Why Do We Treat Strangers Better Than Family?

It’s common behavior, but it doesn’t have to be

I’ve watched it happen in our family numerous times. We are caught up in a heated argument among ourselves one second, then smiling, shaking hands, and cordially greeting near strangers the next second. As I’ve witnessed this behavior in our family, I ask why do we treat strangers better than family?

Believe it or not, this is a common and explainable phenomenon. Every marriage relationship will eventually experience the reality of being more polite and pleasant with strangers than the spouse. Parents will tend to be more patient and caring of other children over their own.

Let me share a couple quick examples in my own life. Consider the Sunday morning routine in our home. Church for us begins at 9:30 am. No one in our family is particularly high maintenance and require exorbitant amounts of time to get ready for church. Yet, we often find ourselves rushing across town to get there on time.

I have no patience for being late. Well, let’s revisit that statement in just a moment. My frustration with running late leads to a fierce argument on the drive to church. I’m barking orders at the kids to hurry to their respective areas of the church. Jennifer and I have begun a downward spiral of harsh words that only mutual repentance and forgiveness can help.

But then we arrive at the church. As we stroll across the parking lot into the church, we smile and ever so pleasantly greet everyone we encounter. I even cheerfully great those couples that arrive late to our group Bible study. Clearly, my impatience with tardiness only applies to my family. Similarly, I find myself listening intently and conversing deeply with small children I hardly know. I then rise to my feet and give the command to my own children, “get in the van, it’s time to go!”

The explanation of this common behavior is rather simple. It isn’t that our spouse or children have so drastically changed over time that we now loathe them. Rather the explanation is a diminishing tolerance for characteristics we dislike compounded by the amount of time we spend with our family. Intolerance within the family works like compounding interest with financial investments, only in a negative manner.

So how do we rid our family of this hideous reality? How do we stop hurting most the ones we love the most? Let me give you a few suggestions for equipping yourself to be more patient and tolerant with your family.

Acknowledge this behavior is common

This isn’t to say this behavior is good or desired, but it is common. It’s important to acknowledge the behavior and the reason for the behavior. Your spouse already knows you behave this way. The children have recognized it by now.

It’s kinda like an alcoholic wanting to sober up. The first step is to recognize you have a problem. As you discuss this common behavior among your family, you’re then set up to hold each other accountable to be patient and tolerant with each other.

Take time away

There must be some truth to the cliche “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” When we have some time away from our family, our hearts tend to soon long fondly for our family. I notice this when I take business trips. As each trip nears the day to return home, I get really anxious and excited to return to my family.

It’s important to note this suggestion is to take time “away.” While my business trips made me long to be back with my family, they did nothing of the sort for Jennifer. She was at home tending to our children, taking care of the household chores, and running kids from place to place all alone. The heart needs an escape from the normal rigor of life to begin to long for your family again. As our pastor would say, “get yourself a DAWG.” Get yourself a Day Alone With God.

Imagine life without them

It may seem odd or even morbid, but imagining your life without your spouse or your children will certainly cause your heart to long for your family. The magnitude of the reality of life without your family will shove aside the impatience and intolerance that causes us to treat our family poorly.

The truth of this suggestion hit me after the deaths of my dad and father-in-law. As I watched my mom and mother-in-law mourn the death of their spouses, the thought occurred to me “this will one day be Jennifer or me.” That reality instantly erased all impatience and intolerance I had for my wife.

Practice among others

We are always on our best behavior when among friends. Words and tones we might use privately would never be uttered among friends. If the impatience or intolerance in your relationship is at a desperate point, don’t risk an argument that generates more intolerance by going at it alone.

Have a double date night with friends. As you do, pay close attention to the words and tone you use with your spouse as you converse. More importantly, take note of the words and tone you want to use but don’t because you are with friends. This is the example you will want to follow each day.

Repent when you mess up

We all mess up. No matter how hard we try to remain patient and tolerant with our family, we will mess up at some point. Frustration will get the best of us and we’ll lash out in some way. Recovery and reconciliation are as simple as repentance and forgiveness.

If you’ve followed the first suggestion offered (acknowledge this behavior is common), then you are properly set up for easy repentance. Your spouse and children will remember the conversation about this common behavior, recognize the sincerity in your apology, and be equipped to forgive quickly.

I hope these suggestions help. I challenge you to stop treating strangers better than you treat your family. If you have other suggestions to avoid this common behavior, please share those in the comments below.

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