Last year I went on vacation with a family friend. I’m an agnostic at best—I believe our human brains can’t possibly know for sure what high power operates in this universe. My friend couldn’t be more different: she’s a Christian with an intense and personal relationship with God.
The difference in our approaches to faith (or lack thereof) had always existed silently between us, but on the trip we had the chance to truly discuss our beliefs. As we sat in a bubbling hot tub I asked her questions, and she did the same. Some things we disagreed on passionately, but we were able to hear each other’s viewpoint. If the conversation got too heated, we changed the topic. We left the trip with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for each other and our approaches to life.
It was a rare and powerful conversation in a world that has become increasingly divisive. Whether it’s hot-button topics like reproductive rights or gun ownership, access to loan forgiveness or affirmative action, or even the lyrics of a country song, Americans sometimes seem more divided than either. Amid the tension, finding a way to coexist can seem impossible—an issue that’s bound to get even worse as the 2024 presidential race ramps up. And yet, there’s hope.
Here’s how to coexist with people who have different viewpoints from you—and when it may be time to establish stricter boundaries in your relationship with them.
Focus on your relationship
Having different views or beliefs can cause strife. Yet your willingness to put up with that discord likely depends on the foundation of the relationship that you have with the other person.
Even if you and your dad voted different ways in the last election, if you have a loving and open relationship with him you likely know that his vote didn’t make him a bad person, for example.
“Respect the person that is important to you by remembering why they are important in your life,” Lee Wright says. That can create the good will to see past your differences.
Take time to understand their perspective
Too often, we write our own stories about people who believe differently from us. But exploring and asking questions—like I did with my friend in that hot tub—can help you better understand where your loved one’s views come from.
Hearing about how my friend experienced God in her life helped me see why she formed her beliefs, for example. Although I would have interpreted similar experiences differently, I understood her perspective—and could even put myself in her shoes.
“Remembering that each person has an individual journey can help you not take a personal affront to a close family member or friend who holds differing views from your own,” Lee Wright says.
Focus on what you have in common
If you have a relationship with someone, chances are there’s common ground. It might be family ties, shared memories of growing up in the same town, a love for horse riding, a sober life, or really anything that brings you together. Emphasizing those connections can continue to strengthen the foundation of your relationship.
“Focusing on topics and experiences that can be shared and agreed upon can go a long way toward achieving mutual respect,” Lee Wright says.
My friend and I were already connecting over our love for travel and seeing new places. So, we were able to extend that to curiosity about each other’s spiritual beliefs.
Don’t try to change their mind
Things can go south when you try to change your loved one’s beliefs.
“If you want to coexist in a situation where you are confronted with a viewpoint that is vastly different than your own, you must choose to understand that you are not responsible for changing your loved one’s mind,” Lee Wright says.
So, practice the serenity prayer and practice accepting the things you cannot change—including your loved one’s sometimes frustrating belief system.
Table troublesome topics
Sometimes acceptance means agreeing not to discuss problematic topics. There are the classic three topics to never discuss: politics, religion, and money. But there might be seemingly smaller issues—like talking about sports with your co parent or inheritance with your siblings. The key is knowing what topics devolve into arguments rather than curious conversations, and avoiding those all together.
“It is essential to be clear about what topics are off-limits for discussion,” Lee Wright says.
All of the steps above are based on mutual respect. In order for them to work, both parties need to be invested. It’s ok to make it clear to the other person that you have boundaries—including not trying to change each other’s minds or not bringing up the topics you’ve decided to avoid.
“Boundaries are really about being a gatekeeper of your life,” says Mary Joye, a licensed mental health counselor. “They are not about keeping people out, but about keeping you safe and in peace.”
Know when to step back from the relationship
If the other person isn’t respecting your boundaries it may be time to weigh the benefits and costs of the relationship on your mental health.
“Reflect on how the opposing views are affecting your well-being, mental health, and overall quality of life,” Lee Wright says. “If the differences are causing constant stress, anxiety, or conflict, it may be time to decide if the relationship is more detrimental than beneficial.”
Facing estrangement can be difficult, especially from family members and close friends. Remember that limiting a relationship doesn’t have to be permanent—it can just be the right choice for this point in time.
“Everyone has a right to safety and peace, and if someone is disturbing your peace, you have the right to go no contact,” Joye says.
Sometimes, taking a pause or step back from a relationship can be a way to protect your sobriety, focus on your wellness, and prioritize your core beliefs.
“Limiting or ending a relationship can be an act of self-care and personal growth,” Lee Wright says.
Kelly Burch is a freelance journalist who regularly writes about addiction, recovery and mental health issues. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Vice, and more. Kelly isn’t in recovery herself, but comes from a family that has been touched by addiction in many ways. When she isn’t writing, Kelly enjoys kayaking or getting lost in the woods of rural New Hampshire, where she lives. Connect with Kelly via her website, Facebook or Twitter.