Why We Are Mean To Those We Care About

We should be nicer to those we care most about than a complete stranger. After all, these are the people who we have made an implicit promise to embrace and care for. Yet, oddly enough, this isn’t always the case. In fact, we inflict far greater malevolence, insult, and injury to those we care about than those whom we have no noticeable affection. Our behaviours seem entirely at odds with the position of the other as ‘someone we care about’.

But, being mean to someone we care about can be, in a perverse but entirely understandable way, a compliment. We are only mean because we don’t believe we have to pretend to be someone we’re not. We shout, cry, abuse, and sulk not because we think so little of someone, but because we think so much of them: we know that no matter how unruly or stupid our behaviours might be, they care enough about us to stick around.

We expect very little of strangers. When they cut us off, ramble, ignore or offend us, we tend to be significantly less offended (and therefore, mean in response) because we have next to no expectations about them; we are rather indifferent to their entire existence. But, this is not so with someone we care about. We hold those around us to a higher standard and therefore, a failure to meet our standards (which are sometimes valid, often petty and arbitrary) is met with anger disproportionate to the act. We need to be deeply emotionally invested in someone before we are prepared to slam doors or shout at them. Being mean here is a sign of emotional involvement (but not necessarily maturity).

We live in a society so obsessed with happiness, success, and wellbeing that it is inconceivable to reveal the miserable, failed, and warped aspects of ourselves to strangers in society. Being mean to those we care about often involves revealing these hitherto hidden parts of ourselves and therefore, engaging in a grand gesture of kindness, with an unspoken but very powerful message: I am mean because I trust that I can be my most depraved and broken self around you, and you will still accept me.

Obviously, there are instances to the contrary, and verbal, psychological and physical assault is nothing to take lightly. But, at the heart of this is a message to reconsider the everyday acts of spontaneous vindictiveness, cruelty, and malice we heap upon those we care about.

The next time someone we care about is insufferably mean, we should consider that perhaps, they are only being this way because, perversely, they care so very much about us.

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