If family gatherings mean political arguments with a family member and bitter hard feelings that last for months (or if you have upsetting disagreements over any controversial subject with a family member), this article is for you.
YOU HAVE a point of view or
a set of facts you want your family member to accept or agree with — or
she (or he) has a position she wants you to
accept. If you engage in an argument about it, you risk a riff between
you, hard feelings, anger, upset, even a complete severing of your
communication and a destruction of your affection for each other. This
is not good for your mood.
You may have known this
family member for a long time — maybe your whole life. So perhaps you
believe you should be able to talk about anything with each other. But
you might be mistaken about this.
Here's the problem:
The more controversial the topic, the deeper the connection between you
must be. The "depth" of your communication is measured in recent hours
of talking to each other. In other words, if in the last year, you have
averaged about twenty minutes a week talking with a family member — on
the phone or face to face — your relationship can handle very little
controversy. Most of your communication had better be pleasant or
neutral (not controversial).
But if in the last year
you have spent, on average, many hours a week talking with your family
member, your relationship can handle talking about a much more
Think of it this way: Any given
power line can only handle so much electricity at once. If more power
tries to surge down the line than the line can handle, the line will
melt or circuit breakers will melt. A bigger line could handle the
surge. A smaller line will fry. In other words, your communication
channel is only as big as your amount of communication has made it.
non-upsetting communication creates a bigger line, a stronger bond, a
more robust relationship. A stronger bond can handle controversy better
than a weaker bond.
The researcher, John Gottman, looking at what it takes for a marriage to stay together, discovered a minimum ratio: Five to one.
A marriage needs at least five times more enjoyable interactions as
unenjoyable interactions to prevent divorce. It is possible a similar
ratio is required for any relationship.
It is a good
rule of thumb anyway to consider that you need at least five times more
hours talking about enjoyable topics as controversial. Just to be on the
safe side, try keeping it at ten times more. Having a history with your
family member is unfortunately not enough. The "power line" between you
shrinks with time and lack of communication. A strong bond requires recent communication.
you're already engaged in a controversy with a family member and
already feel angry or hurt by your conversations about it, realize right
now that you have been mistaken about each other.
You are not in the wrong and neither is the other person. The problem
is: The communication channel between you is too small. The problem is not your
family member — it is a puny, atrophied communication channel created
by a long period of neglect. That's a better way to think about your
disagreements because it leads to clarity about what you can do that
will effectively improve your feelings about each other. You're
suffering the inevitable consequences of a lack of bandwidth. The more
you communicate about non-controversial topics, the bigger your
If your family member lives in another
town or state and you don't see her or him much (or talk much on the
phone), you should probably avoid controversy completely. Maybe some day
you'll live closer or spend more time talking on the phone. If that
happens and you still want to talk about a controversial topic, your
bond will be able to withstand it.
In the meantime, reserve those topics only for people you do talk to regularly.
this as your personal policy and you will prevent a lot of bad moods
and hard feelings. You will find holidays and election years a lot more
enjoyable in the long run. And you will both be happier.
One last thing: If controversial political conversations come up between you and anyone on a regular basis, I recommend you read the book, Righteous Mind,
and when those conversations come up, start talking about the content
of the book. I promise you, it will raise your mood in those
Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.