When Common Ground Isn’t Enough
Posted on August 26, 2013
I have a downer of a post to write in follow-up to my post about not dividing ourselves into allies and rivals. On Friday, I published a short piece about how we shouldn’t constantly measure everyone else by how much we agree or disagree with each other. Relationships should be valued over politics and religion and most disagreements. Today I want to write about how to recognize when a relationship does, in fact, need to be severed.
I firmly believe what I wrote on Friday: if you’ve chosen to be in a relationship with someone, whether that is a friend or a partner or someone else, it’s important to hold onto whatever things made you choose a relationship with that person.
But how do you know when it’s time to put an end to a relationship that has previously flourished? I’m not talking about breaking up with a partner over political disagreements. I’m talking about friendships that need to end–or at least drastically change–because “disagreement” doesn’t even begin to cover the issue. After all, “agreeing to disagree” is a useful and important skill to develop, and something I try to cultivate in myself and encourage in others, but sometimes it’s not enough.
These are my suggestions for when it may be time to end an established relationship with an individual or a group:*
1) When the relationship is abusive.
I wish this one didn’t have to be said, but it does: no one should feel obligated to stay in an abusive relationship of any kind–whether it is romantic, platonic, organizational, or otherwise–out of an attempt to “agree to disagree.” Abuse is not an issue of disagreement. It is manipulative, dangerous, harmful behavior that goes far beyond agreement or disagreement. Your abuser is not your rival or your ally–he, she, or it is your abuser.
2) When the relationship is toxic for you or the other party.
“Toxic” is one of those words that carries a lot of different associations for different people. Some people may think of toxic and abusive as synonyms, while others are quick to call anything that leads to any negative feelings ever as toxic. I think toxicity in a relationship is best explained by looking at the way the word is used in other contexts: to denote poison. When you find that a relationship feels like poison, and it sickens you emotionally or psychologically to continue being in relationship, it’s time to evaluate what is currently leading you to stay involved with that person. It doesn’t have to be abuse to be bad for you.
3) When you are part of a group that the other party is actively seeking to oppress or persecute, or when you are an ally to a persecuted group.
This is the one that I think is likely overlooked by those of us who want to get along. It’s easy for me, a straight, White, American woman with a good deal of financial privilege, to emphasize the importance of getting along. I definitely feel like working together despite differences is a worthy interpersonal and relational goal. However, there are plenty of times when that’s just not possible or ethical, especially in situations where one party is purposefully working to oppress or persecute a marginalized group. If you are part of a group whose rights are in jeopardy, you should never feel obligated to maintain a relationship with someone who is actively seeking to restrict your rights or your personhood. There are no hard rules here–of course, you may find that you are able to continue in a relationship with someone who is part of an oppressive group. But I find it hard to imagine how that can be healthy or beneficial. This is true if you are working to be an ally to an oppressed group, as well.
4) When the other party cannot handle discussions on the areas of your disagreement without descending into attacks, rage, and defensiveness.
The ability to discuss difficult areas of disagreement is hugely important in a healthy relationship, especially if it’s between friends or family members instead of casual acquaintances. It takes a lot of practice to learn how to discuss tricky political and social topics with people you disagree with–I certainly haven’t become an expert in this area yet. If you are unable to discuss your disagreements with someone because they turn into a raging ball of anger flames, it’s possible that the two of you really aren’t cut out for each other. If you find yourself fearful of their reactions to your beliefs, can you really be yourself around them?
*I am including groups here because I’ve seen so many people get dragged down or abused by organizations, churches, and institutions, but breaking ties with a group can be just as difficult as doing so with an individual.
Special thanks to my friend Ariel, with whom I’ve had some great conversations lately that helped me develop this list.