We enter into adult relationships, in other words, looking for the love we had—or wished we had—as children. But not only is this an impossible goal, it’s also the wrong goal. The right goal is to loveothers that way. The right goal is to bite our tongues and hide our tears for the sake of the adults in our lives—not all the time, of course, but far more often than most of us do. The right goal is to lavish our fellow grown-ups with love.
Almost none of us will achieve this fully, of course. But we can get much better at it. And striving to get there is the work of a lifetime. Here are five ways to make your grown-up love get better:
1.Remember this: “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.” (The quote is from Mary Lou Kownacki and is a favorite of my friend’s Courtney Martin.) Imagine a man who has committed the most evil deeds. Now imagine his childhood. Perhaps someone abused him or showed him that he didn’t matter. Imagine a boy crying softly in a corner, night after night, his tears never heeded except with an impatient shove. The heart softens even if it doesn’t excuse.
2.You can’t control other people’s behavior—you can only control your own. Try to walk through the world with an attitude of calm warmth that remains steady, regardless of how others greet or treat you. When you feel threatened or provoked, take a deep breath, count to 10, and try to regain this posture. If counting to 10 isn’t enough, try removing yourself from the situation for a bit, and imagine yourself in a beautiful setting or in the presence of a loving, nurturing person (someone you know or an imaginary being—it doesn’t matter which). When you’re ready to engage, try to separate the substance of what the person is saying from your feelings of threat or provocation.
3.Try not to judge others. There is a reason that non-judgment is at the heart of many spiritual traditions. Judging others is bad for your relationships and prevents you from embracing humanity with all its many flaws. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t notice other people’s bad behavior. But there’s a huge difference between observing and condemning. Judging is an act of distancing yourself from others—and from yourself. Observing can be done impartially, even lovingly.
4.Love yourself first. Practitioners of loving-kindness meditation know this well. The practice always begins with cultivating a loving embrace of oneself. We project onto others whatever we feel about ourselves. If we’re harsh and self-critical with ourselves, we won’t let anyone else off the hook either. If we grant ourselves love and acceptance, we open the door to treating others the same way.
5.Exclaim over whatever is exclaimable in people. I learned this from my grandfather, who was forever marveling at other people’s attributes: their height, their wit, their athleticism—all personal qualities, for him, seemed to exist in order to be celebrated. I’m a more restrained person than my grandfather was, so I don’t come by this gift as naturally as he did.