Dear Dr. Andrea,
My partner’s mother is a suspicious, intolerant person. Those qualities are even worse when she is on social media, and she has been this way for as long as I have known her (three years we have been together). I am friends with her on Facebook but I am not on that often. But lately the stuff she is posting is absurd. She comments on all kinds of posts that I would say are almost hate speech. I can deal with the fact that she has different politics than me. But she is part of spreading conspiracy theories and hatred that do real damage and that I cannot deal with. My partner does not stand up to her at all. I think that his silence is a missed opportunity. I would hate to think that she thinks that he agrees with her. He says that it is “not worth it” to engage with her and that she will never change her mind. But this makes me wonder if we even have the same values. Is it too much to ask that I would expect him to at least respectfully disagree when she posts this stuff?
—Sick of the social media
Nope, it’s not too much to ask — unless he thinks it is.
(Frankly, that’s often the ultimate answer when it comes to “I wish my partner would do this” kinds of quandaries.)
What’s most important here is how the two of you can come to an understanding of each other’s perspective about this. There is no objectively “right” way to handle a relative’s bad behavior on social media (even while there are some objectively wrong ones). Just as there is no objectively right perspective to win between the two of yours. So with an eye toward understanding, let’s break down your different viewpoints.
His lens involves decades of history with his mother, knowing what she does and doesn’t listen to others about. He’s probably got dozens of examples of times he did speak up and it did nothing to change her mind or even inflamed her further. He may also be thinking of the pitfalls of social media in general, and how they don’t always lend themselves to intelligent discourse. Again, this doesn’t mean his view is any more right or wrong than yours, but it is worthy of understanding.
Your lens involves looking at his mother very differently; after all, she is not your own family, but rather one of a sea on people of social media that represents something of a threat, emotionally. Your lens also involves looking at social media postings — or silence — as a pure reflection of our morals and values.
So, is there room for common ground here?
Might there actually be other ways that your partner stands up to his mother, or lives life in general, that are ultimately more meaningful than hitting “comment” on social media? Might you have your own family members that do things that make you uncomfortable and you’ve learned to pick your battles about it over the years? Are you assuming something about your partner’s values — or lack thereof — that is an unfair assessment in the whole picture of who he is? Are you discounting your own potential opportunity to be a respectful but dissenting social media voice when your partner would rather be silent?
As much as I absolutely cringe alongside you to see hatred and misinformation spreading like wildfire on social media, especially in a time of crisis when people’s emotions are already inflamed and fear is heightened, family relationships are often far more complicated than an online back-and-forth about the latest meme. It’s probably far from simple for your partner — and that deserves some empathy. So, initiate a conversation with him about your feelings, opening up about your worries and discomfort rather than telling him what he “should” do. Try to enlarge your perspective to account for his. This just might highlight a path forward that — while imperfect — will honor both of your viewpoints.