For deeply divided families, a summer of hot buttons begins
NEW YORK – Kristia Leyendecker has navigated a range of opposing views from her two siblings and others close to her since 2016, when the election of Donald Trump put a sharp and painful point on their political divisions as she s away from today’s Republican Party and they didn’t.
Then came the pandemic, the chaotic 2020 election, and more disputes over masks and vaccinations. Still, she hung on to keep the relationships intact. Everything changed in February 2021 during the devastating freeze in the Dallas area where they all live, she with her husband and two of their three children. Leyendecker’s middle child began a gender transition, and Leyendecker’s brother, wife, and sister cut off contact with his family. Their mother was caught in the middle.
“I was devastated. If you had told me 10 years ago, even five years ago, that I would now be separated from my family, I would have told you that you were lying. We were a very close family. We We did all the holidays together. I went through all the stages of grief several times,” says Leyendecker, 49, a secondary school teacher.
Since then, there have been no more family picnics or group vacations. There were no mass gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas. As summer approaches, nothing has changed.
For families fractured along house red-house blue lines, the summer slate of reunions, travels and weddings poses another grueling set of tensions at a time of great fatigue. Pandemic restrictions are gone, but gun control, the fight for reproductive rights, hearings on the January 6 insurrection, which are to blame for soaring inflation and a host of other issues continue to simmer.
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers, co-hosts of the popular Pantsuit Politics podcast, hosted small group conversations with listeners about family, friendships, church, community, work and partners as they launched their second book, “Now What? » How to move forward when we are divided (on practically everything).
What they heard is relatively consistent.
“Everyone is still really hurt by some of the COVID fallout from their relationships,” says Stewart Holland. “People are still heartbroken over certain friendships that have crumbled, partnerships that are now strained, family relationships that have grown apart. As people begin to come together again, this pain is on the surface, about the last fight or the last disagreement or the last outburst.
She called this moment in a still highly polarized nation a “political conflict bingo card for some families right now.”
Reda Hicks, 41, was born and raised in Odessa, the epicenter of West Texas’ oil industry. His family is large, conservative and deeply evangelical. She is the oldest of four siblings and the oldest of 24 first cousins. His move to Austin for college was a revelation. Even more important was his move to ultra-progressive Berkeley, Calif., for law school.
She’s been in Houston since 2005 and has seen the friction between friends and family from her two very different worlds grow on her social media feeds, emboldened by the distance the internet offers.
“There has been a horrible caricature at both ends of this spectrum. Like, “I’m going to talk to you like you’re the caricature of a hippie in my head” or “I’m going to talk to you like you’re the caricature in my head of a thug”, which means you’re a stupid anyway and you have no idea what you’re talking about,” says Hicks, a business consultant and mother of two young children.
“Everything feels so personal now.”
Immigration and Border Security appear regularly. The same goes for abortion and access to health care for women. Religion, especially the separation of church and state, is a third hot spot. And there is gun reform in light of the recent mass shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas and other massacres. She has relatives – including her retired military and conservative husband – who own and carry guns.
In life offline, Hicks’ family interactions can be strained but remain civil, with regular get-togethers that include a recent group weekend at his second home in the East Texas Pineywoods.
She never considered a transition to no contact with conservative loved ones. With a brother living just across the street, that would be hard to achieve. As a couple, Hicks and her husband made a conscious decision to openly discuss their opposing views in the presence of their children, ages 11 and 5.
It’s a kind of humility, allowing them to agree to disagree. “And we disagree a lot. But our ground rules are undeniable. If something gets too hot, we take a time out.”
No real ground rules are set when it comes to the rest of their families, other than changing the subject when things seem to be heading for an overflow.
Daryl Van Tongeren, an associate professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, has just released a new book on the quiet power of restraint, “Humble: Free Yourself from the Traps of a Narcissistic World.” In his eyes, the Hicks are right, although cultural humility is a big ask for some divided families.
“Cultural humility is when we realize that our cultural perspective is not superior and we demonstrate curiosity to learn from others, seeing the multitude of diverse approaches as a strength,” says Van Tongeren. “This humility does not come at the expense of fighting for the oppressed, nor does it require people to be reluctant to stand up for their personal values. But the way we engage with the people we are not with agreement is important.”
Van Tongeren is an optimist. “Humility,” he says, “has the potential to change our relationships, our communities and our nations. It helps to bridge the divisions and center the humanity in each of us. And that’s what we desperately need right now.”
In the camp of humility, he is not alone. Thomas Plante, who teaches psychology at Santa Clara University in California, a liberal Jesuit school, recommends the same.
“Having a lively conversation at a picnic or barbecue won’t change your mind. Typically, it just creates tension and hurts feelings,” Plante says.
Carla Bevins, assistant professor of communication at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, focuses on interpersonal communication, etiquette and conflict management. Emotional reserve sinks fell even lower at the onset of near summer, she says, compared to the stressful family times of, say, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“We are so tired,” she said. “And so often we formulate our own response before we even really hear what the other person is trying to say. It must be a question of finding this common point. Ask yourself how much energy do I have in a day? And remember, there’s always the option of not going.
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