Donald Trump is President of the United States in 2019.
Even for non-Americans, that fact can elicit radically different reactions.
In the United States, these opposing, often intense, emotional reactions will poison the Thanksgiving dinner conversations of many family gatherings next month. These conversations will make friends, neighbors, and co-workers angry with each other as we head toward the 2020 presidential election.
And these differences will sometimes cause division between two people who vowed to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. People who share homes, children, bank accounts, and many years of memories.
A reader sent me the following entertaining email, asking me to write about how to prevent political arguments from ruining their marriage:
I’m trying to understand how two people who have been together for 20 years, seemingly very much in love, can communicate with each other with regards to their opinions on political and world affairs.
Example. Taken from a real situation. Summed up:
Spouse brings up any topic in the news (mainstream or otherwise). The other spouse makes a comment on it that the first spouse doesn’t agree with. First spouse flips out. Of course, we’re talking about the politics of today where one person practically thinks [Donald Trump] is the Saviour, while the other one thinks he’s a con artist. One spouse believes in all the conspiracy theories and AJ videos as the be all and end all fact, while the other tries to listen with an open mind until the name calling starts. The latter spouse flips out despite trying not to, then tries to end the conversation because of tensions rising, which then turns into a yelling match between the two. One feels insulted by the hurled adjectives and names called, the other thinks their spouse needs to grow a pair and stop overeating. Feelings get hurt. Things get thrown around. Doors get slammed. People get ignored. Sleep is restless. The next few days are awkward. Finally one spouse apologizes, the other eventually forgives. One spouse says to the other that they are communicating in an overly confrontational manner, the other retorts that the other is being oversensitive. The situation repeats time and time again.
Weirdly, oddly enough, they can also be a very good team, where they talk to each other respectfully and clearly while working on a building/renovation project! I know… renos are usually the killers, but not with this couple.
So can you write something on how to constructively argue, even when there’s no chance they’ll agree on anything, or only on little? In a way that won’t destroy their marriage? Is it even possible?
The Art of Peaceful Relationship-Building Conversation
When I think about how I approach the art of conversation, I think of it in two parts:
This is just what works for me. I’m not going to pretend to understand how much of this is applicable to others, given that everyone has different personalities, beliefs, life experiences, unique emotional make-ups, etc.
Mindset #1 – Respect for Others
First and foremost, if I’m having a conversation with the potential for emotional volatility, then it means I’m probably talking to someone I know pretty well. I don’t often engage in emotionally charged conversations with strangers, but even when I do, I treat them the same.
The No. 1 most-important thing I do to succeed at having peaceful, productive conversations is that I value my relationship with the person I’m talking to more than I value trying to “win” a conversation with them.
If you respect your own beliefs and the image of your moral/intellectual superiority more than you value other people, then you are probably going to have a lot of conflict in your conversations and relationships. I used to believe everything I thought and felt was super-legit, which meant anyone opposing any of my super-legit thoughts and feelings must be wrong. That made me kind-of an asshole, and is ultimately the root cause of my divorce.
Mindset #2 – Humility and Curiosity
I’ve been wrong about so many things in my 40 years, that it’s not all that hard to consider that I might have something to learn from someone else.
EVEN IF they don’t have anything to teach me about the subject matter we’re discussing, it’s still an opportunity for me to leverage curiosity to better understand THEM.
In the context of our romantic relationships and closest interpersonal relationships, demonstrating authentic curiosity about what they believe, what they feel, and why, will almost always increase the connection between the two of you rather than move you further apart.
Mindset #3 – Mutually Arrive at Truth
In the event of a disagreement, instead of two people flexing their imagined superiority over one another, what if both people always worked cooperatively to mutually arrive at truth together?
In instances where things can be proven or tested, why not work together to prove or test ideas? Let the truth win.
And where there is no objective truth, it’s an opportunity to understand how another person can look at the same situation as you and come to a different conclusion. Idea and belief diversity is GOOD. If something you believe is true can’t hold up to honest scrutiny, then—maybe it’s not actually true and it’s time to consider a better belief?
Mindset #4 – If You Were Me, and I Was You, and We Were Them
I used to think the things I believed strongly were conclusions I came to thoughtfully and sensibly, which put me in a perma-mindset to shut myself off from opposing viewpoints.
Which is super-ignorant and bullshitty.
Choose any person in the world. There are more than 7 billion of them. And then go through the following thought exercise asking:
- What if I was born to their parents?
- What if I grew up in the same town, at the same time, around the same people, doing the same things, and being taught all of the same stuff?
- If instead of being born into my life, I was born into theirs, wouldn’t I believe all of the same things they do? Wouldn’t I be saying and doing all of the same things they are?
- In light of that truth, doesn’t acting like all of my shit is better than everyone else’s shit make me a huge dumbass who no emotionally healthy person should want to be around?
You disagree with other people who practice different religions, who vote for different politicians, and who like different kinds of music than you. Sometimes those are strangers.
Sometimes it’s the person you chose to love and honor all the days of your life.
You might think this is extreme, but I don’t (and my opinions are awesome!):
Taken to its logical conclusion, there are only two ways to approach the idea of people believing different things, some of which oppose the beliefs of others.
- A group of people who believe the same stuff bands together, convinces a bunch of other people to join them, and then proceeds to eliminate all of the people who oppose their beliefs through violence, slavery, imprisonment, or oppressive laws. The groups willing to go furthest in their quest for imperialistic dominance over the rest of the world get to make the most rules.
- We all agree that people are going to believe different things—and that it totally makes sense for them to—and then we all choose to not be insufferable cocks about it.
If you and I are having a potentially sensitive conversation, I’m going to prioritize you knowing that I care infinitely more about you, my friend, than I care about convincing you that things I believe are somehow better than things you believe.
My goals are two-fold:
- To understand what you think and feel—and WHY—because understanding that stuff will undoubtedly give me important context that explains how you came to believe something different than I do. Knowing that will make me smarter and wiser, and allow me to know you better.
- To explain what I believe—and WHY—because I’m always confident that I can tell the story of my beliefs in ways that another person can understand. I don’t require that person’s agreement. But I do crave that person’s understanding, and it’s my job to help them understand how or why I might believe something in opposition of something they believe.
Because those are my goals, I don’t use words nor tones of voice that indicate I think they’re pond scum with moronic opinions or that I’m some brilliant idea master who has life all figured out.
I am constantly reassuring throughout a potentially divisive conversation that I’m not arguing against the other person or claiming I know best.
I’m simply trying to effectively explain what I believe and why, trusting that people will sometimes agree with my conclusions. At minimum, they will understand how I arrived at them.
Things get more complicated surrounding topics like religion and politics, which is why they’ve not been considered polite dinner conversation for the entirety of my life.
Religion is a super-belief.
If someone believes in an all-powerful creator, and that there is an ETERNAL afterlife waiting for all of us, and that doing/believing good or correct things will get you to the good place to spend eternity, and that doing/believing bad or incorrect things will result in you being damned to an eternity of painful terror and punishment, then I think it’s sensible for that person to freak the eff out whenever societal conditions threaten the eternal salvation prospects for them and their children.
If you believed unconditionally that certain activities would cause your kids to spend eternity (really think about what that word means) under unimaginably horrible circumstances—then maybe you’d flip shit over things their teachers were teaching them, or about things they see and hear on TV or social media too.
If you spent your entire life being name-called, shunned, judged, mocked, and being told that God HATES you because of who you love and feel naturally attracted to by certain religious groups, maybe it would be really easy to question the goodness of such a group. Maybe it would be really easy to reject ideas they were trying to get everyone to believe, since people who believe those things hurt you, and have always hurt you.
And so we must choose: people or beliefs?
In a life that’s taught me the undeniable value of human connection, I have chosen to value my connections with people over my personal beliefs.
I’ve yet to see that strategy yield poor results.
In the end, some people are going to think Donald Trump is awesome, and some people are going to think he’s a massive d-bag. Others may think he sucks big-time, but still believe he’s the best option for president. And others still may think he’s a rad dude, but that there are better candidates to serve as the U.S. president.
These debates will take place at kitchen tables, on 24/7 cable news shows, around office water coolers, in internet forums, and in a bunch of other places.
When we find ourselves near or involved in one, we can choose to care more about our beliefs, or we can choose to care more about the people with whom we’re discussing those beliefs.
One way breeds conflict and broken relationships. In marriage, it breeds resentment and contributes to divorce.
The other way cultivates peace and brings people closer together. In marriage, it brings couples together and fortifies the love and respect two people have and feel for one another.
Good news—you’re free to choose whichever way you want.