As she prepares to fly to North Carolina for Thanksgiving, Dale Koontz said she knows she will be in the minority. Koontz, 23, a staff assistant at a public-affairs firm in Washington, voted for Hillary Clinton. Everyone at the holiday table will likely be Donald Trump supporters or at least Hillary opponents, she figures.
Although she’s close to her mother, who supported Trump, it took five days after the election for them to talk on the phone, she said.
“We kind of avoided talking about it for the first half of the conversation,” she said. Eventually they found some common ground, both agreeing the anti-Trump protests were “not very useful.” Even so, her strategy is to stay quiet on Thanksgiving if someone brings up the election.
Americans love Thanksgiving, which consistently ranks as the happiest day of the year. But arriving on the heels of a divisive campaign season and a recent election that has many Americans reeling, it’s hard to imagine that this one will live up to its low-stress reputation.
Many are canceling holiday plans because of political differences, and for some of those who will be showing up at celebrations, wariness prevails. Some have decided in advance, like Koontz, to try not to say anything — either to preserve a tenuous family peace or because they are certain whatever they say will be met with an irrational response.
“I don’t like to argue politics, but they bring it up and my conservative beliefs always cause a commotion,” said Marc Foreman, 66, a Trump supporter who will be traveling from Arizona to New York this week to spend the holiday with his liberal in-laws. “I’m not sure how upset they’ll be this year. But the things I’ve seen Clinton supporters say on Facebook, like the world is doomed, I just don’t get. … I can’t win in those situations, so I just try to shut it down.”
Remaining silent or canceling a trip home is, in some cases, a sensible route. “If you are absolutely raw, are going to pieces, don’t trust your family and don’t trust yourself, maybe this isn’t a good time to gamble with your family relationships,” said conflict resolution specialist Andra Medea.
But for those who decide to venture into politically antagonistic territory for the holidays, it’s important to be ready for any scenario, she said. And remember: If the country is ever to come together again, dialogue within families where there is political disagreement will be key. And dialogue doesn’t usually happen overnight, so don’t give up on your relatives just yet.
If it comes up, be prepared to listen
If your family does go there, be ready to allow all family members to have a voice, Medea said. Remember: Listening to understand why people think the way they do doesn’t mean you are agreeing. Focus on asking probing questions when people say things with which you disagree. You will learn more, and perhaps prod them to reflect in a way they hadn’t before.
“On the right, people cannot imagine what the left is so afraid of,” says Medea , the author of “Going Home Without Going Crazy: How to Get Along with Your Parents and Family (Even When They Push Your Buttons).” “For example, everyday, decent people who voted for Donald Trump haven’t witnessed waves of hate crimes close to home. … They might not know Muslims or have friends who are black or gay or have ever experienced discrimination themselves.”
“But die-hard Trump supporters, over these holidays you may notice that your relatives are genuinely afraid. That should concern you,” she said. “You may think there’s no cause for their fear, but try to really listen to them. What they’re saying may sound incoherent – people shaken to the core jump from one thing to another and think in catastrophic terms. It doesn’t mean that these people don’t have something valuable to share.”
Decide on “self-talk” beforehand so you will stay calm
To be able to enjoy the holiday, psychotherapist Dennis Tirch suggests releasing the grip of anger, anxiety and disgust that the election has had on some of us. He says we should slow down during Thanksgiving and realize we are probably not in mortal, physical danger around our relatives and friends.
He also suggests that if yours is a family that flies off the handle in times of conflict, then it’s best to prepare some “self-statements” in advance that you can fall back on internally when things get heated and you feel threatened.
“Imagine a wise, supportive, compassionate person telling you what you’d need to hear to get through,” says Tirch, founder of the Center for Compassion-Focused Therapy in New York City. “They might tell you that your opinions matter or that you don’t need to get sucked into anything. Whatever the statements are, consider putting them somewhere accessible, like in the notes app on your phone.”
Resist the flood
In her book, Medea assures families that conflict itself isn’t a problem. The problem is how those experiencing conflict fight. Healthy conflict solves problems and allows us all to move on. But sniping at one another leaves problems unresolved and some family members too shaken to contribute.
When we become very upset during a conflict, our minds and bodies experience something called “flooding.” Flooding is an adrenaline overload accompanied by physical symptoms such as shallow breathing, a pounding heart, dry mouth, and sweaty palms.
During flooding, the mind can go blank and thinking can become jumbled. In this upset and confused state, people might say or do something unwise, like yell at a confrontational uncle or smack a sibling or storm off from the table.
Medea suggests these options for controlling flooding at the holiday table:
Stop eating, take a deep breath, and do isometrics – small, unnoticeable muscle movements that will help you snap out of the adrenaline overload. Try pressing your arms against your chair or reach down and try to lift your chair while you’re sitting in it.
If you’ve provoked someone else into flooding mode, then stop arguing. The person can’t make out what you’re saying anyway. Quickly lower your voice and if you can, give the person some physical space.
Make it about you
Tirch suggests that if you find yourself engaged in argument, go light on the accusations and instead do what couples are required to do in therapy. Use “I” statements. For example, “I feel really sad when you talk about me like I’m a racist.” Or “I am confused by your choice of candidate because it feels to me that he doesn’t respect women like myself.”
Look to families that successfully deal with political differences
We can learn from them. If you know one yourself, it’s time to have a conversation to glean some suggestions. One is to try to go into a discussion as informed as possible, reading broadly about issues and not only perspectives that speak to your own.
Andrea del Rio-Kline, 43, is an art teacher in Haddon Township, N.J. She is a lifelong Democrat. Her husband, Craig Kline, is a lifelong Republican who opted not to vote this time.
Del Rio-Kline is half Mexican and deeply identifies with her Mexican heritage. “The whole ‘Mexicans are rapists and murderers’ thing was just insane,” she says. “With this election and because of this candidate, it’s been hard for some people to hold on to the fact that Republicans are still good people.” But not only knowing, but living with and deeply loving someone from across the aisle has taught her differently, she said,
John Cooley, 67, of Springfield, Va., is retired from the Army and comes from a long line of Republicans. His wife works for the government and often votes for Democrats.
Both are strong-willed and welcome informed disagreements. Cooley’s wife voted for Hillary and he voted against her. “We’re mature enough to be together and respect each other’s rights” to an opinion, Cooley says.
Try your best to avoid breaking family relationships
“Being with your family over the holidays and sharing family stories is restorative,” Medea says, “ Those of us who know and value our family histories are more resilient, live longer and can deal with more of what life hands us….It’s important to remember that politicians come and go, but these people will still be your family a generation or two from now. .”
Lauren Dockett is a freelance journalist in Washington. Staff writer Tara Bahrampour contributed to this report.
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