Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
February 2010 - Volume 10, No. 2
Subscribe to this blog

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.

Pay attention!

Comments (5)

  • Hi Bill, about your February, WOW!!! How succinctly you phrased truths that should be told. You have a way of telllng a story that permits the reader to see him/herself and search deeply. I plan to reread your latest newsletter and pass it along to as many people as possible! Alas, the only unfortunate thing is that not EVERYBODY will have the opportunity to read it. Regards, Carol

    — Carol Pettipher, 2/1/2010
  • Nice William,but sometimes the problem stems from jumping into a relationship with rose colored glasses..There are people out there who seem to have no redeaming social value and your only choice is to end it..playing the victim is only allowed if you allow it..Being nice is definatly easier with strangers..Admitting that your choice in a partner was your mistake and owning it is one of the hardest thing our egos can go through..marriage is not for the faint of heart and sometimes just admitting it isnt for you is the better choice..Being not so nice to those closest to us does become easier than with strangers..Great words of advice from my Father were..“if you feel you dont have anything good to say,dont say anything at all”..tough to live by ,but works wonders..Great newsletter..very insightful.. :)

    — Darcy Corey, 2/9/2010
  • Thanks, Bill. I read these every month, but rarely comment. Something in this one touched me, though. Maybe it’s the aura of hope it exudes, hope that challenge doesn’t have to be fatal, that two people can work through it. However, you have to have, it seems to me, a strong foundation of friendship and trust. So many mistake sex for love, and things get confused quickly. Build the friendship first, if you want something that lasts. You may have a brick house, but if you’ve built it on sand you’ve still got major trouble.

    — Daniel LeBoeuf, 2/9/2010
  • Thats exactly what i meant by rose colored glasses..I made that mistake and found out too late that sex isnt a foundation and trust takes time..You Mr. LeBoeuf are exactly right..

    — Darcy Corey, 2/9/2010
  • Two comments. The first is about the “honeymoon” period, which isn’t just about marriage. It’s about any relationship: work, marriage, committees, etc. My experience also is that it’s in that 2-3 year period, then again at 7 years, 12, 18, 24. Those are typically times that relationships wear thin and people divorce, or seek a new job, or move to another parish. The Alban Institute says that a long pastorate is now 7 years.

    Second, I wish (yeah, I’ll own it for me) that you’d say “sexual infidelity” rather than just “infidelity.” There are many fidelities in a relationship. Sometimes sexual fidelity is the least important of them (esp. in gay r’ships, since children aren’t the natural outcome of sexual activity). I’m fond of saying that I’ve had more intimate dinners with some people than I’ve had intimate sex with other people, but couples don’t divorce because of a martini or a steak. Perhaps you would agree that sexual liaisons outside of marriage might even be good for the primary r’ship— sometimes. But we’ve trumped up sexual fidelity to the be ONLY fidelity. One person can blow the savings of the couple’s lifetime at the racetrack, but divorce isn’t the only logical consequence... though perhaps it might/should be because of the betrayal of fiduciary fidelity. There are many fidelities, as we all know very well.

    — Walter Sherman, 2/15/2010

Add a Comment

will be kept private

Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

FREE Monthly Newsletter

Whether you are a client or not, you can always benefit from some free monthly words of wisdom:
Your e-mail address: