Orly Benaroch Light
President and CEO of Mid-Life Women

How Politics, Pandemics, and Wars Impact Personal Relationships 

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On my journey through mid-life, I have come to treasure friendships more deeply than ever. Friends, often seen as our chosen family, help shape our world. They can offer a unique comfort that even our biological families cannot provide, a perspective and level of support that is free of the potentially stressful dynamics of blood-related ties. Recent studies published in the Journal of Personal Relationships show how having a tight-knit circle of friends provides immense benefits and adds to our health and overall happiness.

Despite the strength and resilience of friendships, in some instances, they have been profoundly challenged by recent domestic and international events. The election of Donald Trump, the looming possibility of his return, and the global upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have strained connections. On top of that, the atrocities committed by the Hamas terrorist attacks on and since October 7, 2023, have not only rocked the world; they have reverberated through our personal lives, testing the strength of friendships like never before.

Testing the Bond: A 34-Year-Old Friendship Faces its Greatest Challenge

Our friendship, stretching back to 1986 when we met in a quaint boutique on Sherbrooke Street, Montreal, offers insight into how politics can influence personal relationships. Amidst the shared joy of discovering treasures and exchanging stories, we bonded over our views on gender roles, fought for women’s rights, and navigated the complexities of family and marriage.

Over the years, as we moved to different locations, our bond only deepened. We became an integral part of each other’s lives, celebrating milestones like her wedding and my son’s bar mitzvah and providing support through the heartache of divorce. We were committed to annual get-togethers, frequent phone calls, and ongoing email exchanges.

A few years ago, our friendship started to change subtly, but unmistakably. As my friend entered a new relationship, our once frequent conversations gradually faded, and our eagerly anticipated annual gatherings were sporadic. These things happen with the ebb and flow of life, but the shift became starkly evident when political rifts emerged. During the 2020 elections, she spread Biden-related misinformation to align with her new Trump-supporting partner.

Political differences were not new terrain for us; we had encountered varying opinions on topics like education and healthcare with respect before. This divergence, however, felt profoundly different. It was not a debate about policy or governance nuances but a stark contrast in our stances on a presidential candidate whose ethos seemed at odds with the values of kindness and tolerance we both cherished. As the political climate intensified, so did the strain on our friendship, bringing me to a point I never thought possible: questioning if political discord could cause the end of a bond that had been endured, cherished, and valued for over three decades.

The Strain of Shifting Beliefs and Values on a Longstanding Friendship

My friend’s dramatic shift towards extremist views left me bewildered, especially given our long history of advocating for women’s rights together. It was not simply about having different political viewpoints; we had navigated those waters before without endangering the anchor of our friendship.

What set this apart was her relentless criticism of Biden – a candidate whose legislative contributions included the landmark Violence Against Women Act – in favor of Trump, whose behavior contradicted the very principles we had always embraced. This deviation was not just a matter of political choice; it felt like a betrayal, as if she was willing to ignore the type of bigotry we had always stood united against.

Social media, especially Facebook, which once served as our platform to share life’s joys and sorrows, morphed into a battleground for political ideologies, significantly amplifying these changes. It deepened divisions, with people flaunting differences rather than discussing them. The spreading of misinformation troubled me deeply, as it seemed to reinforce her newfound views. She had changed from the friend I once knew. It pained me to see how easily unverified narratives could sway the convictions we once held dear.

Considering the circumstances, I unfriended her from Facebook, to avoid constant reminders of our differences. It was a symbolic gesture, underscoring the deafening silence that had replaced the warmth and love of this friendship, now plagued by political differences. I messaged her immediately to let her know why I made that decision. I didn’t realize that when you unfriend someone on Facebook, they may unfriend you back in real life.

The Aftermath of a Heated Election

The election’s conclusion brought a mixed sense of relief and an ounce of hope for mending bridges. I reached out to her, hoping the intense political fervor that had driven us apart might dissipate, opening a path to mend our friendship.

But my attempts to reconnect were met with a silence that spoke volumes. When she finally replied, her words revealed how her loyalties had changed, prioritizing her new relationship over our years of friendship. I was stunned. How could she, who once stood beside me in the battle for women’s rights, now align herself with someone whose behavior and rhetoric so deeply opposed the values we had fought for together?

The aftermath of the election not only strained friendships but also revealed some troubling realities within my conservative family. Diving deep into policy issues while volunteering for Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign equipped me with insights that I was eager to share. Yet, the more I tried to engage family members in meaningful dialogue, the more they dismissed me, labeling me as a lost cause.

Their unwavering support for Trump didn’t just surprise me; it revealed an unsettling comfort with racist, nationalist, and sexist rhetoric championed by him and other far-right figures. It wasn’t just an American phenomenon – some of my family members were Canadian, a disturbing reminder that extremism knows no borders. These revelations hit me like a tornado, shaking the foundation of our relationships and signaling a dramatic shift in how we interacted.

The pandemic also deepened the divisions within my family. One of my siblings became a vocal critic of the pandemic response, refusing to wear masks and resisting vaccination. Their belief that the pandemic was a deliberately orchestrated deception was shocking. Witnessing their denial of a crisis that gripped the world in fear and sorrow strained our relationship even more. It made clear how deeply our perspectives and worldviews had driven us apart.

Kristina Lerman, a principal scientist at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, unearthed a phenomenon in her research that resonated deeply with my personal experience. She called it a “majority illusion” – a scenario where a few vocal individuals within a social network create the false perception that a particular idea, opinion, or product is more popular than it is. This illusion, Lerman suggested, could explain why some individuals embrace minority opinions or how the entire movement gains momentum seemingly out of nowhere. Reflecting on this, I realized how it shaped the perceptions and beliefs within my circle of friends and family in surprising and unsettling ways.

Following the violent attacks by Hamas against Israeli citizens on October 7, 2023, communication with a friend who lives in Israel dwindled dramatically to sparse WhatsApp messages. She knew I strongly condemned Hamas’s reprehensible actions and my deep sorrow for the endless cycle of violence and devastation that disproportionately affects women and children on both sides of the conflict. Despite this, her response was defensive. She argued that Israel had no choice but to destroy Hamas’ military infrastructure, asserting that all Palestinians in the region support Hamas and are opposed to the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Arabs. She even suggested that this would never have happened if Trump were president.

Her response left me reeling, adding a new dimension of complexity to our friendship. In the past, our venting sessions served as a valuable emotional release, helping us process our frustrations and stress. I never imagined that our differing views could put such a strain on our friendship. I longed for us to share our hearts and minds without dismissing each other’s perspectives.

This rift forced me to confront painful questions: Could there still be a path to mutual understanding and respect with her and other friends and family who held similar views? The thought of potentially irreparable relationships weighed heavily on me, challenging my hopes for reconciliation and unity.

Thanks to the passage of time and self-reflection, I have come to accept the evolving nature of my relationships, understanding that some may not withstand the test of time. The combination of political and moral discord, intensified by the challenges of the pandemic and the Israel-Hamas war, have tested some of my relationships beyond their limit.

It is a sad realization, particularly at a time in life when the value of friends and family grows ever more significant. While I will always cherish the memories and the roles everyone has played in my life, letting go and moving forward is a step toward honoring my own values and growth.

Through all of this, I was able to repair one of my relationships. We can now appreciate that our friendship is about more than politics, which we agreed to leave out of our conversations. We avoid heated topics and rather discuss our lives, families, dreams, goals, and challenges — all the good stuff that makes up lasting friendships. Focusing on what unites us, rather than the differences that divide us, enables us to stay aligned with our values and live authentically as our true selves.

About the Author
Orly Benaroch Light is the Founder and CEO of Mid-Life Women Inc. Mid-life Women is a community hub where women 50+ can connect, share, learn, inspire, champion, and support each other. Orly is also the Founder and CEO of MCE Conferences Inc. an all-female continuing medical education company. She is an activist for women empowerment and humanitarian. Previous and current affiliations: WILPF-US, Peace is Loud, UN Women, NGO CSW/NY, Peace Now, ALLMEP, and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Orly was a training captain for Vice President Kamala Harris during her 2019 presidential campaign. She is most proud of being a mom.
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