‘I’m Not Going to Agree To Disagree’: 2021’s Heavy Toll on Relationships

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.”

10 thoughts on “‘I’m Not Going to Agree To Disagree’: 2021’s Heavy Toll on Relationships

  • 2021-12-30 at 10:34 am

    If think if you love someone, you try to understand. Within reason, of course. I have political disagreements with friends & relatives. But when you love a person, you try to work through those difficulties. Also, sometimes it’s best to steer clear of sensitive subjects. With certain people, it’s best to follow the rule, “Never talk about politics, sex and religion.” Happy New Year Loudoun!

  • 2021-12-30 at 11:12 am

    I’m not quite sure what to make of this hot mess of an article. The first 2/3rds seems to be pretty well pointless. Literally, you can skip it and lose nothing useful. There are people with whom I only discuss trivial topics. But those folks are not close friends and by definition, those relationships are not “deep” or “meaningful.”

    America desperately needs to have honest conversations about religion, politics, race and sex. But for too many “tolerant people” an “honest conversation” really means “sit down, shut up and let me tell you why you are not only wrong but evil.” That’s not a prescription for unification and national healing. But cutting out toxic people from your life is often necessary and it will generally lead to a better life. And that “sit down and shut up” attitude is a toxic message.

  • 2021-12-30 at 11:34 am

    The only people that really matter live in your house.

  • 2021-12-30 at 2:19 pm

    My wife and I are polar opposites on the political spectrum, however after being together since 1984, we simply do not discuss politics. We hold that same principle when we’re around friends or family and they begin to talk about politics. It’s really not that hard, discuss how bad the football team is, or your favorite restaurant.

  • 2021-12-30 at 4:00 pm

    I have found any number of people who believe themselves to be “inclusive and tolerant” are actually quite judgmental. A lot of that was evident in the theme of this column.

  • 2021-12-30 at 4:03 pm

    I think the past 5 years have been a stress test for the U.S. in particular. The stresses that have been applied have in many cases demonstrated the true colors of others. For those who are close to us, maybe in the past we suspected certain things or maybe never knew at all. Now we know. Where things do not cross a certain line, maybe we can work around them. Some of this is hard to ignore, though.

  • 2021-12-30 at 5:30 pm

    I find it amusing that the writer included two personal viewpoints from Loudouners in this column.
    One is a Covidian and the other a woke business owner.

    You couldn’t find anyone with different perspectives to these issues, or did these two simply say what you wanted to hear?

    The irony… it’s delicious.

  • 2021-12-30 at 5:38 pm

    Pretty sure this is an advertisement for McNerney. It has it all; the anonymous intolerants’ claiming ethical superiority over others. The blind mice believing that masks somehow keep you from contracting a planetary virus, all backed up with McNerney answers.

  • 2021-12-30 at 5:59 pm

    I grew up learning to agree to disagree. People are entitled to their opinions but we were still able to continue to be friends or colleagues. Race, religion and politics were avoided if possible but now that seems to be the only things people want to talk (fight) about. Political correctness is overdone as it does not allow for one’s personal opinions…right or wrong. I thought we were entitled to free speech and thought. Wasn’t it Patrick Henry (OMG, did he own slaves!) Who said …I may not agree with you but I defend to the death your right to say it…? ‘Nuf said…

  • 2022-01-01 at 1:26 am

    This country was not based on blood ties or ethnic identity. It was based on western culture including free speech, free thought, freedom of religion, personal responsibility (private property) and individual rights (majority does not get to vote away rights).

    This country is now composed of at least two major groups. The first group roughly believes in the principles upon which this nation was founded. And since the formation of this nation included a constitution with strict rules to amend it, those principles cannot be legally changed without a very arduous process that has not remotely been met. I will call these libertarians.

    The second group believes in collective welfare, the “right” not to be offended, the right for a bare majority to impose any state action (forced vaccinations for benign viruses), and the use of taxes to indoctrinate youth in government schools. I will call these progressives.

    If these groups represented any rational couple, they would get a divorce. Do any of the libertarians really want to live in a nation where there is no limit to how much personal property progressives can confiscate by force to hand over to their political allies especially to disincentive work? Do you want to live in a nation where you cannot speak facts (humans born with male DNA, reproductive organs, and physical traits like size and muscle mass cannot be told they are males), or where you are required to prioritize one’s skin color regardless of who raised them or how they were raised when interacting and assessing them? Do you want to live in a world, contrary to our entire culture’s history of risk-taking and exploration both internally and abroad, that is willing to sacrifice everything including our children and way of life because some folks will have a 0.1% increased chance of harm from a novel virus? The libertarians would have never signed up for such a deal.

    And do the progressives want to live in a nation where you can be offended? Where someone can point out to you that normalizing sexual grooming hurts the very groups you demand nobody question over their biology? Where you don’t have the right to decide how to collectively spend income that others worked hard to earn? Where you are not allowed to indoctrinate kids with your ideology or even retain monopoly control over the use of public funds for education? Do you really want to live in a world where individuals are free to defend themselves from criminals and thugs? And where kids are informed that “active shooters” are beyond rare and drills only serve the purpose of ginning up fear for future political movements?

    Neither side wants to live that way. In the past, one might move to a state closer to your ideological beliefs in our federal system. But the progressives will not allow that now as they demand the right to kill babies in all 50 states. And they demand unlimited open borders in the hopes that illegal immigrants will eventually help their ideology take control. And the progressives demand federalizing elections so voter rolls no longer need to be scrubbed (like Virginia’s was not in 2020) and IDs are outlawed for elections (but not for flying or even eating indoors in 2021 or 2022). There are benefits to scale for having a large country. But even divided in two, both would be larger than any European nation or even Japan. Why do we force ourselves to stay in a bad marriage?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: