The Divided House: How to Talk With Relatives at Thanksgiving This Year

“I always recommend people to never talk about politics,” therapist Charity Hagains says

Last Thanksgiving, "Saturday Night Live" parodied every stereotype in the book at a family holiday meal — the racist aunt, the transphobic grandfather, the progressive daughter disgusted by her relatives. Just as the characters launch into political arguments, a little girl rushes to the stereo to play Adele's "Hello." Everyone remembers their shared love of the British soul singer, and Thanksgiving dinner is saved.

While political tensions surged in the primaries, they’ve exploded since last November. The United States drilled even deeper into differences during an incendiary and scandalous general election. After all the heated debate, even Adele might not save some family and friends now. 

“We’re beyond unification,” said former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh.

He made headlines in October after posting a tweet claiming “if Trump loses, I’m grabbing my musket.” Now, he says “the revolution’s going to continue” as “Americans give a large middle finger to the government.” 

The former Republican congressman has lived in another kind of divided house at home. While his family isn't very political, his friends are and range in ideological bent. Some are liberals, and many were never Trumpers during the campaign. Though most of them were able to talk politics while sipping a beer, “There were very few people where it got to the point where we couldn’t even discuss this race,” Walsh said. 

He's not alone in thinking it was a "tough year" for friends and families. 

"There were some hurt feelings that we wouldn't accept each other's viewpoints," Bill Seavey, whose perspective on the election differed from his wife's, told The Associated Press. "We're civil people, love each other and we agreed to disagree. But I'm glad the election is over."

Political divides have harmed personal relationships “that come Thanksgiving (are) going to be difficult to repair,” according to Charity Hagains, senior therapist at Noyau Wellness Center in Dallas, Texas.

“I always recommend people to never talk about politics,” Hagains said.

Texas has long been a Republican stronghold, but in 2016 it was more of a battleground than in the past. In relationships where couples may not share the same political beliefs, Hagains said she saw patients adopting the personas of both candidates and having "all-out battles if they (didn’t) keep themselves in check.” Some of her clients also experienced surges in post traumatic stress disorder symptoms from sexual assault and abuse because of Trump’s comments on women. 

Indeed, the 2016 presidential election’s effect on mental health in the U.S. was undeniable, according to data taken from the American Psychological Association’s 2017 Stress in America Survey.

“Fifty-two percent of American adults report that the 2016 election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress,” the APA released in a statement.

While millennials and older voters seemed especially concerned about the election results, Lynn Bufka, the APA’s associate executive director of practice research and policy, said that a moderate faction of Americans would just be “happy that the campaign is over and hopeful that the negative rhetoric and hateful communications will be done.”

The APA reported that there was a correlation between social media use and stress during the elections: 38 percent of respondents said that political posts online bothered them, and social media users were more likely to feel significant stress because of the elections than those who abstained from Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms.

High-profile tweets like Walsh’s got people’s attention, but average Americans also weighed in with ideas that countered those of former high school classmates and friends from back home, provoking combative replies.

“We certainly see that there appears to be less filter that goes on, that people will say things online that they would be much less likely to say to someone else’s face,” Bufka said. 

Hagains said that during the elections families threw most of their punches over the internet. Generational gaps led to comment wars, where passive aggressive posts created tensions among loved ones.

“People are usually reading these messages through the worst possible lens,” Hagains said. She joked that life was easier during past elections because she didn’t have to worry about her grandparents following her social media presence.

Facebook was founded in 2004, Twitter in 2006. Both were well established during the last two elections, but Hagains said she didn’t think politically driven social media was “as prevalent as it is now.” In 2015, the election was the most discussed topic worldwide on Facebook. Between January to Oct. 1, 2016, 5.3 billion likes, posts, comments, and shares from American users on the platform related to the presidential election.

Over the internet, loosened inhibitions and miscommunications make discord common. 

“I think it’s a lot harder to respectfully disagree, particularly when emotions are very high, and it seems that the rhetoric and the points of view have been pretty polarizing,” Bufka said. “In those situations it’s a lot harder to try to find the commonalities and the middleground. Which means that for families where there are differences, or communities where there are differences, the hurt is likely to be greater and the need for healing and figuring out how to re-engage and find the commonalities will be more challenging."

Bufka added, "It’s certainly doable, and it’s important to do that, but it is going to be more difficult.”

Hagains said that people can ease the transition by using "I feel" sentence structures, sharing their thoughts as opinions instead of fact. She also recommended that if people choose to talk politics, they should try to make conversations about policy instead of diverging into personal attacks. And at social events, attendees should consider whether it is more important to prove to others that they're right, or to enjoy the company. 

Bufka urged locals to try to connect with one another, and especially for Trump supporters, as the winners, to make amends with Hillary Clinton's followers. 

“First, if you’re not happy with the outcome, vent, let it out," she said. "But then think about, ‘Okay, this is what it is. How do we move forward, and what is it that we need to do to be able to move forward? Are there ways that we can try to make a difference?’”

Hagains emphasized the need to remind Clinton voters that they’re still part of the citizenry and their opinions are valued. “If your side loses, it’s hard not to feel that you’re not wanted,” she said. 

Vincent Hutchings, a professor at the University of Michigan and member of American National Election Studies, downplayed how much famililes are affected by politics. 

“It’s a relatively rare thing for most people to have a falling out about politics, mostly because most people don’t talk that much about politics,” he said. “Politics will not be uppermost in people’s mind, or it won’t be a potential casual topic of conversation anymore. And in that regard, some of the animosity may diminish on the mass level.”

Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts, disagrees.

“Come December or January, there’ll still be a lot of political discussion… and it’s going to be really nasty,” he said. “It’s going to continue. There’s no reason an election marks the end to that. The day after will be just as nasty as the day before.”

But though Berry predicts continued issues on social media, he says mobilizing the public would take action that most people who use angry rhetoric online aren’t willing to execute in reality.

He also said that neighborhoods are becoming more politically homogeneous, so the healing process among neighbors should be expedited by their similar views.

While healthy relationships between family members may be imperative for a nice holiday dinner, a healing process for the country might not be the right path for America, according to Todd Gitlin, American studies professor at Columbia University. He blames the Republican party and the mass media for what he deemed an uninformed electorate. “They are forces of ignorance, and you can’t heal ignorance. You have to defeat it, you have to overcome it,” he said. 

He argued that you can’t reason with people who don’t believe in climate change but do think that doctors perform nine-month abortions. 

John Fortier, democracy project director at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said, "We shouldn’t expect that everybody’s going to agree.” 

But he thinks that government officials will lead by example, collaborating on less polemical issues like infrastructure and tax reform regardless of party.

As for families, Berry thinks ideological problems between mom and dad will probably be replaced by other concerns as Thanksgiving approaches. 

“I suspect families will heal more so than the country in general,” Berry said. “Family polarization revolves around many other things than politics. So eventually Uncle Fred will be forgiven for being for Trump.”

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