Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
February 2010 - Volume 10, No. 2
Why can’t you be that nice to me?
The phone rings - it can be a business relationship, or a friend or neighbor. The tone of the conversation is friendly, even happy - pleasant and engaging. Then after the phone is hung up, the spouse will comment, “Why can’t you be that nice to me?” Or a variant is, depending on the time and establishment of marital dullness, “Why can’t you ever be that nice to me?”
I’m frequently asked, in the course of my work, why this happens - that we can maintain a positive attitude with those outside out domestic life, but virtually cannot with those to whom we are closest?
I. Familiarity breeds contempt
Since I’ve started with a “why” question, I’ll attempt a “why” answer - though this one may be obvious. It’s not as difficult to be nice to someone you don’t spend that much time with, or with whom the relationship isn’t that deep or longstanding.
When you have a casual friend or work relationship, let’s say you generally connect on three or four levels of interest or engagement. Even if you’re in a bad mood, it’s not difficult to set it aside to manage the operative levels of this relationship. But if you’ve been married to and lived in the same house with a person for ten years, and you know a lot about him or her - let’s say you connect on at least a few dozen levels; then it’s harder to ‘get around’ to a comfortable place when you’re not in a good place yourself.
We can even be cordial to the intrusion of a telemarketer, when we’re in a good mood. But when a spouse mentions once again the dirty pawprints on the kitchen floor from your dog, the ability to remain truly pleasant and courteous is a far more distant accomplishment.
Let me move to a different corner of the same phenomenon. One initial ‘advantage’ of a marital affair is that you don’t know your extra-marital lover well enough to get in the way of having good sex. That’s why most relationships that begin as an affair don’t last long when they become ‘real’ relationships. It’s like winning the lottery without learning the wisdom of money management. Bankrupt and broken is the standard outcome.
And with all the fervent arguments to the contrary, statistics still remind us that couples who live together before making the commitment of marriage don’t last as long together. Only marriage truly teaches us how to be married.
II. Comfort and Challenge
So now let me move from the “why?” question, to the more important “what does it mean?” question.
In my mind, it comes down to this: Relationships have two levels of development or achievement. The first level is the level of comfort, the outcome of which is an ease of relationship. The friendly conversation on the telephone comes from a comfort level. Even if it’s with a negative person, the brevity and emotional distance is sufficient to maintain an operative comfort. The comfort of a car salesperson can help sell cars, regardless of how he or she really feels about the customer as a person or couple. Friendships are usually based on an established, reliable and predictable comfort. Most people go to church because it’s comfortable to be there.
The second level is of challenge, the outcome of which is the presence of grace, or graciousness. My opening line above comes from a relationship in which comfort is drifting into challenge. The telephone conversation exists at a level of comfort, but the marital relationship has collapsed or drifted into challenge.
Church treasurers shudder when the purpose or ‘agenda’ of a church shifts from comfort to challenge.
I estimate that on the average, the comfort level prevails in a marriage for about a year and a half - the “honeymoon” phase. Then the initial comfort and ease begins to diminish in the face of real life together. It’s time for the hard work of marriage building - work which can only take place within the marriage. Frequently there will follow a number of dead years, when work, busyiness and child rearing fill up the otherwise empty spaces of their dis-ease. Some marriages then make their way to my office. Perhaps the deadness has become intolerable, or has acted itself out in disruptive ways. The classic major disruptive patterns are infidelity, addiction, violence and truth-telling issues.
The future of the relationship itself becomes the challenge, and the hard work of relationship building and maintenance (finally) begins.
But then something remarkable can begin. The people become real people. Insightful young people will often say ‘get real’ or ‘get a life.’ And that’s what begins to happen! Strange to say, the question of the outcome of the relationship becomes almost secondary. As the relationship now becomes the appropriate school for conflict, it also can transform into a haven of grace. (And it must be in that order.)
The comfort that’s present in a telephone conversation with a friend or colleague, or even an intrusive person, is itself a much smaller measure than the courtesy implicit in the kindness of mature couples, even in the midst of great provocation. This is far from just being nice to each other. This is mature love at work, the kind of affection that must be earned by years of working things out together.
Yes, with hard and focussed work together, lead can be transformed into gold. I’ve seen it happen many times. And yes, you can be that nice, and even nicer, to each other - almost all the time.
Add a Comment
FREE Monthly Newsletter
Whether you are a client or not, you can always benefit from some
free monthly words of wisdom: