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Does the President's Unity Message Apply to Collapsed Friendships?

My experience trying to repair cherished relationships in a polarized America

By Michael Lubell

As the iceberg split on social media between me and some of my best friends and family members, I realized politics and values caused the meltdown. The break, which had been growing over time, was unquestionably complete during the last four years, as the country's divisions widened.

Illustration of two friends standing back to back, friendship, relationships, political differences, Next Avenue
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Presdient Joe Biden said in his inaugural address that to overcome the nation's challenges, "to restore the soul and to secure the future of America – requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity. Unity."

But personally, in the past few years, the deeper my friendships and familial connections, the more noticeable the divide. The longer our history, the more noticeable the absence. Among the people where relationships frayed: some of my best buddies for 40 years or so and a cousin who was my wedding's Best Man, as I was his a few years later.

The Icebergs, Facebook and Twitter

I'd say I've lost two or three in my closest group of IRL friends and chilled out on a handful of others.

I discovered this paradigm as I began expressing my opinions on Facebook and Twitter, encountering unexpected contentious dissent from people I cared deeply about. But the gulf between us didn't always eventuate online.  Our politics came out at the darndest times — during dinner, golf or tennis, a catch-up phone call or an after-work drink.

But Facebook was the most common source of confrontation. Each of my opinion posts cost me a few dropped "friends" per post. I'd say I've lost two or three in my closest group of "In Real Life" friends and cooled on a handful of others. 

In fairness, most of these were not a complete surprise; I saw several coming. But what was so alarming was how quickly unspoken opposition could turn into heated and hurtful arguments.

One example: a 40-year friend who, in the past, shared his deepest and darkest family secrets with me. When he surprised me by sharing a political leaning diametrically opposed to mine, I tried to go forward with the conversation and get a better understanding. But I lost it and let him know how his position threatened the very basis of our friendship.

Things then escalated from calm to calamitous. I can still talk with him now, but I will never have the same feelings about our friendship.

My Best Man and Me

Then there was my formerly close cousin and Best Man. These days, we are on the Strict Avoidance Diet. His views are not just different from mine. Fundamentally, he seems like a completely different person to me than the man I've known for decades. 

While we've had few direct confrontations, I've overheard some ugly indirect utterances. He discussed his views with my son at his annual Father's Day party and I was tempted to call him out. I refrained.  We talk much less now. 

I have no hope of changing my cousin's views and I doubt he thinks he can change mine. All I would be able to say if we talked is that I love him and that I've spent the past five years trying to understand why we fell apart, but just can't. 

No one on my iceberg, I realized, was immune to the prospect, or reality, of Friendship Fatality. The only question for me was what to do about it. Could the bonds be saved? Were they even worth saving?

Many inhabitants of the alternate iceberg, I determined, were easy to let go.  But I needed to figure out how I could keep the ones that really mattered — if I could.

The first part of my plan was to stop the bleeding without stifling my intense anger and frustration.

So, I began reserving Facebook for family fun stuff, photo sharing and eventually, a series of snippets on COVID-19 life. Predictably, the Facebook fighting stopped. That was good, since I'd lost or unfriended 20 people there in the previous few years. 

Twitter, I decided, would be where I'd talk about politics and values, uncensored and unfiltered; I knew it was a social media platform many of my friends and family members didn't use much, if at all. For me, Twitter would be a satisfactory outlet to relay my anguish and ire, even if had been a disappointing vehicle for building a legion of followers.

Things Got Stickier Offline

But offline, particularly pre-COVID-19, the situation proved stickier.

It's not easy to let go of lifelong friends or family members who've drifted to the other iceberg.

The tension with two good friends shocked me, because we had gone through almost the entire 2020 election season without explicit candidate identification. And it contradicted our recent, and distant, past. First, we argued things out; then we moved to Agree to Disagree.  But those friendships will be diminished from this point on and I'm sad about it. 

As we've just seen through the lack of bipartisanship in the American Rescue Plan legislation, we're still at a point where some think that working out our differences is futile. 

Dealing with the Friendship Follies may seem analogous to cleaning out a closet you've been meaning to do for ages. But it's not easy to let go of lifelong friends or family members who've drifted to the other iceberg.

What to Try to Keep Relationships Intact

I've come out of my experience with a few ideas on what can work to repair relationships, or at least what might be worth trying.

Try avoidance. You can simply talk less in general, or you can talk as often as usual, but without a hint of politics.

I now need to be careful holding conversations with those who disagree with me. That means forfeiting spontaneity in favor of avoiding an unwinnable political conversation.

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COVID-19 has created the perfect excuse for avoidance. Use the pandemic as a cooling off period and a time to keep your distance politically.

Consider advanced avoidance. It sounds ridiculous, but for your best friends and closest family members, I recommend Advanced Avoidance. If they'll be coming over, don't have a TV news channel on. Don't share political videos unless you know you're on the same iceberg. 

Go back to the basics of friendships you want to retain. Very few of my buddies became buddies due to our political alliances. Most of these friendships began over things like hobbies, sports and restaurant favorites and grew from there.

Sports works for many reasons, if you're a big fan, as I am. Ultimately, all sports fans know that being partisan for life is just a matter of loyalty to something that doesn't mean very much.

My best friends were Dodgers and Red Sox fans; I grew up rooting for the Yankees. We don't believe one team has better values than the other or that any of us are inferior to the others because we support rival teams. Famed TV sportscaster Howard Cosell called sports "The Toy Department of Human Life." That's about right.

It's far better to play with toys than to walk into a heated political debate today. Talking up a sports team can make a party; political vitriol can ruin it.

Will we be able to get past our polarity?

I think so.

But it won't be easy. The polarity in America is still intense; party affiliation is still about as black and white as a COVID-19 test result. Until the climate is more centrist, politics and values will only unite people on the same iceberg.

Everyone is going to feel a lot better when the pandemic is behind us, and I think that could help unify the country. Maybe it'll create a value-changing, life-altering euphoria offering genuine opportunities to reconnect with estranged relationships.

The 2021 Olympics might help, too. There, athletes from countries with widely different political leanings will compete, putting aside politics. And we'll applaud whoever wins.

In the meantime, more avoidance and less confrontation seems advisable. Reducing confrontation may not happen in Congress, but I see no reason why friends and family can't respect each other. I hope we will.

Michael Lubell is a marketing consultant for small- to midsize firms and writing personal and business copy for his own company, ThinkAgain…! He is a proud Northwestern graduate and NYU MBA and father of two living in Westport, Conn. He was an online marketing pioneer who began his career pre-internet at companies like Revlon, L’Oreal and Best Foods.  Struck by the power and potential of the web, he went on to positions with companies like Yoyodyne Entertainment (e-mail games and sweepstakes) and Small World Sports (Fantasy Sports Games). He recently left the mortgage business (sales and marketing) to work in writing and consulting fulltime. Read More
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