4 Steps to Working Past Our Political Gridlock Issues
Updated: Nov 27, 2020
Upon reflecting upon this really tenuous and fragile time in our political history, my role as a marriage and family therapist made it unavoidable to realize that we there are lot of parallels between the marriage of the two political parties our country has committed to.
Most marriage counseling sessions start with both parties explaining to me what I need to fix about the other person (generally in not so many words). They want me to fix what they have struggled to fix on their own, and they are frustrated because despite trying so hard and caring so much they haven't quite figured out how to resolve what isn't working. Dr's John and Julie Gottman describe these as Gridlock Issues.
This election feels a lot like us trying to elect a president we feel will "fix" the other side who is "the problem." Yet, as in marriage, though a therapist can strategically steer the conversation or facilitate communication. the situation cannot actually be solved by the therapist because the problem is between the two in a relationship.
So how to work through the gridlock issues that we are experiencing as a nation? The answer is pretty easy to understand, and very difficult to do:
1) Realize that we cannot control other people, we can only change how we interact with other people.
Therefore, we cannot continue to expect and believe whomever is president can fix the interpersonal division we are facing (though they can help with systemic and policy-based problems). No president can legislate mutual respect and compassion toward one another. That has to come from within us. Laws cannot and do not legislate or heal our hearts.
2) Resist the urge to lump everyone from one political affiliation together.
Most people who voted for the other candidate are not evil or sadistic, nor do they necessarily agree with every position of that candidate. This is true of people that have voted for Trump, Biden, or any other third party candidates. Most people (just like you) are not motivated by malice even though they might do hurtful, dangerous things. Generally, we are motivated to do extreme or hurtful things out of our own hurt/pain or fear that our own essential needs will go unmet. People are not merely a summation of the behaviors they exhibit that you notice or emphasize - we are all much more complex than that.
3) Remember that people do logical things based on their own experience, the experiences of people they trust, what they have learned, and what they believe to be true.
When we feel hurt, disrespected, or ignored we tend to stop listening. We start to listen for bias confirming information (from whomever we are talking to), and then lump together with those we feel are aggressors toward us. In my job I have to take each person at face value unless I have evidence to the contrary, connect with a wide-variety of people, and I feel there is a basic secret to learning to genuinely connect with a wide swath of different people: assume that people are logical though they might do illogical actions (to you). If someone holds a position that makes no sense to you, don't debate the facts of the idea right away; seek to understand their rationale and then go further and seek to understand what it means to them emotionally. Continue with that until their behavior about that political position makes sense to you. In other words, if something is not making sense then ask questions until you understand why it does (even if you still don't agree in the position in the end). Most people vote based on emotion and develop the logical defense of the decision after the fact. Even for those that are hyper-logical, there is still an emotional aspect of the decision (such as why logic/reason should always be prioritized over emotions).
4) Be vulnerable first.
This is the hardest one for many people - particularly if you're worried the other person will attack you for it. However, explaining the feelings behind the facts of your political decision-making really helps other people to make sense of and have compassion for why your political position is so important to you that feel you must be uncompromising or are willing to risk others being hurt to protect it.
Hard as it may be, I challenge you to work on these on a personal level with the people in your life and we may well heal some of the wounds we have as a nation. Otherwise, we may be headed for a long and very painful (and probably avoidable) divorce.