Did you lose a friendship in 2021? Cut loose a cousin on social media? Argue with a parent, adult child or spouse about masks or vaccines?
If the answer is yes, you’re not alone.
As the pandemic moved through its second year, politics became personal in ways it never had before. Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano recently labeled 2021 “the year of losing friends.” And as Loudoun became ground zero in a series of culture war battles, it often felt like the concept of “agree to disagree” had become a thing of the past, even among close friends and family members.
One longtime Loudouner, who asked to remain anonymous, reflected on her decision to end a formerly close long-term friendship. She and her friend have been on opposite sides of the political aisle for years but managed to work around it—until this year.
“We really avoided the conversations,” she said. “We managed to circumvent conversations about politics. … We always kind of let each other be where we were–without saying much and agreeing not to say much.”
But things began to change as COVID shook the political landscape. It started in 2020 as the friend began to express anti-mask sentiments, which she viewed as a lack of concern for the community.
“I think it all boils down to respect for others,” she said. “I had a problem with that. I didn’t say anything, but I was witnessing it and it was making me angry. …My blood pressure just amped up. Each time was like a little nail in the coffin for me.”
Her growing discomfort with her friend’s positions came to a head after the Jan. 6 insurrection, and she decided to let the friendship fade away.
“At this point we were so far apart. … It’s so depressing that things could be so bad that dear friendships could be completely obliterated.”
But what is it about 2021 that has made political tensions so raw and personal? Leesburg-based counselor, author and Loudoun Now contributor Neil McNerney said a big part of the equation is the pressure cooker of the pandemic as it moves into its third year, combined with a social media environment that amplifies differences and points of contention.
“People’s resilience in general is exhausted. Because of COVID, because of true fear for life, because of the loss of so many people and worries about that for such a long period of time, we’re exhausted,” McNerney said.
The initial sense of “we’re in this together” that many neighbors felt in early 2020 quickly evaporated, he said.
“We were kind of being brought together in a way with the pandemic, but then that gets exploded. There are people that are pro-vaccine, there are people that are anti-vaccine. There are people that are pro-mask, there are people that are anti-mask. And once people have made that decision which side they’re on, they’re not interested in hearing from anybody that doesn’t agree with them.”
McNerney adds that social media has exposed and amplified differences that used to be easier to ignore. Touchy subjects that might have caused discord once a year at the holiday dinner table are now ever-present thanks to social media. There are fewer gray areas, and many people feel a greater need to take sides and dig in.
“We go through life under this assumption that people that we interact with have a similar view of the world as we do, and that, of course, is a mistake,” McNerney said. “We’re getting more information. Things that wouldn’t normally come up are now coming up. … Because of the environment that we’re living in, most people feel like they have to make a choice on some of these topics. So we start looking at others who are not choosing our side as somehow different from us.”
Along with the pandemic, tensions around racial justice and LGBT rights took center stage in Loudoun and nationwide, bringing a highly personal edge to political debate. And the old ideas of civil discourse often went out the window.
Another longtime Loudoun resident and small business owner who also wished to remain anonymous said local and national discussions around race and LGBT equity created a breaking point for a local friendship, led her to cut ties with several extended family members with whom she was once close and damaged relationships with some former clients.
“I’m old enough to remember when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill had lunch, and they were polar opposites,” she said. “But when your stands stop being opinions about things and start being attacks on people I care about, it’s not a difference of opinion, it’s a difference of ethics and understanding. … I’m not going to agree to disagree.”
For her, cutting ties—both virtually and in real life—was a difficult but necessary choice.
“It was super painful, but after a while I was like, ‘We’re done,’” she said. “I had to cut them loose.”
But as pandemic-era politics creates discord within long-term friendships and extended and nuclear families, not everyone is willing or able to end relationships. McNerney said in some cases, it pays to resist the temptation to walk away.
If you want to preserve a strained relationship in a politically charged atmosphere, McNerney has a three-pronged strategy that in many ways reflects a return to old-school conventions about discussing politics and religion.
The first rule of thumb, he said, is to remember the reasons that friendship or connection existed in the first place. “There was something about that person that drew you to them initially,” he said.
Second: avoid assumptions, labels and presumptions that someone’s take on one issue offers a broader picture of their heart. “Give them the benefit of the doubt.,” McNerney said. “Don’t just assume that they’re a racist, an idiot, a snowflake. … If you want to have a relationship with that person, it’s important to do that.”
The third element is setting expectations within relationships. “Agree to a certain set of boundaries on discussion: ‘I understand your opinion, you understand my opinion. There’s no benefit in focusing on that. We can talk about other things,’” McNerney said. “Remember that every adult that you are coming in contact with—it’s extremely likely that they have already formed opinions on these things and are not likely to change much.”