Recently while flipping through the various radio talk shows I enjoy when I’m alone in my car, I heard a guest on one of the programs say we should treat our spouses as well as we treat our newest friends. I wish I could remember the channel I landed on and the person talking so that I could give proper credit. No matter the source, the advice made me think.
Do I treat my husband Bryan as well as I would treat a new friend? Most of the time, yes, but there’s room for improvement. One example comes to mind right away. Often when Bryan wants to vent about subjects we’ve already covered, I’ll rush us through the conversation. Would I do that to a new friend? Would I sigh then say, “Didn’t we talk about this yesterday?” Would I pick up my cell phone to answer a text? No, I wouldn’t, because that would be obnoxious and embarrassing for both me and the new friend, but since it’s “just Bryan” I’ve been more lax with my standards.
The same suggestion to treat a spouse as well as a new friend works for other family members and for our best friends. There’s a tone of voice—our nicest, most empathetic one—that many of us use with the people we’re still getting to know. We ask acquaintances how they’re doing and offer follow up questions to show that we’re listening. We provide thoughtful, colorful answers when the conversation turns to us.
One could argue that our family members and close friends get the honest, authentic version of us, that we’re more “real” with our family and best friends. That’s certainly one way of looking at it, but I do wonder if in some cases “real” is a positive spin on rude. I also wonder if too much “authenticity” is how layers of contempt seep into relationships over time. Is real always such a prize if real means less considerate or leads to taking the next person for granted?
All of this reminds me of a quote I like from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, a novel full of subtle advice about how not to treat the people closest to us. Pip, marveling at the lengths he’s gone to impress some of the other gentlemen in his new societal position, says, “So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.” In other words, one step worse than behaving better with our new friends than we do with our spouses, family members, and close friends is outright mistreating the special people in our lives for the sake of people we don’t even like that much.
Thinking about the way my kids sometimes treat each other, I wouldn’t mind if they were less “authentic” some of the time. And I definitely think they could stand to improve the way they act towards each other when certain friends are at the house.
When Sam, 9, is frustrated with Rebecca, 7, he speaks to her and of her as if she is the most annoying creature in the universe. Like Pip notes, Sam’s even meaner to her around certain friends, kids he’s trying too hard to impress. Rebecca, in turn, takes on a similar air of disdain and disgust when she’s irritated with 5-year-old Elissa, who I’m sure, before long, will give the same eye-rolling attitude to 2-year-old, Nate.
The only action I’ve taken so far is to consistently point out the way they speak to each other when it gets ugly and to help them note the natural consequences. For example, when Sam wants to play outside, he’ll ask Rebecca to put on her snow stuff and join him. If she hesitates for a moment, because, say, it’s freezing or because she’s in the middle of doing something else, he’ll immediately start demanding she play with him. If that doesn’t work, he’ll yell louder, at which point no amount of begging or bribery will get Rebecca to join him outside.
“Would you play with someone who was yelling at you and throwing a fit?” I’ve asked Sam on more than one occasion.
After I heard the aforementioned radio show, I tried a different tactic. “Is that how you get your friends to play a game?” The answer, of course, was “no.” Perhaps one of these days Sam will see that if he were half as nice to Rebecca as he is to his friends, especially his new friends, she would accept his invitations every time. And I’m hoping Rebecca will eventually figure out that coercing Elissa into doing whatever she wants to do by claiming she’ll stop being Elissa’s sister is not a great tactic either. A mom can certainly dream.
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