Disconnected: Political Conversation, Couples Therapy and Community

"If you genuinely care about our larger community we are building here in this country having the capacity to engage in a thoughtful political discussion about what it means to be sharing this land might actually change your life.  Think about it - if you can, with an open heart, connect rather than disconnect around matters that you might not see eye to eye on, you feel, well, connected rather than disconnected from your community."   
-Traci Ruble


by Traci Ruble, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
www.traciruble.com

You betcha!  I am doing it.  I am publishing something about the level of our political discourse or lack thereof.  Even I stoop low and post some nit on Facebook that makes fun of the other side and then I catch myself.  "Hmmm" I think, "This feels a lot like the digs I see couples give to one another inside my psychotherapy office."  I fundamentally am calling the other side "crazy", "stupid", or claiming that I am right". 

Not far off from first sessions in couples therapy this kind of political discourse is about disconnection and division because coming close together around issues that we might not agree on is vulnerable.   Actually, even with the most embittered couples who might try to have a yelling match, their desire to convince and persuade me that their partner is the problem is nipped in the bud by me in our very first session.  I say "look if you want me to save you anywhere from 4 - 10 sessions of therapy bills I can come clean right now and say that what most couples do in the beginning is covertly or overtly try to convince me that their partner is to blame, is crazy or that I should fix their partner because it is all their fault".  Once that gets said I lovingly challenge the couple to take stock of what they are bringing to their relationship that creates huge wedges.  Sometimes they don't know what they are bringing to the relationship but just being willing to look is 100% better than assuming they bring nothing of their own.

Sadly not many Americans are looking within when it comes to political discourse.  I remember when George W. won his second term, I went in to my favorite yoga studio and inside was a sign that said "FU*$ Bush".  It really bummed me out.  Yoga and meditation represent equanimity and honoring the opposites inside of ourselves and at large and to have this level of anger and aggression misguidedly directed at George W.  just stung.  Sadly, however, to avoid this level of "violent" discourse, other US Citizens are just not engaging or talking about politics at all.   I was lamenting with a neighbor about the lack of a rational discourse and she started walking back to her house smiling and saying "Yeah Traci, it's taboo to talk politics."  I imagined she thought I was going to start preaching about my views when really I just wanted to connect about how hard it is to connect. 

This level of avoidance, not only totally unsatisfying personally, also worries me.  It worries me the same way a couple who comes into my office who have gotten so far down the path of disconnection with each other that they don't even bother to fight any longer worries me.  Salvaging their relationship is the hardest when they are teetering on the edge despair to total detachment.  Now that I think about it,  I would rather have folks screaming political one liners I don't agree with than being silent.  I appreciate, at least, that level of engagement.

As an aside, I must confess I was a political science undergrad and I am dogmatic about not being dogmatic.     I am also naturally curious even though I have strong views I want to hear why you believe what you believe, why you feel what you feel and I am interested in deeply honoring multiple viewpoints and I do have a bias towards political engagement and discourse than non engagement.  This article may give you the impression I always move from my own kind of political equanimity.  I don't.  I can get caught off guard and mud sling too but usually when I do, I realize I am defensively disconnecting rather than connecting to myself and to others and I do some self care to see what I need.

There was a lovely discussion on NPR's This American Life about political discourse  with heart wrenching stories of families torn apart  by their differing political views.  The Republican and Democrat authors of  
You're Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You're Still Wrong): Conversations between a Die-Hard Liberal and a Devoted Conservative
coached one sister on how to mend fences with her sister on the other side of the political divide.  I agreed wholeheartedly in their content and more importantly in their vision.   After I switched off the radio I reflected further on what I do in the room with couples that might be applied to divided communication in politics.   If you genuinely care about our larger community we are building here in this country having the capacity to engage in a thoughtful political discussion about what it means to be sharing this land might actually change your life.  Think about it - if you can, with an open heart, connect rather than disconnect around matters that you might not see eye to eye on, you feel, well, connected rather than disconnected from your community.  

Tips for Connective Political Conversations

  1. Drop the goal to persuade.  If you are entering into a conversation with someone you already know has a different political stance than you, you likely are not going to change their mind.  What is more, trying to change someone's mind is an act of aggression unless we are invited to change their mind.  Why we feel the need to vehemently persuade is a much longer discussion of the sociopolitical and psycho spiritual realms of humanity.  
  2. Lead with curiosity.  Ask questions.  Why do you think that?  What data/information have you found/read that supports you?  
  3. Know your part.  Why do you think and believe what you do?  Have you sat down and really made a list of what you stand for politically?  What news or sources of data help support your views.  If you aren't clear on this, you are likely to get easily caught up in the fighting and mudslinging kind of politics or the disengaged kind of politics.
  4. Breathe, stay calm and stay open.   I was talking to family about politics and they said "I don't want to get into conflict with you."   I thought about that and wondered, hmmm, why does talking about differences have to equate to conflict?  It doesn't if we can stay open and soft and follow 1 through 3 above.
Another colleague of mine, Ali Miller, stepped out an actual script using Marshall Rosenberg's Non Violent Communication to talk politics if you want some more specific ideas on how to start. 

I love this country but I also long to feel connected to what we are building together.  I for one, am going to make an effort to follow the steps and engage.  I hope you will join me.


Traci Ruble has a private psychotherapy practice in San Francisco's Financial District.  She specializes in couples therapy and individuals struggling in relationships. She also leads online mother's support therapy groups for mothers in the state of California.

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