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Politics and conspiracy theories are fracturing relationships. Here’s how to grieve those broken bonds.

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A friend of mine decided to unfriend his mother on social media after seeing her reaction to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Another friend blocked her niece, whose routine ranting had crossed the line into shaming and bullying anyone who voted for the other party. Once-tight siblings I know now feel distant and guarded, their worldviews suddenly so opposed that they can’t even agree on what constitutes a fact. Old friends who never seemed to care about politics now seem ready to rain blows on those who disagree with their radical views. Extremism is tearing families apart.

If any of your relationships have ended because of differences over political beliefs or your stance on masks, anti-racism protests or conspiracy theories, you may be struggling to name the sense of loss and grief you are feeling. Pauline Boss, a researcher and family therapist who has spent the past four decades studying this kind of relational stress, has coined a term for it: ambiguous loss.

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Boss, a professor emeritus in the family social science department at the University of Minnesota, defines this as an unresolved loss where someone is both present and absent at the same time. It can apply to either a physical loss (e.g., a missing person) or a psychological one (e.g., dementia or addiction).

Relationships ruptured by conflicting political beliefs and value systems fall into the category of psychological ambiguous loss, Boss said. “We’re in the room together, but we disagree vehemently. And, of course, the other person may think we’re psychologically lost to them.” She has seen these splits happen between couples, between parents and children, and even within communities, and she has written about such family dynamics in her forthcoming book, “The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic.”

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Ambiguous loss is not only difficult to define, but it’s also difficult to live with. As a culture, we don’t seem to recognize the loss of intimacy or closeness in a relationship as legitimate grief. When most people think about grief, “they go immediately to bereavement loss,” said Litsa Williams, a licensed clinical social worker and co-founder of the online support community What’s Your Grief. Although there are established traditions and support systems for helping someone through a death, relationship losses can be difficult to accept and process because our “lost” loved one is still alive.

“It’s really challenging to grieve living people,” said Nedra Tawwab, a therapist, content creator and author of “Set Boundaries, Find Peace.” This is especially true for people you once were close to or looked up to, who may now be engaging in behaviors that conflict with your values. 

Ambiguous loss therefore can linger, unresolved, freezing us in the grieving process and perhaps leaving us wondering whether we can reconcile, or whether our loved ones will ever revert to the way they were. Such uncertainty generates stress, Boss said, and “coping with stress, coping with ambiguity, is especially hard.”

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As if the lost connection and continuing stress weren’t enough, we also may begin to question our judgment when it comes to relationships, Williams said. She said we may think: “I can’t fit this into the person I thought you were, so does that mean you were never the person I thought you were? Or does it mean something has changed?” This challenges our notion that we can sense when someone is not on the same page as us, she added. “It can be really destabilizing.”

But it doesn’t have to be. Once you understand that what you’re feeling is ambiguous loss, you can take steps and develop skills that not only will help you cope, but will also help you maintain your well-being in this time of polarized politics, alternate realities and rampant radicalization. Here are the actions the experts I interviewed recommended:

Acknowledge your grief. If you didn’t understand that it’s natural to grieve non-death losses, such as the end of a relationship, you’re not alone. Our culture holds a narrow view of what qualifies as worthy of grief, and we tend to minimize our pain by comparing it to others who may have lost a loved one to death and appear to “have it worse.” Nevertheless, we are always entitled to our emotions, Williams said. The feeling of losing something or somebody that you may never get back is grief. Naming and validating it is a crucial first step.

Let yourself mourn. Grief is our natural emotional response to loss, so allow yourself to feel it — and any other emotions that may arise. Despite the ubiquity of the “stages of grief” model, there is no right way to grieve, no timeline to follow and no phase you must complete. Grieving takes time. The ongoing nature of ambiguous loss can be especially challenging, Williams said, and the grief may always be with you in some way. There will be hard days and recurring struggles, and you should give yourself space for them, she said.

Cherish your shared past. Experts caution against negating the history you share with an estranged loved one. As with a romantic breakup, it can be easy to reframe the relationship as a total loss or as time wasted, Williams said. You can, however, mourn the devastating loss of closeness and continue to cherish the past you shared. “We can still value the fact that, for many years, this person was a dear friend. And that’s still real, that’s still important, that’s still part of our story.”

Think “both/and.” Although social media allows us to easily unfriend or unfollow someone, closing the door “on a human relationship that has had some closeness at one point in time” isn’t as simple in real life, Boss said. She suggests learning to hold two opposing ideas at the same time — what she calls “both/and” thinking. That might look like: I both disagree with my cousin’s worldview, and I will keep the door open for her.

Boss believes that, over time, it’s possible to reconnect with loved ones we fiercely disagree with, though it requires mature mental health. “It can only be done through empathy,” she said, not through absolute “I’m-right-you’re-wrong” thinking.

Establish boundaries. You might not have to completely cut ties with people you disagree with. Establishing boundaries is another way to navigate troubled relationships, Tawwab said. “Ending a relationship on Facebook is not an indicator of the relationship really, truly being over,” she said, “but maybe it is a boundary around our ability to watch people put up certain information.” She advised weighing how the relationship is affecting your mental health. “Do we want to have relationships with people where we can’t be ourselves, where we have to tolerate certain behaviors?” she asked. You are the person establishing your relationships, she said, “so what do you want them to look like?”

Rifts within families prove particularly challenging, Tawwab added. “There is this desire to keep the peace, but you have to figure out what keeping the peace will do to your own personal peace.” She recommends being clear about what you will tolerate; these limits can be spoken, or they can be internal decisions you make about the actions you will take to protect yourself.

Create new hope. Boss emphasized the importance of cultivating resilience and tolerance for uncertainty as part of your healing. One way to practice this, she said, is by creating new hope to replace the hope you’ve lost. In the case of relationships affected by political disagreement, for example, new hope could come from planning to cultivate fresh bonds. You might think, “‘I’m going to keep the door open for my brother, and make some new friends who are like-minded,’” Boss said. Life won’t be the same, she added, but “hopefully, it will be better than it was.”

Schrum is a freelance writer living in Virginia. He holds a master’s degree in counseling and volunteers as a crisis counselor.

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