Smash Talks: Communicating Across the Canyon

Ashera is a Marriage and Family Therapist with an extensive background in sexual health education. You can ask her stuff anonymously and she won’t get weirded out. Seriously, try her. Send your queries through our anonymous contact form here.

Dear Smashera,

The past few years have been hard. My husband and I are on completely different ends of the political spectrum. It used to not be an issue, but it’s certainly become one. He’s white, conservative, and a big Donald Trump supporter. I’m not. I’m a liberal woman of color, and the difference in our views has created such an impasse.

To make matters worse, we saw a counselor a few years back. I was hoping that he would be able to hear my point of view and see why I hold the views I do. Instead, the therapist told me that I need to be more “teflon” and to let whatever he says just “not stick” to me. What’s happened instead is I’m not allowed to talk about what’s bothering me, otherwise he says it “violates his boundaries.” I already have issues getting my point across from growing up with conflict, and now I don’t even know how to talk to him anymore. I want to have a healthy family that’s able to have a conversation about things we don’t necessarily agree on without it becoming heated and hurtful. How do we get out of this mess?


Lonely Liberal

Dear Lonely Liberal,

To say that the past few years have been divisive feels like a bit of an understatement. The severity of the polarization between the left and right has become a fissure in many communities, families, and (as in your case) marriages. The situation at home sounds like it has the potential to be unpleasant at best, volatile at worst. Before we unpack how to talk to a loved one who has opposing views, it’s pertinent to take stock of some of the other moving pieces, namely a fraught history and irresponsible, white-washed therapy.

There’s a whole trope about people not wanting to “turn into their parents,” but so often, we unwittingly do. Truth be told, family of origin communication patterns are handed down like heirlooms. Whether those heirlooms include outright aggression and hostility, fawning, or passive-aggressiveness depends on the makeup of each family. You mention facing difficulty in communicating what your needs are from growing up in conflict. It’s possible that the difficulty you report is a self-protective behavior, or trauma response. After all, if you’re primed to avoid escalating a conflict, it would make sense that your brain would reroute to “be still and quiet” every time a voice is raised. This is akin to losing every battle just to stay in the war.

Some people shirk away from the word “trauma,” believing that their experiences don’t qualify. The truth is, many of us carry trauma. Some traumas culminate in PTSD or CPTSD, complete with debilitating side effects. Others might experience an aversion to objects or situations that trigger unpleasant memories or somatic responses. Trauma, in a nutshell, is an emotional response to a distressing experience. More and more research is showing that our brains and bodies are connected in trauma responses, and the resulting effect can make people either desensitized to danger, or hypervigilant to avoid it.

In order to move away from dysfunctional patterns and traumas, it can be helpful to work with a therapist. That is, so long as your therapist is helpful. Unfortunately, not every client is a good fit with each practitioner, and no practitioner knows what to do or say all of the time. Therapy is a deeply human experience and can be both connective and flawed. In recent years, multicultural counseling has been gaining increased traction in the hopes that practitioners can better serve diverse populations.

Earlier I referred to your previous therapy experience as “white washed,” not because I am 100% sure your previous therapist is white, but because their advice to you continued a long-standing tradition of having a person of color bury their experiences to not upset a white person. In my personal and professional opinion, this was irresponsible and damaging. It neglected to put your experiences into context and added serious fuel to a fire that was already raging within your relationship.

To be very clear, multicultural counseling in this situation would not be to have the white person blindly agree with everything a person of color says. It is not simply a “reverse” of a dysfunctional power dynamic, or a bid for a person with privilege to atone or “white knight” for historical sins. What could have been was an opportunity for two people to better understand one another. A therapist’s task is to be a Rosetta Stone and to help two people have empathy and compassion for the other’s experience.

I feel compelled to add that in order to not uphold an inherently racist power dynamic, I am not and will not ever dictate or suggest how a person of color should interpret racist behavior or ascribe how they “should” experience racism. That’s not my place and it never will be. What I believe I can do in this situation is begin to map a starting point for people who wish to try to preserve relationships in a divisive time.

Which leads me to the meat and potatoes of this situation: how to talk to a partner who holds ideals that are radically different than yours. We need to start with a basic premise: play to your strengths. You will need to establish the mutual desire to understand one another because you care about each other. Without this being at the center of the conversation, you cannot move forward. You may need to open this up with something like: “I don’t like how political conversations become so heated with us. I want to know where you’re coming from, and I want you to understand me. I want us to be better partners to one another. Do you think we can work on this?”

Mutual understanding will not occur after one big conversation. Don’t aim for a big “come to Jesus,” but instead for little bite-sized nuggets of understanding. This is an ongoing goal that will have to be revisited continually. Hopefully, there will be days you make headway in this department. I warn you though, breakthroughs won’t happen every day and that’s okay, so long as you two are still committed to trying to find common ground.

After establishing that you both want to understand one another, it’s important to set boundaries. It might be helpful to think about where conversations take a sharp turn and avoid those caveats. There might be political buzzwords that really light up your arguments, and it will be important to take them off the table. It is possible to communicate the same ideas and sentiments without using loaded language. Likewise, it will be important to remove criticism from the conversation. While one of you might find the other’s argument stupid, it’s way too easy for the other person to link that argument to themselves—it jumps from “you’re not calling this idea stupid, you’re calling me stupid.” Lastly, in order for headway to be made, you both will have to remain open and curious about why the other person believes what they do. When you are able to center one another’s views as an extension of lived experiences, it becomes easier to empathize (and connect) with those experiences.

Something to keep in mind is that anger and reactivity frequently mask fear. If you and your partner can acknowledge that both of you have fears about the state of the world, perhaps your belief systems will make more sense.

I would be remiss to not add that if conversations are becoming heated to the point that you fear for your safety, it is time to have a frank look at what’s going on, gather support, and make a plan for how to keep yourself safe.

I hope you can find light and connection amidst all this conflict.



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