How to relate when you feel un-relatable?
August 20, 2018 10:52 AM   Subscribe

I know this is a very common situation, but I'm struggling all the same. I have a hard time relating to people in general, but now it's really hard for me to look past racism, homophobia, misogyny, and other bigotries. I realized this weekend most things I do are either pretty politically charged or very niche. My in-laws are visiting and it's been hard. Help!

I asked this question two years ago and of course things are much worse all around. My in-laws are sometimes OK at not talking about politics, but other times they tread into waters they don't think would be political but really are - like environmental things, why is traffic so bad, complaining about the price of housing, etc. My parents do this too, and I still tell them I don't want to have a discussion about it and change the topic. My in-laws have a harder time to get the message and I still feel weird about pushing back.

Then I also feel weird about sharing things about what I'm up to or reading about. I realize I'm probably too steeped in politics and that's not entirely healthy, but that's another question. I feel weird talking about work because my job has really been impacted by the political climate. The big things consuming my free time outside of work and my kid are also inherently political and I don't feel comfortable talking to them about it because it feels like an invitation to open the door on politics.

I want to be able to overlook and ignore politics, but I find it nearly impossible. I am at the place now where anybody who is still with the GOP is fine with racism and evil hearted policies. That seems reductive but there I am. I know my in-laws (and other relatives) are decent people at heart to a certain degree, but are also ultimately OK with some pretty heinous stuff because they don't think it affects them. I know I shouldn't hold them responsible for the evils of their party, and in 2016 it seemed like an OK course of action but in 2018 I can't seem to do it anymore. They are definitely part of the generation lost to Fox News.

I don't like to complain about this too much because it's hard on my partner (they're not happy about their parents still supporting the GOP and any meaningless resistance to Trump). My in-laws will be here for a week and are looking to move to where we are, so it's not like this issue will go away. I don't expect them to really change their views much.

So what should I do? How can I relate to them when it's really hard to avoid politics? I do try to ask then questions about what they're up to and things like that to keep it light, but that usually ends with me regretting everything. I'd like to stop avoiding when they're around, but I'm afraid of just having a bummer fight. I also don't really like self-censoring too much. Like we won't take down anti-fascist messages from around the house when they come over.

Help me hive-mind. I want to balance my sanity with emotional labor and expectations. I also want to be a decent person and I feel like I'm failing,.
posted by sock potato to Human Relations (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This is tough. Some ideas--

1) Can you pack the week with activities? Doesn't help with the longer term, if they move near you, but I often find myself falling into these type of traps when we're kind of sitting around after dinner. Less time for offense if we're all going through old family photos working on a digitization project :) You could also go to the movies, or a ballgame--anything where you aren't sitting around a table/living room just looking at each other.

2) Can you take turns with your partner removing yourselves from the situation? Or ask them to take the kids to do special activities, just them? Like maybe one morning you and the kids take the in-laws to brunch; another morning your partner takes them to the museum; another morning the in-laws take your kids to the park and you both get a break.

3) Could you stock up on apolitical conversation topics? I'm like you, in that almost everything ties back to politics/structural inequality/colonialism, but I'm wondering if you actively try to manage the conversation towards apolitical topics if that might work. It will be exhausting, and might feel too much like self-censorship or self-betrayal for you, YMMV. Asking them about their past, your partner as a child, how they met, maybe any books/movies they've consumed and liked...this has the added benefit of viewing them more humanly (said as someone who has a similar view to GOP-supporters).

4) I think you could probably have a frank conversation with them, maybe while washing dishes or going for a walk, and just say, "I know that our politics are very far apart, and that it might not be a comfortable situation for you, either. I just want you to know that while I may not agree with some (all) of your opinions, I'm very glad you're in our lives and I'm so thankful you raised partner to be the person they are. I hope that as we talk about living closer geographically, we're also able to figure out ways to be together comfortably."
posted by stellaluna at 11:11 AM on August 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

Seconding the "take turns with your partner" thing. Sometimes with stressful situations, all you can do is self-care.
posted by Mogur at 11:16 AM on August 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Are you ok with just not relating to them? That seems like a lot of unreciprocated emotional labor. Given that you find it hard to ignore politics, perhaps give a noncommittal comment, and at the end of the day write down the things that they said and privately fume/rant about it.
posted by typify at 11:16 AM on August 20, 2018 [7 favorites]

I am only left leaning because of the inputs I got throughout my life. I've heard, and learned through experience, that the left-leaning policies and programs seem, subjectively, better than the right-leaning policies and programs. I didn't really choose to be left leaning, just like I couldn't choose to go against my beliefs today. Now, I listen to mostly left-leaning news, my circle of friends is hugely left-leaning.

I sincerely think the same is for right-leaning folks. They didn't choose their side. They were probably raised right-leaning, and learned one way or another, that conservatism is the best policy. They do not like taxation or large government, and can cite hundreds of reasons why.

In recent years, "mainstream" right-leaning politicians have been pretty bad in a lot of ways, even to right-leaning people. That's why when the Donald showed up, so many people were eager for a GOP that had personality and didn't fit the mould of typical GOP candidates.

It is only lately that the accusations of sexism and racism have been associated with the GOP. So, just as being "lazy" is applied to the left (which is false for the vast majority of those on the left) I do think that being sexist/racist is applied to the right. It's easy to not worry about accusations of being "lazy" when I know that's not me.

I highly encourage you to learn about why well-thought out right-leaning policies exist. Some things are simple corporate sponsorship, but I was educated that the left-sides gun reformations don't help as much as I thought, and I do think there is a lot of lessons to learn from a conservative viewpoint.

Stay away from the hot topics - don't talk about Trump, racism, or sexism. Do talk about things like tax policy, marijuana legislation, and the like. If they are your family, they probably have a similar amount of detailed insights into policies. Nod and smile if they just regurgitate Fox News.

I recently had a conversation with a conservative judge who punish people that smoke pot in Michigan (soon to be legalized). We had an excellent conversation where I learned a lot - prison rates for people smoking pot are lower than I thought. Any jail time for pot smokers is after many repeat offenses and other crimes. etc. My views were definitely broadened.

I think that loving someone means at least trying to hear out their side for these items. If it turns out they ARE racist and sexist and think abhorrent things... then minimize contact or something.
posted by bbqturtle at 11:18 AM on August 20, 2018 [12 favorites]

What helps me with conservative family members is to look for the things we have in common and focus on those things. So with my aunt who is into crafting, we might look at YouTube DIY tutorials or work on projects together.

With relatives I don’t have many interests in common, I try to focus on family stuff - especially if they have access to info I know I will want later. What was it like growing up in the 20s, do you remember when Elvis became a thing and what did you think, what was Uncle Bob like when he was a kid, how did you and Frank meet. There’s endless ground to cover and better understanding the stories of others often helps me get along witb them better.
posted by bunderful at 11:31 AM on August 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

The only way I know how to develop the skill for tolerating the intolerable is via exercises and techniques that reorganize your nervous system and thought patterns (neural pathways.) Basically exercise, breathwork and some form of reaching regular meditative states. Yoga, guided meditation with binaural beats, massage, climbing, hiking, spin class, walks in nature. Reading books.

You’ll feel better when you expand your ability to feel neutral and untriggered. Side benefits will be actually being more productive, organized, and creative overall.
posted by jbenben at 11:33 AM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

In our family we have a go-to inside joke conversation changer (for us it's "So, autonomous cars are coming pretty soon." My stepkids prefer "Elon Musk seems like a really smart guy.") - it's vaguely political in that it sort of feels like a segue into current events, there's a conversation you can have about it if you choose to, and most of all, because it's The Thing You Say when everyone knows the conversation just got too political for your comfort and no one wants an argument. It's sort of funny, because it's always the same stock phrase, and (maybe because of that) it's generally effective.
posted by Mchelly at 11:39 AM on August 20, 2018 [7 favorites]

Sorry if this is kind of extreme, but here goes...

Some time around age 20 I started to understand that, once you're an adult, family relationships are no longer automatic and must be cultivated from both sides to be maintained. But it took me another 20 years to realize that that means that if someone treats you like shit, you don't actually have to put up with it. I am now 100% Done with my racist step-mother-in-law and my argument-loving liberal-baiting father-in-law. Fortunately, *they* have steered clear of problematic behavior since I blew up at my step-mother-in-law a few years ago (for assuming I would agree with her racist comments!). That made me realize that (a) I'm not a child any more and (b) it's not my responsibility to try to smooth things over and make nicey-nice when grown-ups other people say or do terrible things.

You have the right to set your boundaries. If your in-laws can't respect them, they risk losing the privilege of your company. You and they are each sovereign adults, with the right and the power to choose who you associate with and what behavior you will tolerate in your presence. Actually pulling this off is really hard, though.
posted by heatherlogan at 2:19 PM on August 20, 2018 [6 favorites]

Another way of coping is to understand the psychological underpinnings of partisanship. I found "The Righteous Mind - Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics" to be a helpful and humbling book. It explains why we feel so strongly about our political and religious views. It helped me see where conservatives are coming from, and where as a liberal my emotional triggers are.
posted by storybored at 8:49 PM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

It isn't politics - as you describe, it's harmful policies and a hateful culture and black-and-white thinking that ignores science and objective facts and affects pretty much every aspect of our lives and challenges our principles with every choice we make. It is exhausting even when surrounded by like-minded people. Personally I deal with it the same way I have dealt with depression and recursive thinking: by choosing to look for and find some small positive thing in every moment.

So you're in the backyard with your child and an in-law on a beautiful afternoon - you can think about how many refugee families will never have this experience, or how climate change will make these beautiful temperate afternoons a thing of the past, or how guilty you feel that you have a traditional lawn at all instead of pollinator-friendly plantings. Or you can breathe the clean air and hear your child's laughter and look for four-leaf clovers together and recognize your partner in the in-law's smile.

Every single moment of our lives is an opportunity to find beauty, joy and gratitude. That is not easy to find out in the world, online, at work or at school, although it is possible in those moments too. But at home, it's your call every moment whether to create a sanctuary or another battleground. It isn't about your in-laws being on the other side of the divide. It is about you, what you want for yourself, and what you want to teach your child.

There is nothing pollyanna-ish about this practice and it doesn't ignore the bigger picture. It is hard work, and it pays off not only in a more pleasant experience for everyone present but by briefly lifting some of the weight of this discouraging world off your shoulders. And that can replenish your strength to fight the good fight another day.
posted by headnsouth at 3:17 AM on August 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

So there are two ways to parse your question. One is dealing with your feelings about people whose political opinions seem horrific to you, and I think you've gotten some good advice about that.

But regarding how to actually deal with the people in front of you--not your feelings about them--well, I think you need non-political topics. It sounds like your life as you live it doesn't provide many/any of those (except maybe your kid), but if your goal is to spend time with your in-laws, then you might need to watch a TV show or movie that you might both like, talk about food or restaurants, sports, whatever. Find some topic that they can talk about that you can at least tolerate discussing and prepare to just focus on that for the visit.

My in-laws are lovely, but we don't have a ton in common. But my FIL is always good for a zany workplace story. Last time they were here, I was reading them some funny back columns from the Ask A Manager advice blog and we discussed them. My MIL can be relied upon to deliver news about her friends' kids if I ask. Again, they are lovely people so these conversations don't sidetrack into nastiness; that might not be the case for your family?

Again, this will not help you not hate or resent you in-laws. It might help you get through hours with them. But I'll also say, living close to them (and presumably spending a lot more time together) might not be a good plan for you at this point in time.
posted by gideonfrog at 7:21 AM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks everybody for the valuable answers!

Do talk about things like tax policy, marijuana legislation, and the like. If they are your family, they probably have a similar amount of detailed insights into policies. Nod and smile if they just regurgitate Fox News.

The problem is that they do just regurgitate Fox News. I know some of this is family dynamics ; I grew up in a household that engaged in discussions and debate daily, my partner's family doesn't relate that way and doesn't like disagreement. Their parents get their news and talking points from the local paper which leans conservative or Fox News, which makes discussion stilted and superficial on deep topics.

Another complicating factor is that my in-laws are allergic to our pets and won't come into our house anymore, so normal neutral go-tos like watching TV or cooking dinner are out.
posted by sock potato at 1:38 PM on August 21, 2018

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