How To Set Political Boundaries With Your Family

by JR Thorpe
Portrait of confident young woman in city park
Francesco Carta fotografo/Moment/Getty Images

It's the holiday season, the point at which the real intensity of the sh*tshow that is 2016 will come home to roost between the roasted brussels sprouts and the pumpkin pie. Even if you have a family that entirely shares your views, it's still possible to have an uncomfortable festive season as they hash out their particular ideas; but in this climate, it's more likely than ever that you'll be facing down opponents over the crisp tablecloth. Those relatives who hold anti-LGBT views, racist ideas, and idiotic beliefs they picked up from fake articles on Facebook will be empowered and out in force. How are you going to survive talking about politics with your family this Thanksgiving? Boundaries are here to help.

Political arguments during the holidays can, particularly in these times, seem like a good idea; if it's not your job to convert one of your nearest and dearest to a better point of view, whose job is it? And that's completely legitimate — but your duty to make the world a better place, one relative at a time, also needs to coincide with your duty to yourself and respecting them.

If you have the stomach for arguments about Democrats and Russia that go on all night, good for you. If you're still miserable and upset and just cannot handle it right now, that's cool too; this guide on how to establish personal boundaries with family about politics is for you.

Figure Out What You Will And Will Not Discuss

There are things that you may be able to talk about, with clarity, over stuffing and that weird thing Americans do with marshmallows and sweet potato. (Side note: what is that?!) Maybe you feel as if you can talk jobs, or The Emails, or climate change denial, or some other aspect of the political situation. Maybe there are other parts you simply feel as if you cannot touch with a bargepole because it will make you deeply upset, bring up opinions that you know will horrify you, or both. "Identify your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual limits," recommends Dr. Dana Giota at Psych Central.

If possible, clarify these boundaries with yourself beforehand. Sometimes this isn't entirely possible; how we feel in the moment, actually confronted with racist Uncle Bob and his ideas about making America great again as he's raging around the living room after six glasses of wine, can be substantially different from what we believe we may cope with beforehand. Perhaps you will under- or overestimate your own capacities. (Note: Psych Central makes the particular point that you may struggle to identify your boundaries if you're particularly empathetic and kind, because you're more likely to let people get away with things.)

Vocalize Your Boundaries Beforehand — And Stick To Them

If you're going to alert family members beforehand that certain things are off limits, a few notes: make it about the occasion itself ("I don't want our family time to be ruined/bogged down in argument") rather than your own feelings, if you feel they'll respond more positively to that tactic. And once you've declared that certain things are off-limits to others, you should stick to that, while keeping your no-go areas to yourself might give you more flexibility.

Note: you can't impose your boundaries on other people. Some of your family probably will want to have political arguments. You don't have to stick around to listen to them or contribute, though.

Plan For Escalation

Thanskgiving inevitability: too much food and booze, too many stupid programs on television, and things getting slightly out of hand. That's the way it works. You know your family pretty well: try to plot, ahead of time, how things might go, and how you might deal with them. Will somebody try to push past your boundary using guilt? ("Why are you ruining Thanksgiving like this?") Aggression? ("That's the liberal talking, always spineless.") Personal attacks? ("No wonder you can't keep a man, if this is the way you act.") Wheedling? ("Just one more thing, and then we can stop talking about it.") Minimizing? ("Oh my god, it's not that bad, man up.") What will you do if this happens? How will you get past the initial rush of hurt and anger that, deservedly, will meet these responses?

A good way to get out of this, according to counseling experts, is to focus on "I" statements. Even if they're lashing out at you, continue to frame your boundaries around yourself ("I'm not going to talk about that with you"). And retain a sense of your own rights. Therapist Dana Lancer articulates them: "You have a right to privacy, to say 'no,' to be addressed with courtesy and respect, to change your mind or cancel commitments, to ask people you hire to work the way you want, to ask for help, to be left alone, to conserve your energy, and not to answer a question, the phone, or an email." Keep a hold of these rights, and remind yourself if challenged that you're not just being difficult or controversial or odd.

Know That Some People Will Push It

People like to push boundaries. Some relatives are more intent on this than others, whether because they genuinely don't understand why you don't want to talk about something or because they think it's entertaining or pleasing to push you. (These are the "it's just politics" people.) The first time things come up that you're uncomfortable with, stop it. Nip it in the bud. You can explain your decision or not, but keep the explanation short and to the point; do not get drawn into elaborate justifications for your behavior, because that's a violation of your boundaries. It's your right. You can opt out, and you're going to, and they can deal with it.

... And Have A Plan For When They Keep Going

Have an action plan for this first moment: a rehearsed phrase about not wanting to discuss it, an explanation sentence if required, and a plan with another guest to change the subject, shift the focus off you, or remove yourself from the situation. This isn't exaggeration. Even the most experienced of boundary-setters need a plan. People are unpredictable and volatile, and this current political environment isn't helping. Get yourself prepped.

"A boundary that is not communicated," the counseling service of the University of Edinburgh notes, "is a boundary that is not working. We need to make clear that every boundary violation has a consequence. A boundary without consequence is just nagging."

Have A Go-To Exit Phrase

So it's done. You said no Hillary Clinton talk in your presence, or no calling you into an argument about Steve Bannon, and they've tried to do it anyway. Have something prepped for this precise event, because it's likely to happen. "Thanks, I'm not going to participate, actually," or "Nope, I'm out," or whatever else makes you feel as if they'll listen to you and gets your point across.

And follow it up. Do not keep engaging. Do not let them pull you back in again. Stay silent, or leave the conversation, or leave the room, or start talking determinedly about something else. Back up the phrase so that the phrase has meaning. If you think you have allies in the family, learn to understand each other's exit phrases; when you hear one, do something to help them get out of the situation in a diplomatic way.

Monitor How You're Feeling Throughout The Night

Keep a constant watch on yourself. How are certain conversations making you feel? Are you capable of sitting through a rant, or do you need to go outside and calm down? Is an area you previously thought you'd be cool arguing about no longer acceptable? Has somebody crossed a line and done something so hurtful or miserable that you feel the need to assert a new boundary? Take time-outs to return to yourself and check your mood.

Phrase this diplomatically if you want ("I just want to check the weather," "how are those potatoes doing," "I have such an upset stomach, I'll be in the bathroom"), but make space and time for it. The Huffington Post explains clearly why this is important: "by being able to check in with ourselves and recognize how we are feeling then we have separated ourselves from the other person." And separation from others is the first step to good, well-enforced personal boundaries.

Know Your Breaking Point

It is a reality that boundaries will meet with resistance. Psychology Today makes the salient point that setting a boundary in a family situation where behavior has previously gone unchallenged will almost certainly create anger, and points out that, in many situations, you do not need to "let an out-of-control person be the cue for you to change your course," because it's their problem, not yours. However, there are certain things that are unacceptable when it comes to boundary violations. What are they for you?

When I talk about boundary violations, I mean a range of behavior, from outright outrageous disregard to being made to feel ashamed or a bad person for possessing one. What you do when this point is hit is up to you, but it likely needs to be a complete removal from the situation, whether to another room or to another place entirely. If your boundaries are being disrespected constantly and everybody keeps asking about Hillary being a puppet for the Russians and getting in your face about it, you have every right to pull out, and to make it clear that their disrespect is why you're pulling out. Place the blame firmly where it belongs, and then get out, if you have to.

Bottom line: if you don't want to talk about something with your family or engage with it, you don't have to, but it's your job to back that up and stick to it.

Images: Francesco Carta fotografo/Moment/Getty Images; Giphy