Can We Agree to Disagree?

In my over thirty-five years of professional counseling, I’ve never witnessed so many instances where friendships – even family relationships – have ended because of disagreements; in many cases, political disagreements. A reader recently emailed me about differences she has with her friend. The issues are on fundamental levels, and she wonders if there is a point where the gap between their values is simply too wide. She asks where that line is, and who she should remove from her life and who she should keep. There is so much political rancor and nastiness on TV “news” and on social media that I’m actually surprised that I didn’t get letters like this sooner.

When it’s between friends, I maintain that it’s not a solid line as much as an arbitrary point. Conventional “wisdom” whines, “Why, it’s selfish to think about who you should keep in your life.” People come up with this holier-than-thou reasoning and then proceed to act on their emotions by cutting people out of their lives without giving a reason – even to themselves. This is supposedly better, because it’s not “cold and selfish.” Ridiculous. Personal relationships require, and are entitled to, the use of reason as much as any area of life.

So what’s the standard? Simple: The standard is what the person brings to you emotionally. After each interaction, ask yourself, “What did I get out of that?” Do an inventory. Once you have an idea of what you did or didn’t get out of your contact with a person, ask yourself how important those things are to you.

There are degrees, of course. Your friend might prefer a different place to eat, but you both agree on eating, and when you do pick a place, it’s fun. This standard presumes two things. First, that every minute of your life is precious and important, and not to be squandered. We’re taught that it‘s “selfish” to think this way. Ridiculous again.  Most people want to apply this friendship test, but insipid ideas about self-interest preached by our supposed leaders get in the way. Beware of anyone who advises you to be selfless! They always want something.

Second, you need to be able to enjoy your own company. Some things are preferable when shared with another, of course, but if your primary goal is to be with somebody else just for the sake of not being alone, you’ll end up making compromises you shouldn’t make. “It’s Saturday night and I prefer to not be alone.” OK, but at what cost? Will you do something you don’t enjoy just so you’re not alone? This isn’t a good compromise. You’re better off reserving your mental/emotional space for somebody who enriches your life. This beats wasting precious hours doing something you don’t enjoy.

When it comes to disagreement, it depends on the degree. For example, perhaps someone you know doesn’t believe in honesty, but you do. She lies whenever she feels like it. This can have very real consequences for your friendship. Why would you want to be friends with a liar?

There are also political, religious or philosophical disagreements among friends. The reader asks at what point she should no longer be friends. There’s no preordained formula, other than the standard I’m offering here. There are a lot of bad philosophical ideas with which we are brainwashed from childhood. Some people internalize these ideas more than others. You can’t necessarily hold that against someone if they otherwise bring value to your life.

It all boils down to what you get out of being with a person. There is no line to draw. It’s all relative. If you get something satisfying – even a smile – out of being with somebody, then you have nothing for which to apologize. Problems only arise if you get less out of being with somebody than what you’re putting into the relationship. At that point, you’re not being true to yourself.