For Families Deeply Divided, a Summer of Hot Buttons Begins
Kristia Leyendecker has navigated a range of opposing views from her two siblings and other loved ones since 2016, when Donald Trump’s election put a sharp, painful point on their political divisions as she drifted from the Republican Party of today and they didn’t.
Then came the pandemic, the chaotic 2020 election and more conflict over masks and vaccinations. Yet she hung in there to keep relationships intact. That all 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, his wife and her sister cut off contact with her 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 estranged from my family, I would have told you you were lying. We were a very close family. We did all holidays together. I’ve been through all of the stages of grief multiple times,” says the 49-year-old Leyendecker, a high school teacher.
Since, there have been no family picnics or group vacations. There were no mass gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Heading into summer, nothing has changed.
For families fractured along red house-blue house lines, summer’s slate of reunions, trips and weddings poses another exhausting round of tension at a time of heavy fatigue. Pandemic restrictions have melted away but gun control, the fight for reproductive rights, the Jan. 6 insurrection hearings, who’s to blame for soaring inflation and a range of other issues continue to simmer.
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers, co-hosts of the popular Pantsuit Politics podcast, have been hosting small group conversations with listeners about family, friendships, church, community, work and partners as they’ve launched their second book, “Now What? How to Move Forward When We’re Divided (About Basically Everything).”
What they’ve heard is relatively consistent.
“Everyone is still really hurt by some of the fallout in their relationships over COVID,” Stewart Holland says. “People are still brokenhearted about some friendships that fell apart, partnerships that are now strained, family relationships that are estranged. As people start to come back together again, that pain is right on the surface, about the last fight or the last disagreement or the last blowup.”
She called this moment in a nation still greatly polarized as a “bingo card of political conflict for certain families right now.”
Reda Hicks, 41, was born and raised in Odessa, the epicenter of the West Texas oil industry. Her family is large, conservative and deeply evangelical. She’s the oldest of four siblings and the senior of 24 first cousins. Her move to Austin for college was an eye-opener. Her move to ultra-progressive Berkeley, California, for law school was an even bigger one.
She’s been in Houston since 2005 and has watched friction among friends and family from her two very different worlds devolve on her social media feeds, emboldened by the distance the internet affords.
“There’s been a horrific caricaturing on both ends of that spectrum. Like,
I'm going to talk to you like you are the caricature in my mind of a hippie' orI’m going to talk to you like you’re the caricature in my mind of a roughneck,’ which means you’re an idiot either way and you have no idea what you’re talking about,” says Hicks, a business consultant and the mother of two young children.
“It all feels so personal now.”
Immigration and border security pop up regularly. So does abortion and access to health care for women. Religion, particularly the separation of church and state, is a third hot button. And there’s gun reform in light of the recent mass school shooting in Uvalde at home in Texas and other massacres. She has relatives — including her retired military and conservative husband — who own and carry guns.
In offline life, Hicks’ family interactions can be tense but do remain civil, with regular get-togethers that include a recent group weekend at her second home in the Pineywoods of East Texas.
She has never considered a transition to no contact with conservative loved ones. With a brother living just across the street, that would be difficult to pull off. As a couple, Hicks and her husband have made a conscious decision to openly discuss their opposing views in the presence of their children, ages 11 and 5.
It’s a humbling of sorts, making space for them to agree to disagree. “And we disagree a lot. But our ground rules are no name calling. If something gets extra heated, we take a timeout.”
No real ground rules are set when it comes to the rest of their families, other than a change of topic when things appear headed for a boil over.
Daryl Van Tongeren, an associate professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, is out with a new book on the quiet power of restraint, “Humble: Free Yourself from the Traps of a Narcissistic World.” In his eyes, the Hickses have got it right, though 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,” Van Tongeren says. “This humility does not come at the cost of fighting for the oppressed nor does it require that people shy away from upholding their personal values. But how we engage with people with whom we disagree matters.”
Van Tongeren is an optimist. “Humility,” he says, “has the potential to change our relationships, our communities and nations. It helps bridge divides, and it centers the humanity of each of us. And it is what we desperately need right now.”
In the humility camp, he’s not alone. Thomas Plante, who teaches psychology at California’s Santa Clara University, a liberal Jesuit school, urges the same.
“Having a heated conversation during a picnic or over the barbecue isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. It only creates tensions and hurt feelings as a rule,” Plante says.
Carla Bevins, an assistant teaching professor of communication at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, focuses on interpersonal communication, etiquette and conflict management. The wells of emotional reserves have fallen even lower at the start of summer’s closeness, she says, compared to the stressful family times of, say, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“We’re so worn out,” she says. “And so often we’re framing our own response before we really even hear what the other person is trying to say. It needs to be about finding that commonality. Ask yourself, how much energy do I have in a day? And remember, there’s always the option to just not go.”