In the last week, I’ve blocked acquaintances on Facebook for posting conspiracy theories and nasty responses to innocuous political commentary. I’ve been disappointed to find friends enamored with miracle treatments and proclamations of existing herd immunity. Other people I know have shown unexpectedly ugly sides of their personalities — prejudices, a disdain for expertise and science, cognitive biases — which make it difficult for me to continue my relationships with them.
My sudden willingness to cut people off if they won't change their minds is unusual. I've been a psychologist for 25 years and, though it was an initially challenging concept for me to accept, I do know that some people are incapable of change. On a personal level, this lesson was admittedly difficult for me to absorb, but once I did, it allowed me to accept certain people in my life and to accept them and their decisions for who and what they are.
In the age of COVID-19, I find that I am not so accepting. Political and personal decisions feel like they have life-and-death consequences. Misinformation skewed toward a political view may cause people to disregard social distancing or to take dangerous or unproven medication.
And it's affecting the people I love the most.
Sometime in the middle of March, my 83-year-old mother — who had a part-time job as a grocery-store cashier — told me I wouldn’t be able to visit her in her senior housing complex because it was being closed to guests due to social distancing.
“But you can still come and see me at Piggly Wiggly on Monday and Wednesday afternoons,” she said.
I felt my blood pressure rising. “Mom, if it’s too dangerous for me to see you at your home, it’s certainly unsafe for me to visit you at Pigs.”
She disagreed — but not because she was being otherwise exposed to so many potential virus carriers there. Rather, the news she consumed (a certain conservative news channel to be specific) had told her that liberals were overreacting to the threat.
“You know how many people die from the flu every year?” she said.
I wanted to scream. I knew that agreeing to disagree wasn’t an option, since this was a matter of her life or death.
Situations like that with my mother have played out for me over and over again since then on social media and in my social circles — and I know I'm not alone.
Initially, I thought the solution to distressing interactions (other than those with my mother) was to cut people out of my life, but that felt drastic and painful. The alternative — ignoring or accepting — also left me feeling distressed and dishonest.
It didn’t take me long to remember that relationships that end as a result of unreconcilable politics are like any other relationship: There are many ways to say goodbye. The key factor in making that goodbye less distressing is to make the decision a conscious one, despite the possible loss or grief that might follow.
So, what are your choices when someone else's decisions feel entirely unconscionable to you?
You could just decide that whatever they believe or are doing is not worth leaving your relationship. After all, some people in your life may be too important to lose over politics. For instance, my mother and I disagree about almost every hot-button issue, but I don’t want to live my life without her in it. Instead of arguing about what’s on Fox or MSNBC — as we’ve done in the past — we now turn off the news when we're together and watch the Hallmark Channel instead.
Alternately, you could decide to make a conscious choice to learn from people who are different from you. Some people in your life — old friends, siblings — keep you honest about where you came from while still making you feel comfortable and safe about the divide between you.
A grade school friend of mine is one of those: I have little emotional investment in him, and it doesn’t cause me significant distress to see his conspiracy-based Facebook posts. Although I have been known to mute him from time to time, I like getting a glimpse into what he and, by extension, people like him are thinking because it challenges me to think about alternate viewpoints.
Or you could make a choice to say goodbye to someone whose decisions or beliefs don't fit with your values. Some of us simply can’t bear to have relationships with those whose beliefs violate our ethical principles or our sense of human decency, whether because of their bigotry, intolerance, inability to care for others or whatever. Find your line in the sand and then determine whether that relationship is worth keeping.
For my friend, Teresa, her line was finding out that her brother was active in the white nationalist movement. She thought about ghosting him but felt she needed closure, so she wrote him a letter telling him why she needed to end their relationship.
There’s no right way to say goodbye, though, especially if it’s someone you once loved or still care about. Just don’t leave the relationship thinking that your last words will have an effect on the other person, because they probably won’t.
Next, you could hope that situations — or even people — will change. After all, we won’t be living in the uncertain and anxiety-ridden COVID-19 time forever, and, though as a psychologist I tell patients not to count on people changing, I can also vouch for the fact that many people can.
For instance, my mother didn’t used to think cigarettes caused cancer and thought wearing a seat belt was a violation of her civil rights. Now she vehemently believes the opposite — and she’s even changed her mind about the quarantine. Since leaving her job near the end of March, she won’t think about leaving her apartment.
Finally, you could change, too. Experiences inevitably alter us, and difficult experiences transform us the most. You will likely emerge from this challenging time a different person in some way.
As for me, I actually hope to be less likely to agree-to-disagree when there are human lives at stake. I want to become more discerning in my relationships and to be better able to not just accept that there are situations, viewpoints and people who can’t be changed, but that there are unchangeable situations, viewpoints and people I don't have to accept.