I was blessed to attend three brit milahsthis past week and I noticed something quite beautiful about the people attending. Everyone there was smiling and complimentary, and looked like they were so happy to see one another. There was a warm, welcoming feeling to the whole khal. A woman I had never met before asked politely if she could sit at my table, and we began to play Jewish geography finding something or someone that would connect us. And of course, her third cousin’s son was married to my first cousin’s granddaughter. We both laughed at how we are all eventually related.
I began to wonder, how wonderful would it be if we brought our best selves, the one we take into the world, back home to our family? Imagine the glowing mental health we would all have if we lived in an environment where everyone smiled, complimented, and paid attention to each other! I believe we all start off that way. We all begin our relationships with interest and positivity. Then what happens? Of course, we all want to be kind to our spouses, children, and parents, and we feel tremendous guilt when we don’t. So what prevents us from treating them like we treat complete strangers?
Alex Lickerman, MD, author of Why We’re Nicer to Strangers Than the People we Love Most, believes that “we have the least tolerance for the negative qualities of those with whom we spend the most time.” This is not the same concept as familiarity breeds contempt. His idea focuses on our tolerance and level of patience. For instance, when you are in the car with a friend and they “play” with the radio, changing stations and raising and lowering the volume, you may be annoyed but you can tolerate it, as you know that when you drop them off you will have the radio to yourself. But if your spouse, who you share substantial car time with on a more consistent basis, annoyingly fiddles with the radio, you are likely to lose your patience and snap at them. It’s not that the person, your spouse, is doing something unique to annoy you, “It’s that our tolerance for all the things we’vealways disliked invariably diminishes over time.”
We can tolerate boring conversations, laugh at jokes that are not funny, and generally be polite when we are getting angry, on a short term basis. Living with our loved ones, though, is full time and not many of us can always remain cool, calm, and collected. So how do we increase our tolerance for the annoying behaviors that cause us to react harshly to our loved ones?
Dr. Lickerman offers this advice: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 concretelyenough to evoke the gratitude
that we still have for them. Imagine how your life would be altered without your loved one to share it. Think about how you would have to alter your daily routine in his or her absence – going to movies alone, taking vacations alone, attending parent-teacher conferences alone, attending social functions alone, bearing the full financial or domestic responsibility for your home and family, etc. When we imagine and feel the loss of our loved one, the emotional pain replaces the annoyance we feel when they are annoying.
Another strategy is to spend time with your loved ones in the company of other people. You’ll have a chance to observe and appreciate the better self your loved one has inside them – the self they bring out for company. This idea actually uses our tendency to behave better to others to our benefit. Witnessing your loved one behaving in a kind and considerate manner will remind you of their wonderful qualities and bring you closer. Think about how proud you are of your children when they display all the manners you have been desperately trying to teach them when they visit the homes of other families. In a total win-win situation, when in the company of others with whom you feel less intimate, you too will invariably find yourself behaving more politely and kindly, and this will spill over to your loved ones as well.
Mozelle Forman has been in private practice for 20 years.
Visit her at mozelleforman.com