Christia Leandekar has navigated a series of opposing views of her two siblings and other loved ones since 2016, when the election of Donald Trump put a sharp, painful point on her political divide as she left the Republican Party of today. She left and she didn’t.
Then came the pandemic, the chaotic 2020 election and more conflict over masks and vaccinations. Yet she hung there to keep the relationship intact. That all changed in February 2021 during a devastating cold in the Dallas area, where they all live, with her husband and two of their three children. Leandekar’s middle child initiates a sex change, and Leandekar’s brother, his wife, and his sister cut off contact with his family. His mother got stuck in the middle.
“I was devastated. If you had told me 10 years ago, even five years ago, that I would be separated from my family now, I would have told you you were lying. We were a very close family. We took all the holidays together, “I’ve gone through all the stages of grief so many times,” says Leandekar, 49, a high school teacher.
Since, there has been no family picnic or group holiday. There was no mass gathering for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Going into the summer, nothing has changed.
For families fractured along the Red House-Blue House lines, the slate of summer reunions, trips and weddings is another exhausting period of stress at a time of heavy fatigue. Epidemic restrictions are gone but gun control, the fight for reproductive rights, the January 6 uprising hearings that blamed rising inflation and many other issues continue to boil over.
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silver, co-hosts of the popular Pantsuit Politics podcast, are hosting small group conversations with listeners about family, friendship, church, community, work and partners as they prepare for their second book, “Now What? How to move forward when we split (basically just about everything).”
What he’s heard is relatively consistent.
Stewart Holland says, “Everyone is still hurt by some degradation in their relationships over COVID.” “People still grumble about some friendships that have broken up, partnerships that are now strained, family relationships that have fallen apart. As soon as people start coming together again, that pain is right on the surface, About the last fight or the last disagreement or the last blow.”
She called this moment in a nation that is still heavily polarized “the bingo card of political struggle for some families right now.”
Reda Hicks, 41, was born and raised in Odessa, the center of the West Texas oil industry. Her family is large, conservative and deeply evangelical. She is the eldest of four siblings and the eldest of 24 cousins. His move to Austin for college was an eye-opener. His move to law school in ultra-progressive Berkeley, Calif., was even bigger.
She has been in Houston since 2005 and has seen friction between friends and family from two different worlds on her social media feeds, fueled by the distance of the Internet.
“There’s been a terrible caricature on both ends of that spectrum. Like, ‘I’m going to talk to you like you’re a caricature in the mind of a hippie’ or ‘I’m going to talk to you like you’re a business consultant and two Hicks, a mother of young children, says, “A roughness in my mind, which means you’re kind of stupid and have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“It all feels so personal now.”
Immigration and border security come to the fore regularly. So does abortion and access to health care for women. Religion, specifically the separation of church and state, is a third hot button. And gun reform has recently come to light in light of the mass school shootings in Uvalde and other massacres at home in Texas. She has relatives – including her retired military and conservative husband – who have and have guns.
In offline life, Hicks’ family interactions can be tense, but remain decent with regular meet-and-greets, including a recent group weekend at her second home in Pinewoods, East Texas.
She never considered the transition to not having contact with Orthodox loved ones. With a brother living across the street, it would be difficult to get him out. As a couple, Hicks and her husband have made a conscious decision to openly discuss their opposing views in the presence of their children, aged 11 and 5.
It’s kind of polite, making room for them to agree to disagree. “And we disagree a lot. But our ground rules are no names. If something gets extra hot, we take a timeout.”
No real ground rules have been set when it comes to the rest of their family, except for a change of subject when things start to boil over.
Daryl van Tongeren, an associate professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, is out with a new book on the calming power of abstinence, “Humble: Free Yourself from the Trap of a Narcissistic World.” In his eyes, Hicks has got it right, although cultural delicacy is a big demand for some divided families.
“Cultural humility occurs when we realize that our cultural perspective is not superior, and we display a curiosity to learn from others, seeing the multitude of diverse perspectives as strengths,” 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 maintaining their personal values. But how do we engage with those with whom we disagree.”
Van Tongeren is an optimist. “Humility,” he says, “has the ability to transform our relationships, our communities, and nations. It helps bridge divide, and it centers the humanity of each of us. And that’s what it is.” We are in dire need right now.”
In the humility camp, he is 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 during a barbecue isn’t going to change one’s mind. It only creates tension and hurts feelings,” Plante says.
Carla Bevins, assistant teaching professor of communication at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, focuses on interpersonal communication, etiquette, and conflict management. Compared to the stressful family time of Thanksgiving and Christmas, she says, the wells of emotional reserves have fallen even lower at the start of the approaching summer.
“We are so tired,” she says. “And often we’re formulating our response before we even really hear what the other person is trying to say. It should be about finding that commonality. Ask yourself, I’ll have a day.” How much energy do I have? And remember, there is always the option of not knowing.”