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3 Ways to Save a Friendship When You Have Completely Different Social Values

Is brunch with your pal more a political debate than a catch-up? An expert explains what to do.
Photo Credit: Sara Kiesling

Photo Credit: Sara Kiesling

Conventional wisdom dictates that politics and religion are the two things we must absolutely avoid in polite conversation. But with divisive headlines ruling the day, even the most casual conversation on pop culture can become a land mine.

Liberal and conservative, pro-life and pro-choice, gay marriage and traditional marriage, God is love and God doesn’t exist—never before have we had so much to tear us apart. These issues extend beyond how we vote—they influence how we live. More than that, they identify us, which is why most people pick friends based, among other things, on shared ideology. It’s a wonderful thing to be surrounded by like-minded people with whom we can form meaningful friendships.

But how do you navigate differences in ideology within those friendships that were formed less on shared viewpoints and more throughout the waves of life—those that have grown from childhood or were forged on the front lines, at a first job, or through a kind gesture when you needed it most?

Two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, recently wrote in The Atlantic about how they have reconciled their friendship and come to terms with their disagreement on the issue of gay marriage. For Mary—who is gay and married to her partner, Becky—and Elizabeth, who feels strongly that marriage is something reserved for a man plus a woman, this social issue is as personal as it can get.

“Many people, and even many of my friends, would say that [Elizabeth’s] judgment about marriage is by definition a judgment against me. I can understand this view,” Mary says.

But Mary goes on to explain that she has learned that her sister can both love her and have a very different answer to the question, “What is marriage?”

“Ultimately what I care about is not her view on any particular issue—no matter how personal—but the actual content of our relationship. Of course being gay is a huge part of who I am, but it’s definitely not all that I am,” Mary says. 

Elizabeth echoes, “I love my sister not for (or against) her sexuality, but for her total personality, which includes humor, intelligence, beauty, kindness, and generosity. In a word, I love her character.”

I allow my belief system to influence the way I live my life, and I want my friends to support me in everything I do. When we disagree on the people we date or marry and the way we practice our faith (or don’t), it can feel as though an irreconcilable wedge has been driven between us, and any friendship that was there must fade away.

But, like Mary and Elizabeth, I have also come to understand that friendship and strongly felt differences—be it over gay marriage, dating habits, or religious practice—are not mutually exclusive.

Instead of watching our friendships fall apart over passive aggression, friend-group segregation (“she wouldn’t get along with my like-minded friends”) or suffocation by the big, fat elephant in the room, we can take steps to help those friendships flourish. 

I asked Zach Brittle, Verily contributor and certified Gottman therapist (world-renowned, science-based relationship help for couples), to weigh in on how to disagree and stay close with your friends. 

01. Agree to disagree. 

“Let’s just agree to disagree,” we hear people say, and this is usually just another way of saying, “Lets never talk about it again.” But Brittle explains that agreeing to disagree is not about never discussing something again—it’s about prioritizing the relationship over the issue. “The fact that we disagree doesn’t mean we have a problem,” Brittle explains. “It means that we have an opportunity to learn and grow but only if we’re curious and willing to suspend judgment.”

Sometimes pausing the conversation when disagreements become heated or circular is the best way to show the other person that you value your relationship. As passionate as you may feel about the topic of conversation, it’s not the only thing you feel passionately about. Take this opportunity to move on to something you do connect on, and focus on that for a while. It doesn’t mean the doors of discussion on the other topic are closed forever; it just means you acknowledge that your differences don’t have to be resolved right then and there.

02. Tell her you love her.

It’s easy to let criticism from a friend feel like a judgment of character. We all feel defensive and vulnerable when someone is critical of our actions or beliefs. Brittle says that the best way to communicate to a friend that you love her—despite your opposition—is to simply tell her just that. Brittle explains that it’s OK to express your differences, but do so without prejudgment. “Being right doesn’t mean that you have to be righteous,” he says. “And if you are right, you’d rather your friend know that you have her back no matter what than have her expect you to say, ‘I told you so.’”

Go ahead and preface any criticism or contention with reassurance of how much you value your friend and your friendship. This doesn’t mean you hate her or think she is ill-intentioned; it just means you don’t agree on everything and wish she would consider your point of view.

03. Assume a humble posture.

You may think you are right, but it won’t help your friendship if you take the “holier-than-thou” approach. “It’s all about posture, I think,” Brittle says, by which he means your mental or spiritual attitude. “Will you have a posture of humility and curiosity or one of superiority and conviction?” Whether or not you are the one who’s on the right side of history, refusing to acknowledge your friend’s point of view will only damage your relationship—and won’t do much to convince her, either.

Be sure to hear your friend out and attempt to understand where she is coming from. Ask her for reading suggestions that might help you better understand her side of things, and then follow up with feedback that is both unassuming and respectful. Ask questions, and listen to her answers. You will likely be rewarded by an attentive ear in return.