How To Be Nice To The Ones You Love Most

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Photo: Clemens v. Vogelsang

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:

  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 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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  • I think, too, we often take our frustrations about what is going on with those to whom we’re not close out on those we care for most, because we believe these dear ones will understand and be forgiving—not a good pattern to practice, but often the case, I’m afraid.

  • Ah, yes, we can take our partners so much for granted. I saw my parents being so unkind to each other (my father described their relationship as 48 years of unholy deadlock) and the gift of that is the urge to be kind and tolerant to my husband and to the kids. My husband works away for a month at a time and that too has been really good for the relationship between us. Food for thought here.

  • I wish I had done this (visualising, subtraction) before my father died. It would’ve made a huge difference. It’s been three years this month and I still have a almost-daily meltdown, a complicated grieving, over my regrets of not having done/said a myriad things, _very_ obvious things that should have been done/said by any daughter, especially his favorite. I am 60; yet I never did “wake up” (due to an emotional repression) even though he was wheelchair-bound for the last eight years of his life and my regrets and sense of loss are such I feel I’ll never be happy again.

    Ann: I very well understand such regret. But you must forgive yourself. Self-compassion is often more difficult to muster than compassion for others, but you’re just as human—and fallible—as we all are.


  • I catch myself too often being less than nice to my husband. It’s a shameful loss of perspective that brings this bad behavior out of me. Even if the frustration that brought on the bad behavior on my part has some validity, there is always a better way to handle it. I see this in hindsight… so my task is to see it in foresight. I have in fact imagined something happening to him, and it crushes me to think of being without him. I’m very motivated to troubleshoot my interactions with him. I usually fall short when I feel overwhelmed or disregarded in some way, or I’m too attached to some outcome. There’s a pattern and a path to most negative interactions in my life, I’m finding. Once I know the danger signs, I can make alternate choices.

  • It requires effort to smother the contempt that familiarity brings in its wake. Yes, distancing yourself for a while, and retreating into a quiet cocoon of your own, can bring back the fondness that has seemingly dissipated.

  • My dad suffered from Alzheimers. Being his caregiver, the last year of his life was trying—for both of us. He physically and verbally lashed out occasionally—but only at me. I took it so personally until a wonderful hospice nurse explained that even though he didn’t know who I was all the time, he knew I was someone that loved him—unconditionally. Yes, it’s definitely a strange human condition that we take our frustrations out on our loved ones.

  • This is exactly true, the saying that goes you will never appreciate someone until you lose him indefinitely.

  • If you actually apply mindfulness, being aware and present, each breath is brand new and any mental happiness. Health happens only now.

    As you eloquently write, happiness is similar to the Heart beating in essence, innate,therefore happiness must be what life is for.

    Accept, let go of that perceived loss we have created.

  • I think people that do not have a deep love of themselves at some level lash out at others when they exhibit some of the behaviors that the people lashing out would otherwise be self-critical of. Or, people hurt the ones they are close to because some perceived, realistc or not, expectations that aren’t being met. It would be like seeing YOUR human flaws in others and reacting, or them reminding you of your own failures or shortcomings. The way we treat others close to us seems to be in a direct relation as to how we perceive ourselves. If we don’t have patience for ourselves, we certainly won’t muster it up for others. This I think can stem from trauma or under-developement of someone who has trouble getting past the childhood toddler phase of seeing the self as the center of the universe. And it can continue through one’s life as an inferiority complex and exhibited in someone as a lack of confidence in oneself. It’s that obvious cliché that you cannot love others if you don’t love yourself.

  • Oak has provided, I believe, a very deep insight into the anger we feel against others in general and our loved ones in particular. Moreover, it is very actionable too!

    And thanks, Alex, for keeping on with your writing. Will there be another book?

    Ondrej: Yes, I’m working on it now.


  • I am very harsh with my older son, Abdullah Afzal (12), and it is because he misbehaves with his mother and he also cheats in studies and tests and he usually get lesser marks.

    When he does so, I become very angry and later I feel a lot of guilt. After this I decide to be very patient with him in the future, but can’t control myself in the next event.

    How to change myself and what to do with him?