I had a conversation with Steena of Provocative Mama about being a social justice advocate among people who disagree with you. At what point does a relationship go from healthy, respectful differing opinions to toxic? How do you decide if someone just doesn’t need to be a part of your life?
On one hand, if we’re only around people who agree with us, we cannot change hearts and minds in the culture at large. On the other, we’re only human. We should have limits to keep ourselves healthy, including which people we choose to connect with. It’s not fun cutting out someone who’s surpassed those limits, but the alternative – constantly sampling the toxic stew they create – just isn’t sustainable.
Here are some questions to ask if you’re wondering whether continued contact is worth it.
1. Do they respect your opinions, even if they don’t agree with them?
Do they listen when you’re speaking? Do they belittle the issues you’re interested in? Do they imply you’ve come to hold differing opinions because you’re uneducated or an idiot? (Mansplaining is included in this category.)
I don’t care how you did in school, or how dumb you think you are compared to your circle of acquaintances, or how much better read you think the other person is, or what degree they have. You should never be talked down to for your feelings or opinions.
Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” The most intelligent, educated professors I had in college were in constant learning mode, even with us undergratuates. They were always listening, not just because they were hoping to gain a new perspective, but because they also respected us as people. Chances are if someone’s talking down to you, they’re not nearly as wise as they think they are.
2. Do they respect your time?
Do they expect you to drop what you’re doing to interact with them? Are they personally offended if you have busy periods in your life when socializing is not a priority? Do they demand attention instead of asking for it?
There’s nothing wrong with sitting down with someone and respectfully asking for more of their time. ( i.e. “I feel disconnected from you, could we plan to spend some time together? I value our relationship and want to invest in it.”)
But demanding time, especially with ultimatums. (i.e. “If you want this relationship to continue you’d better call soon.”) is unacceptable. This includes when people require you to explain your status in detail on say, reproductive issues, right that second and imply if you’re not available to do so it’s because you are afraid to argue with them. Sometimes you just really need to get the laundry done, go to an appointment, or sleep.
This also includes respecting your need to be alone. If you’re involved in a social justice movement and an introvert, alone time is essential to your continued ability to participate. “I can’t come because I need to be in bed with a novel and my cats” is a perfectly legitimate reason not to go somewhere. Just add, “Can we reschedule?” to let the person know you’re still interested.
3. Do they exhibit empathy and feeling towards other people?
Are they able to see when other people are in pain? Do they care? Do they equate people they don’t like with things like meat or animals? Do they use racial, gender, or sexual slurs?
Maybe they don’t talk about you like that, but you’d better believe they could. For instance, if you’re a woman and a man says his ex is a cunt, don’t fool yourself into thinking he respects you. He doesn’t respect women period.
When the Supreme Court announced it’s decision to legalize same sex marriage, one person I knew said he should be able to marry bacon, because he loved bacon, implying that gay people are somehow the same as a slab of meat. Another person I knew called the black people rioting in Baltimore “animals”. Neither are part of my social network anymore, as far as it’s in my power to avoid them.
There is nothing – nothing – more toxic that being around someone who doesn’t acknowledge other people as human beings. Kill that connection. Kill it with fire.
4. Finally, what does your gut say?
Do you experience anxiety or disquiet after interacting with this person? Are your sleep or eating patterns affected? Do you dread spending time with them? Is something about the relationship just off, but you can’t put your finger on it?
You do not need a reason for refusing to interact with someone. You do not owe them an explanation. You owe them respect, but not a relationship of any kind. When your intuition tells you something is wrong, believe it.
Fighting for relationships and building community is important work. Please don’t think I’m advocating simply tossing people out of your life who disagree with you. I am so grateful for the family and community who challenge me on my views. They show incredible patience and help me grow.
And please don’t think I’m waiting for you to make a mistake so I can have a reason to shut you out. We are all working through the hard questions and battling our own human nature, and we give and receive a lot of grace in the process.
But sometimes, after I’ve asked these questions about a relationship over and over for months – or more often years – and I keep coming up with the wrong answers, I can respect myself enough to cut ties and move on. Sometimes the person just needs time to grow and the connection can be reestablished later. Sometimes not. Either way, I’m healthier and happier in the long run.