nuance—downgrades conversation to spotty communication. Add to this the “opportunity clutter” of unsortable digital information and entertainment options, infinite email, and our on-demand lifestyles where smart phones prop the door to data permanently ajar, and it’s no wonder attention, patience, and critical thinking skills often run short.
Give extra grace for emotional exhaustion.
2) Go slowly. View encounters as an acclimation process. A big relationship rift won’t be fixed by a single conversation. Instead, lay down the first layers of respectful civility. Comedian Craig Ferguson has shared this tiered evaluation that tends to prevent saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Does it need to be said?
Does it need to be said by me?
Does it need to be said by me NOW?
3) Recognize the impact of disparate life experiences. Resist the urges to fill in missing information, ascribe motives, or label. Similar and even same values will be weighted according to our personal histories and understandings. Just as your life goals, painful losses, fears, and long-held desires guide your choices, so are others led by their own. Aren’t you doing your best? Elevate others to the same tier.
The only mind you can read is your own.
4) Remember what you still share. Guide the relationship back to commonalities by indulging in happier, pre-2020 memories. If physically together, choose activities where conversation can be light or with an outside focus. Consider building in a new direction by volunteering for a mutually valued cause. Food insecurity is a significant issue in many communities. Perhaps, together, you can make a positive difference in the lives of others
Focus on one simple message: “I still care.”
5) Be in charge of your responses. Remember who You are. Eliminate context as an excuse. Would your responses stand alone as an accurate picture of whom you aspire to be? Choose your actions and words independent of others’ behaviors. Stay true to your own character in all situations.
Be who You want to be.
6) Embrace the value of difference. Even with Google magic, our accrual of knowledge and experience is limited to a single lifetime. We miss details that others notice and vice versa. Alternate perspectives can be illuminating and help us fine-tune to better solutions. Be aware of your facial expressions and make eye contact. Listen to learn.
Prioritize understanding over agreement.
7) Redefine relationships as needed. Do you seek intimacy –or to simply “get along” in deference to work, neighborhood, or family obligations? Are you sure? Conflict will often clarify a relationship’s true value in one direction or another. Lower your expectations to “kindness” and “respect” and give the same. Focus on the heart connections first. Be ready to “step over” what cannot be immediately worked through to create space for future evaluation and healing.
Dealing with conflict is stressful, but ignoring it is worse. We need meaningful connection to thrive as human beings and civility to live in peace. It must begin one-to-one before it can bloom into a positive community-spread.
Our differences aren’t new, just newly illuminated. Look for bridges and begin building them. And maybe, when it’s safe to hug again, we’ll feel more like embracing what we share, ready to learn from our differences.
Heather Dugan is the award-winning author of The Friendship Upgrade. She is an engaging speaker, a veteran television and radio host and the founder of Cabernet Coaches®, an “all ages, all stages” group for women that fosters self-betterment through face-to-face friendships and social connection.
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