Ultimatums don’t work

especially by text!

This is a repeat of an earlier post, since I only had a few subscribers when I wrote this.

I will be taking a break this summer as I work on a new project.

Last November, in a conservative Facebook group, a woman posted a picture of text she got from her daughter, a lesbian. In it, her daughter says she won’t talk to her again if she votes for Trump because he’s going to make it so she can’t get health care. The mother doesn’t believe what her daughter says about health care, so she takes the issue to the Facebook group that supports her — and dismisses her daughter’s concern. It ends in the people in the Facebook group offering to pray for her daughter. The mom has effectively substituted the faceless people in this Facebook group for her daughter.

This isn’t the only example I’ve discovered of a relationship that’s been completely broken over politics. In an earlier newsletter, I talked about the fractured relationship with my aunt whom I called her rude and then never called again. There’s also the story of a woman who emailed her contact list a news story she was passionate about and got an email back from her sister-in-law that said: “WE. ARE. DONE.” Then there’s the story about a man who told his parents they couldn’t see their grandchildren until they took down a sign promoting their favorite candidate. And, of course, there are legions of stories of people who unfriended or even blocked old friends on Facebook or other social media.

I’m not going to lecture and say we shouldn’t let politics intrude into our relationships. That’s just not realistic. Relationships are such an important part of our lives that they deserve more attention than they’re getting, and we need to be able to bring our whole selves into them. Online relationships cannot substitute for in-person relationships and family relationships are an essential part of who we are. They shaped our personality, and family members are the ones who really know us. Some relationships may be irretrievably broken, but some can be mended. It’s worth the effort to try to mend them — maybe not all of them — but at least the most important ones.

Our lives are defined by our relationships.

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There is an epidemic of loneliness going on right now in the U.S. and the developed world, which is leading to increased depression and anxiety. Experts point to the use of social media as a substitute for in-person relationships as a cause. In fact, some doctors are going so far as to prescribe participation in real-life groups as a cure for loneliness. The fact that we have had to “socially distance” during the pandemic has increased anxiety and depression levels, but maybe a silver lining is that it’s made us realize how important in-person relationships actually are. Even so, we still don’t know how to talk about political differences without fracturing the relationship.

This is brand-new stuff. Therapists don’t know how to deal with this. We need different tools, and I’m hopeful that we can learn them.. That’s why I keep working on how to apply recent social psychology research to interpersonal relationships.

So, what can the daughter do? How could she have handled this conversation differently, while still being true to herself and her beliefs? She obviously feels strongly about the matter, but she didn’t achieve anything by issuing an ultimatum.

First, just to restate the obvious, ultimatums don’t work. They don’t change anyone’s mind. All they do is fracture a relationship that’s important to your life.

Second, when you feel this strongly about something, it needs to be a conversation, not a text message.

Third, once you resolve to have a conversation, start by focusing on the good in the relationship.

Personally, I find it remarkable that this conservative mother has come to accept her daughter as a lesbian. There’s probably a story in that. If I were the daughter, I would talk about how their relationship has survived her coming out and how she appreciates her mother’s support. (I hope that’s true.)

Fourth, the daughter can change the conversation by focusing on the values that drive the mother to support Trump. Because she’s conservative, it might be patriotism or respect for authority. If she can ask her mother which of those are more important to her in choosing a politician, this can provide an opening for a different type of conversation. It sends the message to the mother that the daughter is trying to understand her.

Finally, once she knows at least one key value that’s important to her mother in this decision, she can use the moral reframing technique I describe in my book, Persuade, Don’t Preach: Restoring Civility Across the Political Divide. If she can address a value that is important to the mother, then she has a chance of being listened to in a new way.

There are no guarantees this will work, but this approach will definitely change the conversation and offer a new way of communication, and hopefully mend this fractured relationship.