Skip to content

Better Relationships with Difficult Loved Ones

4 min

Most of us can think of a person we love whose presence frequently causes us pain or difficulty. How can we work with this?

Difficult Loved Ones

Most of us can think of a person we love whose presence frequently causes us pain or difficulty. They may be struggling or stuck in their lives, and because we love them it’s difficult to watch them suffer. Or they may just fail to relate with us in the ways we would like them to.

As you bring one of these people to mind, notice what thoughts or perceptions about them fill your awareness.

If you are like most people, you will be aware of ways that the person doesn’t quite measure up. They are missing something, and you may have a sense of what it is. They aren’t ______ enough. Or they are too ______ .

If they’ve been in your life for a long time, you may have well-rehearsed narratives and explanations about why they are the way they are, and what they should do to be better.

This is the lens through which many people view others.

Deficiency Lens

Let’s call it the “deficiency lens”. It sees what’s missing, incomplete, suboptimal, in need of improvement, bad, or wrong.

Generally, there is a degree of truth to what we see about a person when looking through a deficiency lens. We are sensing a gap between potentiality and actuality. The potential of the person and our relationship with them, and the actuality of things.

We don’t look through the lens of deficiency because we dislike the person and want to be critical of them. We do it because we love them and want to see them flourish and to experience intimacy with them.

This is a beautiful desire to be connected with: to help others reach their full potential. However, the question is a pragmatic one: Does beholding someone as deficient optimally help them evolve?

In my experience, the answer is no.

Think: If you were struggling with something in your life, would you want the help of someone who sees you as deficient? Would you be comfortable letting down your defenses with them?


Most difficult behaviors are driven by defenses. They are self-protective strategies to avoid harm and to get one’s needs met. We can draw lines from basic biological defenses to more elaborate psychological structures. Fight, flight, and freeze translate into things like arrogance, criticism, rage, inflation, grandiosity, withdrawal, anxiety, isolation, shame, collapse, depression, inadequacy.

When we're with someone who is focused on the ways we don’t measure up (even if they conceal these judgements), we contract and close up around them. We cling to our defenses.

It is tragic really, because the people who love us the most, often cause us the most pain. They think they will help us suffer less by pointing out our shortcomings and giving advice on how to improve. But this approach reinforces our defenses that keep us stuck. Often people may have learned that voicing their judgements doesn’t help, so they keep quiet, but we feel their judgements nonetheless.

Appreciation Lens

There is another lens that is more helpful, we’ll call it the “appreciation lens”.

With this other lens we learn to see a person's strengths, virtues, and gifts. The ways in which they are already admirable, decent, and deserving of respect. To see them in a way that evokes love, care, and warmth in us.

We learn to see this way not as a means to manipulate them to be different, but as a genuine comprehension of the totality of their situation. “I would be and do as them if I were them.”

If someone in your life has come to mind while reading this: What if they are perfect exactly as they are? How might your relationship with them transform if you learned to see them this way?

No one has too many allies. Too many attuned and loving supporters. If we want to help someone we care about, we must first learn to love and accept them fully as they are.

Deep Welcoming

Does the person feel embraced in our presence? A deep welcoming of however they happen to be at the moment?

I’ve written before about the notion that we mirror each other in relationship. If I am tense or guarded around you, you are much more likely to feel tense and guarded around me.

The more that our company feels like a deep embrace, the more people will enjoy being around us, and the more their brightness and gifts will come forward. This creates the conditions for much more satisfying relationships.

The lens of deficiency is like guarding a door to your heart and only letting certain parts of the person in. It is a rejection of how they are showing up. If we want to help those we love, we can learn to open the door and let them in. In my experience people with dysfunctional behaviors are longing for connection, to be seen and appreciated for who they are. Learning to open the door and let them in is a profound gift we can give.

Usually there is good reason for our guardedness. We have been hurt by this person in the past and we don’t want to be hurt again. So go slow, no need to go to an extreme of openness. Just start to experiment with appreciating the person as they are and see how that starts to shift your relationship.

Subscribe to receive the latest posts in your inbox.