One of the most confusing aspects of relationships is learning to show how we care in appropriate ways. We have heard about the 5 love languages and been told by many researchers and scholars about all the ways communication challenges us in love. Yet, I sit with clients every week who are trying to understand why relationships – of all types – are hard and confusing. If all the books are followed, then relationships should be easy, right? Wrong! There is an inherent problem in taking all of the books at face value. These self-help books tend to talk about what people desire or how people want to love and communicate. There is a clear gaping hole in the approach. We must understand what our role in every relationship is.
One of my ongoing chants with clients is that the healthiest relationships have the clearest boundaries. These boundaries take many forms, but the one that is most relative here is the boundary of role. Understanding our job in a relationship helps us to strategize a healthy and connective approach that nurtures healthy connection. Whether we are in a parent/child, friend, or lover relationship, we must understand our role and how it changes in different situations.
It can often be confusing to differentiate two key roles that we can play in connection: to care for and to care about. These roles can often get muddled, and we can slip from one to the other mindlessly. It is often this role confusion that causes great angst, misunderstanding, and chaos when we choose the wrong role.
To care for someone is a role of great responsibility. To care for someone often is a position of power and authority. It is clear that a parent of small child must care for them because the parent is responsible for the health and safety of the child. Anyone in a formal caretaking role (such as for an aging parent), can feel the pressure of responsibility and the challenge to connection, especially when the receiver of such care does not want to be cared for! To care for someone assumes that the carer can make decisions for the cared for. If both parties are not clear about the roles each play, havoc ensues. If the one being cared for believes that both parties are equal, resistance and resentment can grow. It is this power dynamic that often leads to confusion and frustration as boundaries are crossed.
To care about someone is also a role of great responsibility. To care about someone requires compassion, empathy, and insight. To care about someone is to acknowledge each person’s capability, responsibility, and self-direction. To care about someone means that you might not like the choices or approaches of another, but that you acknowledge it is their right to do so. What makes caring about someone so difficult is that one must first acknowledge that they are not in a position of authority, but rather a position of support. Caring about someone can also challenge one’s ego because there may be a desire to advise, consult, direct, and/or push a situation in a particular direction. However, to care about someone is to realize that we only offer those approaches when they are asked for, or when they are offered AND accepted. Being able to hold one’s tongue and allow another to make their own choices can be painful as we watch them struggle. Caring about someone celebrates another’s right to make their own decisions, learn from their own mistakes, and take credit for their own victories.
For healthier relationships, take a moment to ask yourself exactly what your job in the relationship is: to care for or to care about. You might have to switch from one role to the other from time to time. For example, a lover with an injury may need someone to care for them as their capacity is diminished. At the same time, caring about them allows them to decide how they want to progress despite their injury. Needing an ice pack does not invite life coaching! So, I close with the same chant I say daily: The healthiest relationships have the clearest boundaries.
Chapman, G. (2015). The 5 love languages: The secret to love that lasts. Northfield Publishing:Panama City, FL
To learn more creating healthy caring relationships, contact Dr. Elliott at [email protected]