There are many reasons to have strong and worthy opinions that need to be voiced, especially as of late. The pandemic has brought about myths that, when propagated, could threaten public health. And a modern civil rights movement is illuminating the systemic racism that continues to empower white supremacy everywhere—including in the workplace, in health-care, and in wellness spaces. So when someone in your live voices and defends a perspective you don’t agree with and feel you can’t simply brush under the rug, what’s best way to handle that conflict? Should you take a stand or not engage?
This line of thought has come up for me a lot recently. For instance, when people in my life share with me—whether directly or via updates—that they don’t believe in the rationale behind mask-wearing (or, thus, science) or respond to my Black Lives Matter posts with opposing thoughts that are rife with microaggressions, I’m mostly left wondering what I’m doing in the relationship period. How could keeping someone in my life, whose perspectives directly oppose mine in such dangerous ways, even be moral?
But even when the perspective in question seems to you to be an obvious matter of right versus wrong, figuring out where to go next your relationship with someone who has differing thoughts from yours likely isn’t so obvious. Especially considering someone you fundamentally disagree with may well have held your hand through a trauma, lent you money when you were in need, or simply been a loyal confidante over the years. Clearly, it’s complicated.
Below, three therapists unpack 4 ways for how to handle the conflict of fundamentally disagreeing with a loved one.
Option #1: Agree to disagree
Jeanne Safer, PhD, psychotherapist and author of I Love You But I Hate Your Politics, has been married for more than 40 years to her partner who has (extremely) different political values, and she believes it’s important to not curate a world in which everyone agrees with you. When she was sick with leukemia, for example, many friends who agree with her politically did not show up for her, while a conservative next-door neighbor did. The two have since become great friends—they just don’t discuss politics. Dr. Safer calls this “healthy avoidance,” and says it can help relationships flourish between two people who disagree on major issues.
Creating filter bubbles—wherein you only communicate with people who agree with you—is problematic, and it’s undeniably healthy to make sure you’re not existing in an echo chamber. Agreeing to disagree as a blanket answer for how to deal with conflict, though, doesn’t work because, as psychotherapist Ivy Kwong, LMFT, says, you may end up “abandoning yourself” in order to make such a compromise. In other words, there’s a difference between agreeing to disagree on something central to your passions, morals, and personal ethics, versus something you can feel okay not mentally or emotionally contending with on a daily basis. The specifics here will differ from person to person.
“How much is it hurting you to keep the person in your life, not just emotionally but also spiritually…on a soul level?” Kwong asks as a litmus test of sorts you can ask yourself. Only you can know which opinions you feel comfortable ignoring and which you don’t, says Kwong. There is no universal criteria.
Option #2: Engage in dialogue aimed at gradual persuasion
If you don’t feel okay with letting someone’s perspective slide, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to end the relationship. If someone is important to you, psychotherapist Meghan Watson says you may want to invest energy in working to change their mind over time. “It’s important to remember that the reason change happens isn’t because you said something revolutionary that just clicked in someone’s mind,” she says. “That’s very, very rare. Change is chipping away slowly at another person’s ability to see your side of the fence.”
“The reason change happens isn’t because you said something revolutionary that just clicked in someone’s mind. Change is chipping away slowly at another person’s ability to see your side of the fence.” —Meghan Watson, psychotherapist
In having these conversations as a way to deal with conflict of opposing points of view, Watson recommends checking your emotions at the door and taking an approach based in logic, evidence, and facts. So, instead of, say, yelling at someone for not wearing a mask, you’d be better served by sending them as much data as you can find about the efficacy of masks. If they send their own data back, evaluate it and reply with additional evidence to debunk it—calmly and compassionately. “When you’re having these conversations, it’s important to remember that you can’t fight emotions with logic and you can’t fight logic with your emotions,” says Watson.
Everyone, she adds, will have a different appetite and level of endurance for these conversations and the amount of exertion should be proportional to how much you care about the person. “It’s healthy to have lots of differing opinions, but it can be extremely exhausting and so it’s important to pace yourself,” says Watson.
Option #3: Establish boundaries
If healthy dialogue doesn’t work as a strategy for dealing with conflict, Kwong suggests setting boundaries, especially if what someone believes is actively harmful. For example, you might tell a loved one who refuses to wear a mask that you won’t see them until they start taking that measure. Or if a friend is arguing with your Black Lives Matter posts, you could tell them you won’t engage until they’ve completed enough anti-racism reading to have an educated conversation about it.
As an Asian-American, Kwong says she is happy to have discussions surrounding earnest questions about race when she has the time and energy, but if someone is actively pushing back against anti-racism efforts, she won’t be close to them right now. “I’m protecting my energy,” she says.
Option #4: Cut ties
If you find you can’t deal with the conflict of opposing perspectives by agreeing to disagree, setting boundaries, or changing minds, it’s okay to stop investing your energy in the relationship. “When you’re saying ‘no’ to someone, you’re also saying ‘yes’ to your needs—to peace, to your security, to your sense of emotional safety,” Watson says.
It’s also worth noting that these fractures may not be a result of your friends’ beliefs at all, but rather a shift in you. This speaks to me, because in recent months, my tolerance for certain behaviors—e.g., science denial, or silence on the Black Lives Matter movement—has significantly decreased. That’s to say that some of my friends may not have changed, but I certainly have. “You’re capable of growth and transformation just like anybody else, and you have the right to change how you feel,” says Watson.
Kwong and Dr. Safer agree that in some cases, you may be best served, as Kwong puts it, to “love someone from a distance” in order to live in ways that are most true to who you are. “A lot of people are revealing what side of history they want to be on very clearly, and we will discover more as things continue to unfold,” she says. “I hope we can choose [how to proceed with these relationships] as lovingly as we can—not just for ourselves, but for the greatest and highest good of all.”