Dear Dr V,
I know we’re barely into November, but I’m already stressing about the holidays. My mom recently remarried and her new husband and I have already had several arguments about politics … to the point where it’s kind of made us not like each other. I was home this past weekend and we really got into it bad — yelling at each other. My mom stays out of it, but I know it upsets her that we don’t get along. I want her to be happy but at the same time I don’t feel like I should compromise my beliefs.
It’s also my first year away at college so I’m excited to be going home for Thanksgiving, but I feel like my worries about what’s gonna happen at the dinner table are already ruining my time before I get there. What do you think?
Worried on the Left
I hope you don’t mind me finding some humor in your situation, but you should realize that the college student home for a visit getting into a rancorous political argument with a parent (or step-parent or whomever) is just about as American as Thanksgiving itself. Which is really another way of saying, you’re not alone in your frustration and anxiety. I’m sure many of your peers will be dealing with similar issues while they’re home. Perhaps even your parents went through a similar rough spot with their folks (after all, they were in their twenties too, Once Upon A Time).
However, I do recognize how frustrating and upsetting it can be to suddenly find yourself feeling like an outsider in your own home. Though you are technically “out of the house” at this point in your life, you are certainly still a member of the family. And there has been a major shift in your family, the addition of a new member.
While I don’t know the circumstances of your parents’ separation, I imagine that, in any event, seeing your mother married to a man who is not your father must take some getting used to. I don’t mean to invalidate your political beliefs (we’ll get to those in a moment) but I do think that it is possible that some of your other anxieties and emotions could be “hitching a ride out,” so to speak, on what are obviously deeply held and passionate beliefs for you. I certainly hope you have a joyous and relaxing holiday with your family, but should you find yourself in a moment of intense confrontation again, try to turn it into a moment of intense concentration for yourself.
When you feel that surge of anger and exasperation in the pit of your stomach, try to step out of the maelstrom and really analyze what it is you are feeling. Are you angry that you and your stepfather have different ideas about our foreign policy and tax code, or are you being activated on a deeper, perhaps even primal level? It could be that the child in you sees your mother’s new husband as an intruder, a pretender to throne of your family (Shakespeare got a masterpiece out of this emotion: Hamlet).
If you can address these emotions, maybe just by writing about it on your own, speaking with a friend or even a counselor (many colleges provide health services to students that include counseling), you could defuse some of these volatile feelings and find a way to move forward with your family in its new configuration. I realize this is a bit of a tall order to expect from anyone, but in your letter you seemed aware of how the situation could be difficult for your mother as well, and I think that reveals volumes about your own emotional depth and more importantly, capacity to grow and learn.
As for the political stuff … I’m afraid there’s not much that can be done. I’ve quoted the computer from the movie “War Games” before in situations like these: “The only winning move is not to play.” Aside from religion, there are few topics that will make otherwise rational people start behaving like rabid baboons faster than politics. For a long time I’ve wondered why this is. I think it comes down to people feeling threatened and invalidated at the most basic level.
Because when someone is told their beliefs or perceptions are wrong, it’s essentially their entire understanding of Life, The Universe and Everything that is being called out. They are being told that their very identity as a person is wrong.
That’s not only invalidation; it’s a disempowering violation, or at least an attempt at one. Not to say that is anyone’s actual motive (although a good deal of the pundit class does make me stop and wonder), but that’s how it is ultimately perceived. I know of no mind that was ever changed as a result of a shouting match. Personal experience is the only thing that will shift individual perception, be it a liberal stepping to the right after 9/11, or the just-returned home soldier signing up with Iraq Vets Against the War. As I stated in a previous column, by in large all the media has to offer are our own opinions shouted back to us, and I have a feeling your arguments with your stepfather could be similar in nature.
I would also challenge you to take things a step further, and try to understand your stepfather’s point-of-view. To my knowledge, democracy does not mean a nation in uniform, lock-step agreement, be it on the right or left. In theory, what makes a democracy (or even a family) strong should be the ability to express differing ideas and opinions with the understanding and acceptance that though everyone may not see things the same, there is a constant commonality: ultimately we all want the greatest good for everyone, we may just have varying ideas on what the best path to that place is. You said in your closing that you were “on the left.” Seek out some of the more reasoned and respected voices on the right. I don’t say this expecting you to change your mind, but it could perhaps help you understand better from where those you disagree with are coming. And in my opinion, replacing disagreement with understanding is most definitely a positive thing, and certainly something for which to be thankful.
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