Why Are We Quicker To Forgive Strangers Than Our Family? This Is Something I'm Working On

by Liz Petrone
Two reconciled girls sitting hugged on a bench
Kikovic / iStock

The Mercedes came out of nowhere. One second I was driving along, singing badly mangled lyrics to whatever ’90s hip-hop I could dredge up from the bowels of the radio presets, and the next I was inches from taillights. I slammed on my brakes, and my arm shot out sideways in that instinctual mom-baton maneuver to protect my beloved passenger, ignoring both that this was the exact purpose of seat belts and that the “beloved” was currently just my dry cleaning. An adrenaline-rage cocktail swept down my limbs and pooled into my toes, which were curled around the brake pedal in a manic embrace.

In short: I was pissed.

But when the driver’s hand rose and waved toward me apologetically, I softened. Who hasn’t been there? I thought, channeling all the lessons of Jesus and Mary and the Buddha and my yoga teacher to further manage a gracious wave back. Look at me, I thought. I am a saint, basically. A forgiveness boss. I am a modern-day Mother Teresa in an embarrassingly large SUV blaring Naughty By Nature.

Later, though, over a family dinner punctuated with the shared grudges of a lifetime of loving each other, I wondered what had made forgiving Mr. Mercedes so easy. Was it because I didn’t know him? I looked across the table at my husband, who I was still a little angry at for our last fight even though I couldn’t remember what the fight was about, and at my four babies, who I was still trying to forgive for what they did to my lady parts on their way out. It hit me then that, yes, forgiving random people was so much easier than forgiving my people.

Why is that? These people are the people I love the most in the world, the ones I would die for, the ones I would lie down in traffic and let Mr. Mercedes drive right over me a hundred times for, yet they are too often the ones I am the worst to.

Hit me with your cart in the grocery store? No worries. I forgive you. Step on my toe with your stiletto heel as you squeeze through to reach your seat in a crowded theater? It happens. You’re forgiven. Troll me on the internet when I bare my imperfect soul in a piece of writing you don’t happen to agree with? Hey, everyone has an opinion. Thanks for sharing yours. I even forgive you for spewing it at me dripping with grammatically incorrect venom. You’re passionate. I respect that.

But be my husband, my life partner, the person I pledged to share eternity with, and who chews too loud while I am watching Netflix? I’ll be mad for a week. He who pretends to be sleeping while I scrape up the latest round of midnight viral puke from the hardwoods? I cannot be responsible for my actions. And don’t get me started on the anger I feel at the puker — the poor, sick, helpless puker. I’m mad at her too for not even attempting to make it to the toilet, even though only a total asshat would be mad at her. And then I’m mad at myself for being mad at her in the first place.

Lets go a step further, away from the minutiae of chewing and puking, and into uglier things, like how I can barely stomach the thought of political discourse with the people I love who voted differently than me, or how there are whole factions of my family I cut right off when they hurt me after my mother died, just like that, no questions asked.

Practicing forgiveness with the people I actually love — where it actually counts — has not historically been my strong suit.

This seems counterintuitive at first, backwards even. Why would it be easier to be forgiving — or kind and tolerant and patient — with strangers than it is to practice those acts with our own people?

I think the answer lies in vulnerability. The Mr. Mercedeses of the world don’t know us. We have no investment in them, and their transgressions against us, while irritating and sometimes dangerous, are not personal. But the people we love, our blood family and our chosen family, they are everything. They see us at our worst, holding our hair back when we do our own puking or propping us back up when the worst of life knocks us down. Everything about these people feels personal because we are madly in love with them. Because we need them. Because they are our whole lives.

So we insert ourselves into the equation. We get in our own way. We say, “But I love you, so how could you chew in my ear/puke on me/not see things the way I do/vote for that guy/hurt me?” And I get this. I am the queen of this. I am the relationship equivalent of the diva in a restaurant, shouting, “Don’t you know who I am?!” to everyone I love and care about, not understanding why the fact that I love and care about them isn’t enough to ensure we live a conflict-free happliy-ever-after together, and further not understanding that a conflict-free happliy-ever-after would be just about the boringest thing ever.

Mother Teresa said to change the world, we should go home and love our families. I think she means this to be a stretch goal. She doesn’t tell us to change the world by loving the aggressive drivers who merge in front of us in traffic — although I would argue that’s still a commendable start — because it’s with our families that we are at our realest, and sometimes our realest can be ugly. She’s setting the bar at its highest because 1) she is Mother-frigging-Teresa, and 2) because the harder the work, the bigger the impact, and to change this world — the ugly one of the last few weeks especially — is going to be the work of the hardest order.

So for me right now, it’s deep breaths and a constant mantra of “Hey asshat, it’s not always about you,” which may not be a direct Mother Teresa quote but is pretty close. And remembering that the harder something hits you, the more love there is underneath it, because when you think about it like that, it’s almost beautiful enough to forgive.