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Why People Can Be Kinder to Strangers Than to Loved Ones

And three ways to fix the problem before it's too late.

Source: Rido/Shutterstock

Why is it we so often find ourselves treating the ones we most love the most shabbily? Contrary to popular wisdom, I don't think that the answer is that familiarity breeds contempt. After all, it's not that all the wonderful things we loved about our loved ones when they first entered our lives have gradually become repulsive to us ("I hate that you're so kind to everyone!"). Rather, it's that our tolerance for all the things we've always disliked invariably diminishes over time.

Add to this the fact that pain commands our attention far more than pleasure and we arrive at the explanation: We have the least tolerance for the negative qualities of those with whom we spend the most time.

But of course we do want to treat our loved ones well—and often feel tremendous guilt when we don't. So, presuming we're not so fed up with our spouse that we want a divorce, so fed up with our children that we want to put them up for adoption, or so fed up with our parents that we want to cut off contact, what's to be done?

I'd offer the following strategies:

  1. Pause on a regular basis to vividly subtract your loved ones from your life. The goal here is to produce intense feelings of gratitude. And nothing produces gratitude for something like being threatened with its loss. Studies show that we are all capable of imagining the loss of people in our lives concretely enough to evoke the gratitude that we still have for them. We can best do this, it turns out, by vividly imagining specific ways a person might be taken from us—actually playing out scenarios in our mind in which some entirely believable event snatches them away. Try this: Write a list of things you love about your loved ones and then carve out some time every morning—just a few minutes—to imagine how you really could (or, one day, will) lose them. We're more likely to have an emotional reaction to these imaginings if we envision the absence of a loved ones as visually as possible. If we seek to imagine a life without our spouse, for example, we would imagine seeing the empty space his or her absence would leave in our life, seeing the bed in which we now sleep together without him or her next to us, seeing the table at which we eat dinner but without him or her across from us, and so on. And when we think about how we would have to alter our daily routine in his or her absence, we would again imagine doing so with images—images of going to movies alone, taking vacations alone, attending parent-teacher conferences alone, and so on. Repeating this practice on a regular basis can transform it into a habit that could continue to fill you with gratitude as long as you continue to do it.
  2. Spend time with your loved ones in the company of other people. As I've written, who we are turns out to be largely a function of who we’re with. Have you ever noticed, for example, how you feel and behave one way with your family and another with your friends—and yet another with your co-workers or boss? We may all be multiple selves, but just which self we are at any one moment isn’t as much up to us as it is to the people around us. I'm suggesting, then, that when in the company of others with whom you feel less intimate, you'll invariably find yourself behaving more politely and kindly—to our loved ones as well. Further, you'll have a chance to observe and appreciate the better selves your loved ones have inside them, which are also being pulled out of them by the presence of others. In short, the dynamic between you and your loved ones will change, and generally for the better, when other people are present.
  3. Take a break from your loved ones as needed. Don't do this because you need to recharge your tolerance for the things about your loved ones that annoy you. Do this to acquire a fresh perspective. Get out into the world, alone, so that other experiences and other people pull a more generous self out of you, a self that sees your current life more broadly; that more easily finds a way to appreciate the good in your loved ones; and that achieves a more balanced view of the things that frustrate you about them.

We shouldn't treat our loved ones less kindly than we do strangers. But the reality is that we often do. The suggestions above are just a few strategies to improve your tolerance of your loved ones' idiosyncrasies, so that, to take one perspective, you can reach the end of your life without feeling regret about how you treated them. For nothing, it seems to me, could be worse than reaching that point, having the parts of life that don't matter stripped away from your concern, and realizing just how poorly you treated those who deserved your best.

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