Why is it we so often find ourselves treating the ones we most love the most shabbily? I don’t think, contrary to popular wisdom, 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 gradually become repulsive to us (“I hate that you’re so kind to everyone!”). Rather, I think it’s because our tolerance for all the things we 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 for why we have such a hard time being kind to the ones we love most: we have the least tolerance for the negative qualities of those with whom we spend the most time.
But of course we want to treat our loved ones well—and in fact often feel tremendous guilt when we don’t. So, presuming we’re not so fed up with our spouse that we want a divorce, with our children that we want to put them up for adoption, or with our parents that we want to put them in a nursing home, what’s to be done? I’d offer the following strategies:
- 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 a thing like being threatened with its loss. Studies show that we are in fact all capable of imagining losses concretely enough to evoke gratitude that we still have them. We can best do this, it turns out, by vividly imagining specific ways a person might be taken from us, playing out scenarios in our mind in which some entirely believable event snatches them away. Try writing out a list of things you love about your loved ones and carve out some time every morning, even if just a few minutes, to imagine how you really could—or better yet, one day will—lose them. Also, we’re more likely to have an emotional reaction to our imaginings if we envision the absence of our loved ones as visually as possible. So if we want 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 same bed in which we now sleep but without him or her lying next to us, seeing the same table at which we now eat dinner but without him or her sitting 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. By repeating this practice on a regular basis you can transform it into a habit. And as a believable fear of loss doesn’t seem to be something to which we habituate, it might become a habit that will continue to fill you with gratitude as long as you continue to do it.
- Spend time with your loved ones in the company of other people. As I wrote in a previous post, How To Pull Good Things Out Of Others, “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 and 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 here, then, that when in the company of others with whom you feel less intimate, you’ll invariably find yourself behaving more politely and kindly—and not just to your non-loved ones. Further, you’ll have a chance to observe and appreciate the better selves your loved ones have inside them being pulled out of them by the same others who pull your better self out of you. In short, the dynamic between you and your loved ones will change generally for the better when other people are present.
- Take a break from your loved ones as needed. Don’t do this because you think 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 out of you a more generous self. A self that sees your current life more broadly. A self 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.
It shouldn’t be this way, that we tend to treat our loved ones less kindly than even strangers. But it is. The suggestions above are just a few strategies you can employ to improve your tolerance of your loved ones’ idiosyncrasies so that you can reach the end of your life without feeling great 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.