How to Love the Hard-to-Love People in Your Life
You know who they are. The needy friend. The bothersome great-aunt. Teenagers (yours sometimes, everyone else’s all the time). These aren’t people you can cut out of your life. So how do you foster some affection for trying people? Start with these strategies.
This is a story about love. But not the heart-eye-emoji, romantic kind of love (sorry, February). This is a story about how to love family and friends who are part of your life, for better or worse, but whom you don’t always like. “We all have different perspectives and needs. We’re bound to encounter people who are hard to form relationships with,” says Alexandra H. Solomon, PhD, author of Loving Bravely. Sometimes those people are related to you—often, ahem, through marriage—and sometimes they’re thrust upon you (hello, child’s friend who seems to be a first-class meanie but whom your child inexplicably adores). In either case, it’s your job to grow, compromise, and learn to, yes, love, even if it’s in a small and temporary way. And it pays off: “Through cognitive reframing and the occasional heart-to-heart, it’s entirely possible to make long-lasting changes in a currently tenuous relationship,” says Kathryn J. Lively, PhD, a professor of sociology at Dartmouth College who focuses on emotion management. Here are seven common relationships, with advice on how to start—plus long-term ways to work on your happily ever after.
…who gave birth to your beloved spouse (that’s key!) but tries to get you to call her Mom and still criticizes everything from your shopping habits to your parenting—behind your back.
How to fake it: “First, remember that this woman raised the person you love,” says Solomon. “Then consider what it would be like to have your baby all grown up and focused on someone else.” Shifting your perspective can help build empathy. “When you can empathize with someone, it’s easier to let criticism roll off your back,” says Solomon. Comedian and author Ali Wentworth, a mother of two who created and stars in the new Pop TV show Nightcap, offers this encouragement: “Think of yourself and your husband as a tag team, each taking on a mother-in-law. When you look at it that way, you start to realize that you might have it much better than your spouse. He has to deal with your mother.”
How to make it: “Positive reinforcement can go a long way toward exacting change in a person you see as negative,” says David Spiegel, MD, director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University. To shift the dynamic with your mother-in-law, try this plan of attack: Whenever she says something nice—and yes, she eventually will—make a big deal about it with direct eye contact, a warm smile, and an enthusiastic “That’s so great to hear!” Likewise, remain neutral to negative feedback. “The key is to be consistent in your reaction,” says Spiegel. “Eventually, your response pattern will begin to shape her behavior. And when you’re less needled, you’re bound to feel more affection.”
Also applies to: Your own meddling mother; a know-it-all brother; a condescending colleague.
…who has always been a little needy, but now that you’re older and you both have your own lives—or perhaps she’s single and you have a toddler—it’s exhausting.
How to fake it: Reshape how you spend time together—and take charge of the planning so that the schedule works for you, especially if the connection hinges on the fact that you have kids and she doesn’t. “When the time together is less of a logistical nightmare, you’re more likely to enjoy it,” says Rosanna Hertz, PhD, professor of sociology at Wellesley College. Suggest activities that have a clear beginning and end, such as a walk on a Tuesday morning or a movie on a Saturday afternoon. If it’s an old friend who simply has different expectations about how often you guys should talk, use technology to your advantage. Anna Sale, host of the WNYC Studios podcast Death, Sex, and Money (and a new mother), is a fan of the text check-in: “A quick text is an easy and rewarding way to stay connected to people I can’t devote as much time to as they—or I—would like.”
How to make it: “Old friends, even needy ones, are important to have around,” says Hertz. “They knew you when you were young and, because of that, are often some of the most loyal people in your life.” If the problem is that you’ve grown apart and you don’t have a lot in common anymore, don’t give up. Rekindle affection by playing the nostalgia card every once in a while. Look at old pictures over drinks. Do something you both used to love, whether it’s driving aimlessly while eating a Sonic Blast or getting tickets for your favorite band’s reunion tour. You’re likely to be flooded with good memories and affection for your bosom buddy.
Also applies to: A sibling relationship with similar challenges. (You were BFFs as kids and have a different dynamic now.)
…who makes inappropriate jokes and seems to bring out the worst (or at least college-age) version of your husband.
How to fake it: You don’t really have to. “Unless this person is a legitimate threat to your marriage—bringing substance abuse into the picture, for example—this is a time to exercise letting go,” says Solomon. Start by asking a simple question: Do you need to be around when your husband spends time with this friend? Chances are, the answer is no. Removing yourself from direct contact may allow you to have a different perspective or realize that this friend is actually harmless. Your husband had a life before you; it’s healthy for him to reconnect to that from time to time. Look at it as an asset. “It’s a permission slip to enjoy your own free time,” says Solomon.
How to make it: Take a closer look at what’s going on if the advice above doesn’t help. “Is it really the friend you’re averse to? Or is the problem that when your husband is with this friend, you’re left on your own with the kids?” says Hertz. Maybe this college friend reminds you of your husband’s college girlfriend he almost married, and it resurrects old hang-ups. It may be that talking about the underlying problem—needing more help with the kids, harboring old jealousies—softens your hard feelings toward the bromance and strengthens your marriage communication skills, too.
Also applies to: Your good friend’s new friend—um, when did Friend 1 start liking sake? You both hate sake!—who is suddenly tagging along to everything.
…who always calls at the worst time and wants to talk for an hour. You know she’s lonely, but you can’t help (guiltily) not picking up.
How to fake it: Set boundaries right off the bat. “Begin each conversation with a simple ‘So good to hear from you! I only have 15 minutes, but it’s wonderful to hear your voice,”” says Lively. There may also be ways to make your aunt feel valued that aren’t sprung on you like her phone calls. “Maybe your aunt collects thimbles, and you mail her one every time you spot one at a flea market,” says Lively. Send her bundles of your kids’ artwork or, if she’s technologically inclined, e-mail a video of the children saying, “Have a great day, Aunt Ruth!” Speaking of kids, Wentworth takes this lighthearted approach to phone calls from long-winded relatives: “Put your kindergartner on the phone! They’ll be more than happy to talk for a few hours.”
How to make it: Have compassion. Your aunt isn’t calling to irritate you. “Reframe your perspective: She’s isolated, not irksome,” says Lively. And see it as a service—you are communing with your elders and living with integrity and intention, says Solomon. “Give yourself a pat on the back! If the call becomes something you take pride in, it can become something you enjoy more,” she says.
Also applies to: Your hard-to-relate-to father-in-law; the widowed next-door neighbor who loves to chat in the driveway.
…who is constantly nagging and is all wrong for him (based on sister intuition, obviously).
How to fake it: Experts agree—tread lightly in matters that involve someone else’s love life. Though tempting, it’s not your place to exert control over your brother’s relationship. Instead, on the next double date, “recast negative as positive,” says Lively. When your sister-in-law gripes about your brother’s long hours, tell yourself, “She’s saying this because she loves her husband and is worried he is exhausted.” You can even take it one step further and create a mini mantra that simultaneously helps you feel more positive and your sister-in-law feel heard. When she complains, you respond, “That must be hard,” says Lively. With that small encouragement, it’s possible that, over time, she may become less negative and more pleasant to be around.
How to make it: Have a one-time conversation with your brother—but full of questions, not accusations. Ask him to shed light on what he loves about his wife so you can appreciate things that aren’t immediately apparent to you (like behind-the-scenes ways she is supporting his career), says Lively. Slowly reframing your view can lead to genuine affection down the road.
Also applies to: Your best friend’s new beau.
…who is obnoxious and, ugh, attached at the hip to your first grader.
How to fake it: Try avoidance. If possible, keep the child off your turf. Assuming the kid is just annoying (i.e., not a bully), “let your child spend all the time she wants at the friend’s house. I take myself out of it,” says Wentworth.
How to make it: Children view the world differently than adults. Use a tactic similar to the one with your brother (see left) and find out why your child is drawn to this friend. “Ask, ‘What do you like about Jack? Why do you like him more than Sarah or Matthew?’” says Hertz. You may find out that where you see “mischievous,” your son sees “imaginative.” The insight can cast a better light on a vexing child.
Also applies to: Your tween’s—gulp—new love interest (though you may want that one on your turf, and in your sights, occasionally).
…who are really hard to figure out, even when they’re yours.
How to fake it: Don’t try to be cool, says Ernesto R. Escoto, director of the University of Florida’s Counseling & Wellness Center. Just be a constant. “It’s important to maintain a calm, level demeanor regardless of their mood swings or changing opinions,” he says. In the heat of the moment, remind yourself of two things: The teen years won’t last forever. And if you think you’re uncomfortable, they are doubly so.
How to make it: “Think of a teenager as a wet bar of soap,” says Escoto. “If your contact is too light, it will slip out. If you apply too much pressure, it will do the same.” The only way to truly handle teens, he explains, is to spend enough time with them to understand what works with their personality. That is to say, loving them well means giving them their space but not shutting them out completely. They need you more than they would ever admit.
Also applies to: Your hotheaded boss.