On Opposite Sides: What to Do When It Feels Like You’re Sleeping With the Enemy
Recent events in the United States have given us plenty of opportunities to passionately disagree with each other. In September 2017, those opportunities extended to professional football when the NFL felt compelled to respond to comments by President Trump. The previous season, one player, Colin Kaepernick, demonstrated his frustration with the prevalence of police shootings of unarmed black men by kneeling during the national anthem. At the start of the 2017-18 season, President Trump expressed characteristically belligerent opinions about NFL players and what should happen to them if they chose not to stand. This prompted coordinated responses by multiple teams ranging from not taking the field, to standing arms-locked during the national anthem. The reaction to these events on social media mimicked the passion and vitriol typical of these social and political issues in the U.S. While our opportunities to passionately disagree with each other seem to have increased of late, we don’t necessarily seem to be learning anything about how to disagree productively. But what happens when the person with whom you intensely disagree sleeps in your bed every night? The passion can be intensified when it’s your partner who holds opposite views from your own. I’m talking about the types of issues that divide countries. How do you engage in discussion about those issues without letting it divide your household? Read on to discover five tips for what to do when it feels like you’re sleeping with the enemy.
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How does it happen?
How do you end up in a marriage or long-term committed relationship with someone whose views on certain issues are so opposite yours? How does that even happen? I think it happens several ways. In some cases, couples may not have taken the necessary time to ensure they were making a values-based connection. Between getting caught up in chemistry, or being swept up in the good feelings (happens to the best of us!), they might think they are connected in ways they really aren’t. It’s not surprising, in those cases, to find that three, five, or seven years down the road, you are having deep-seated disagreements about how you view the world, your social values, or your political values – all those areas that can be extremely divisive. It can become particularly impactful when you start having children and the differences in your values are highlighted in your parenting choices. Even if you’ve vetted your values appropriately, human beings are complex. Our values don’t come in a nice tidy package where all our values are neatly aligned with each other. That’s just not the way we’re built. Our values are established in myriad, nuanced ways and we can’t necessarily expect each other to be consistent in that way. The longer you’re together you might learn that your values aren’t totally consistent, and you feel passionately about one area that doesn’t seem to line up with how you feel about other related areas, which is completely fair. You find yourself in a situation where you and your partner intensely disagree in an area that is meaningful to both of you.
Finally, we evolve over time. No matter the stage of life in which you connected, as you continue to live life, as you continue to learn and grow, events impact you in meaningful ways that shift how you think about certain issues. It can be tricky to navigate. You might say things like “we grew apart”. When we don’t allow for our partner’s evolution, relations can get strained. Maybe you felt similarly about an issue when you joined, but over time your views have grown in opposite directions, which is completely fair and reasonable. The question becomes how to navigate those issues that are important and meaningful to each of you where you disagree.
You might have well-developed conflict resolution skills when it comes to negotiating who drops off the kids and who picks them up, who gets a social night out with their friends which day of the week, which side of the family you’ll visit during the holidays, how to keep in-laws from interfering in your family decisions, etc. You may have learned, in your years together, how to navigate conflict and make it all work. However, something can happen when deep-seated values don’t align. It’s different from the frustration stemming from difficulty balancing the division of labor, so to speak. In addition to disagreeing with your partner’s views, you may start to wonder how your partner can see things the way they do. How can your partner not value and agree with this perspective that is so fundamental to who you are as a human being? What does it mean about them that they see this world this way? If you encountered someone outside of your household that felt that way, you refer to them as “those people.” It’s the sort of thing that inspires otherwise civilized human beings act like three-year-olds who can’t share a toy on the playground. In addition to the disagreement, there’s a judgment. Aside from having a judgment about your partner based on these differing views, you may feel disrespected or undervalued. You may find yourself behaving in uncharacteristic ways: yelling, name calling, shaming, condescension, withdrawing or withholding, etc. It’s important to remember, however, that we all have different priorities. As a strengths coach, one of the things that I help people recognize is that their natural talents and the motivations and drives and frustrations associated with those natural talents create a particular perspective, view or lens for the world.
For example, if you are using empathy as a primary way that you navigate the world, what’s important to you might be very different from someone who primarily uses analytical talents to navigate the world. People using analytical talents are skilled at bringing dispassionate thinking to emotional issues. Someone primarily using empathy to navigate the world is going prioritize the emotional aspects and the people associated with those emotions. These are varying skill sets which will have you prioritize different information and elements of a situation. But it says nothing about the quality of your character. Disagreeing respectfully is holding to the idea that we can have different opinions and priorities and still be worthy of love and respect. It’s important to be able to disagree with the content of your partner’s argument without dehumanizing your partner.
Next week, in part two
Disagreeing with your partner on important social issues can take a toll on your relationship. But with the right tools in your toolkit, you can find ways to make peace and love in your household, rather than war. Check back next week for tip number two, seek understanding instead of evidence.