Who do you care most about in your life?
Who are you the nicest to in your life?
Be honest, are they the same person?
They’re often not.
You can see this dynamic clearly in teenagers and their parents (especially with mothers and daughters – sorry, mom!), but it happens in romantic partnerships too.
At first glance, it seems counterintuitive. After all, shouldn’t love and kindness function in tandem? Ideally, yes. But the reality is often more complex.
I’m not talking about abuse here (here’s a post on that particular dynamic), rather, I’m addressing the more innocuous and unintententional unkindness that can find its way into relationships.
So why do we so often give candy to strangers and coal to our partners?
Have you ever had a negative experience during your day that is then transferred to your partner that evening? We can’t say all of what’s on our minds to the boss, to the policeman who issued the ticket or the difficult client. So we unload it later on the one person that feels safe.
After all, they love us. Sometimes that love makes us feel confident that we can treat the poorly and they’ll still be there. And sometimes, we may treat them poorly in order to test to love.
Your partner becomes your safe harbor and that sense of security can lead to an unintended (and often unnoticed) decrease in kindness. It’s easier to always be on your best behavior when you don’t take things for granted. (One of MANY reasons it’s important to not take your partner for granted!)
Stripping Away the Public Self
When we’re out and about in the world, we project our public selves. In many ways, we present how we want to be perceived (after all, strangers only know what we show them). And it can be exhausting. So when we come home, we peel off that mask along with our trousers and slip on the sweats and let the less edited self fly free.
And when we’re relaxed and less restrained, we are more apt to talk before we think. And sometimes the words that come out are far from kind. Not because we aim to wound, but because we fail to check ourselves as carefully when we’re comfortable.
Add to that the history and inner knowledge we share with our closest people and the results can be quite painful.
Apprehension About Vulnerability
Letting it all show can be a scary feeling. And sometimes, we respond to that defenseless feeling by going on the offense. The baring of the underbelly followed by the baring of the teeth as though saying, “I’ll let you see me, but I’ll wound you before you get too close.”
Preservation of Self
Vulnerability isn’t the only fear that can manifest as unkindness; a concern that you’re losing yourself by becoming too attached to another can also result in unintentional hurtful actions. Pushing away instead of taking a step back.
And this is really what it’s all about. Our daily interactions with people at the periphery of our lives are fleeting. Hurtful words or actions are more easily sloughed off and forgotten. We don’t bring in the expectations. The fear. The attachment.
When you have two lives intertwined, there will be some frayed edges and some frayed nerves. Things unmeant will be said and actions may not always match the true feelings beneath.
Yes, your partner is your safe space. But that’s no reason to take them for granted and to treat them as such. Be generous in handing out candy to both strangers and your loved ones. Save the coal for those who really deserve it.