We are living in incredibly difficult times. Every day, we face an ongoing onslaught of new stories about violence against Black and brown communities, a global pandemic, its economic fallout, and an election. Our mental health has undoubtedly taken a hit and many of us need more support than ever before.
The challenging circumstances also create contentious debates about the best path forward. We argue whether or not it’s safe to re-open businesses. We argue about police brutality and violence against Black bodies. We are bombarded with election news. And as we know, political issues are also personal issues. This leads to uncomfortable conversations, and sometimes even hostile arguments, in person or online. Among all this unrest, how do we navigate these tough political times with partners who may have different socio-political ideas?
The Importance of Emotional Self-Regulation
One of the most difficult parts about having political conversations is emotional self-regulation. Simply put, it’s difficult to maintain your cool when someone presents a perspective so diametrically opposed to your viewpoint. We get riled up. We are passionate about our beliefs, no matter what they are.
As politics have become increasingly divisive and hostile, so have the conversations on these topics, even between family and loved ones. For example, many of us are talking more about the dynamics of systemic racism and white privilege with our friends and family. Different perspectives and lived experiences (and defensiveness) can lead to large roadblocks in understanding. Being able to regulate your own emotions is an incredibly helpful tool in preventing these conversations from devolving into shouting matches, or worse.
The first skill you need to negotiate these tough conversations is self-awareness and labeling your emotions.
Emotional self-regulation is the process by which we are able to adjust our internal emotional experience and external emotional expression to continue to relate and engage productively. This doesn’t mean that we need to shut down our feelings completely. It means being able to hold space for both our inner emotions and a conversation leading to peace and understanding. Otherwise, we just find ourselves yelling into a void. And if the desire is to maintain intimacy, that simply won’t work.
Have you ever experienced being so emotionally upset that you were unable to actually form coherent thoughts or words? Most of us have! This is your sophisticated brain at work when it perceives a psychological injury. When we are faced with intense emotions we may experience an amygdala hijack which activates our baseline responses such as fight, flight or freeze (or avoid). The amygdala is the part of our brain responsible for our intense emotional reactions. When it is in high gear, we lose the ability to think clearly and logically. Your prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher order thinking and problem solving, isn’t able to function properly. At this point, our emotions are fully in control, hence the term “hijack.” Obviously this doesn’t make a difficult conversation any easier to deal with.
Knowing what your triggers are and having some tools to better manage your responses is essential to communicating more effectively no matter what topic you’re discussing.
Helpful Tips in Self-Regulation
The first skill you need to negotiate these tough conversations is self-awareness and labeling your emotions. By simply naming and temporarily focusing on identifying our emotions, we refocus our brains which gives us an opportunity to engage with more complex and comprehensive brain processes. Saying, “I’m feeling hurt by what you just said” or “I’m really angry right now” ironically often helps defuse rising tension.
Unfortunately, political disagreements may illuminate larger differences in goals in a partnership.
Most of us have heard the cliche advice to “stop and count to 10” when angry. As it turns out, it’s actually sage advice for many situations! One strategy to cope with emotional triggers in a conversation on politics is to simply pause, or halt conversation for a brief moment. Take five seconds before you respond to each question or snipe thrown your way. This moment offers the opportunity to give your emotionally hijacked brain a moment to rest, and then reassess the situation with more clarity. This break-up of momentum can allow for the prefrontal cortex part of your brain (responsible for thought decision-making and problem-solving) to take control and steer the conversation towards mutual goals and rational problem-solving.
What These Points of Difference May Highlight
We can work through many points of conflict by practicing active listening and compassion. Unfortunately, political disagreements may illuminate larger differences in goals in a partnership.
Marital conflict research has found that it is incredibly important for couples to be aligned on their personal goals. That is, for greater relationship satisfaction partners should have similar ideas for longterm goals, like what their families and careers will look like, where you want to live, and what kind of daily lifestyle is important to you. You may also want to explore your values, like how aligned you are on the current anti-racism efforts or public health and governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That being said, it’s highly unlikely that you are 100% aligned on your goals with your partner. In periods of relationship distress, these differences in goals and values often become more pronounced. Such a mismatch can lead to more destructive conversations, resentment and even an erosion of the positive benefits of the relationship over time. As such, it is important for couples to decide the extent to which these differences are able to be worked through (and able to reach an agreeable goal) or represent too large a chasm for the relationship to overcome altogether.
Reaching Peaceful Understanding
Navigating differences is the toughest part of existing in any relationship, whether that be with a partner, friend, loved one, or colleague. We have needs for social contact and intimacy and when we experience relationship discord on political issues, it can feel very distressing. But that doesn’t mean the relationship has to end.
By simply existing as who we are, with our own thoughts and values, we experience disagreement as we invite others into our lives. This is perfectly normal. Intimacy is a process of coming together, a convergence of sorts, that we all must find ways to navigate with compassion, humility, and grace. Being able to have honest and authentic conversations with our partners and truly listening to understand is how we ultimately reach peace.
By exploring these tough ideas and feelings with curiosity, we create the opportunity not just for tolerance, but for actual increased nuance and authentic intimacy. After all, we all seek to be seen, heard, and understood. These are the foundations by which we feel respected and loved.
By listening openly to understand, we not only sustain these connections but ensure that we maintain a loving relationship and have a healthy chance of growing together in peace.