Red State, Blue State: 10 Tips for Feuding Families
Avoiding family fights
Although "red state" and "blue state" have become shorthand for particular—and polarized—viewpoints in the United States, the fact is that the dividing line is just as likely to be straight down the middle of the dinner table as it is down the middle of the country.
In fact, some "red state" and "blue state" folks live side by side and actually care about each other—when they're not fighting about politics, religion, or some other hot-button topic.
So how do you make it through that family dinner without pressing those buttons? Here are 10 tips.
It's normal to disagree
It may help to know that arguments aren't necessarily a sign that your family is dysfunctional.
"If you are willing to get into any depth of a relationship with anyone and be genuine, you will eventually run into areas in which the two of you don't see eye to eye," says Simon Rego, PsyD, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center, in the Bronx, N.Y. The same is true, of course, in family relationships, he says. Although there usually is less conflict in superficial relationships, Rego says, "You don't get the richness of human connection."
Don't drink too much
Jennifer S. (not her real name), an editor and mom from New Jersey, learned this lesson the hard way when her liberal family teamed up on her beloved—but conservative—stepdad during a boozy post-9/11 argument that ended with him leaving the house.
She didn't witness the scene, but knew it took a while for the family to heal or even dare to get together. But a recent vacation was a great success, she says, largely because they avoided getting into touchy subjects after having a few drinks.
Recognize your triggers
As you prepare for your next family gathering, think about what's happened in the past, and also about what others do that triggers you to react, says Julie Glovin, a clinical social worker from Worcester, Mass.
"What feelings come up when you get triggered?" Glovin says. "Do you have a history of not being validated in your thoughts? Not heard? What happens to you physically and behaviorally? Does your stomach hurt? Do you want to cry? Do you reach for another glass of wine?"
Identifying your triggers can help you control your anger.
Take a time-out
If you're starting to feel angry or threatened, it's a good idea to take a time-out to collect your thoughts.
"Ideally we give our kids time-outs so they learn to manage their feelings; we need to do the same for ourselves," Glovin says. "Remind yourself that you are an adult and your thoughts are valid."
It's OK to disengage and say, "I don't think this is a good conversation to have—I'm getting too worked up."
Control your reaction
Much as we would like to, we can't control how other people behave—but we can control how we react.
"Family relationships fall back on old habits, so someone might try to goad you by saying, ‘You're too sensitive,'" Glovin says. "Take a moment. Is it true? Do you agree?" If not, recognize that—and that it might be the other person's issue. By reacting differently than you might have in the past, she says, you're changing the family dynamic—and maybe pushing the other person to react differently too.
A person and their politics are not the same thing. "You have to recognize that people are more than their political beliefs," Jennifer says. "They are deserving of respect....It's not that they're Darth Vader, it's just a different perspective."
Don't get caught up in thinking, "they're stubborn or they're racist or they're sexist or they're homophobic or they're so righty or they're so lefty," Rego says. "They get put in a box, so if you're in a different one, you only see difference."
Agree to disagree
Take a look at the dinner-table debate and know that trying to change someone else's mind is pretty much always a lost cause, Glovin says.
"Are people trying to share information to help each other be better informed, or are we trying to change belief systems?" she says. "The latter is futile—and ultimately people are looking for their own beliefs to be validated. Agreeing to disagree can be a way to validate and defuse the situation."
Consider asking someone about how they came to believe what they believe. "If you get curious about how the person developed that view, you can sometimes get engaged in a very positive conversation," Rego says.
Although thinking you can read someone else's mind is a bad idea, trying to put yourself in their shoes can be very productive, he says.
"As much as you're dreading them, chances are they're also dreading you. We could all humble ourselves a bit and not think our way is the right way—just simply a way."
Just don't go there
If you and a family member have had the same argument about the same thing over and over again, asks Carrie McNamara, a consultant and mother of two in the Washington, D.C., area, why have it again?
"I pick and choose what to discuss with my family," says Jim, a New Jersey teacher and father of two. "It is probably not always the best way to go, but I can't argue about everything. I usually let them know how I feel but try not to get pulled into an argument about everything—it's not worth it."
Remember why you're there
Even though they may happen at the same time as election season, family gatherings shouldn't be seen as an opportunity to reenact the latest presidential debate.
"Remember the big-picture goal—to connect with family members," Glovin says. "We choose our friends; we don't choose our family members, but have to learn to live with them through acceptance. It is actually a great lesson to teach our children—that we can love yet disagree."