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Self-Knowledge • Emotional Skills
One of the key desires of love is the wish to comfort another person. But an intention doesn’t always or automatically translate into a ready capacity for true assistance.
Picture a five-year-old who has stumbled into his parent’s bedroom and surprised his mother crying. She is normally so strong and ready with help for him. Now he longs to do something to staunch the tears, but is at sea (the sobs might be about the mortgage, a turbulent time at work or an argument with her partner – but all these aren’t for a child to grasp). He sweetly suggests a glass of water – and pipes up that he might run downstairs to get Knitted Rabbit.
The impulse to help floats logically free of any actual ability to do so. Two people can long to be supportive and generous to one another and yet lack all the skills to deliver on their good intentions – and therefore end up feeling isolated, resentful and unloved.
We cause ourselves trouble because we are too slow to recognise an odd, largely unmentioned phenomenon: how varied and particular our notions of help can be. We take our own preferred style of being soothed as the natural starting point for how to soothe others – but when we are wrong, and our partner’s original distress is compounded by their sense of having been ignored or insulted, we take them to be ungrateful and cruel and vow never to attempt to be kind again.
An urgent task is therefore to try to understand the particular way in which we, and our partner, need love to be delivered in order to feel that it is real.
The Different Styles of Help
We might be types who, when we are sad or in difficulties, need first and foremost to speak. What we say may not be entirely sequential. We might go back over things a few times and omit to cap our stories with neat endings. But that might not matter, because what we want above all from a partner when we are suffering is that they sit with us at length and listen. We want them to signal their engagement with their eyes but not their mouths, to register our anger, to observe our disappointment, at most, at opportune moments to prompt us with a ‘Go on…’ or a small supportive sound.
Yet what we absolutely don’t want are answers, solutions or analyses, for them to open their wallets, to give us a plan or to rush to fill in our silences. We want them to sit listening because the real problem we need assistance with isn’t so much the specific issue we are mentioning (the parking ticket, the in-laws, the delayed delivery). It’s the overarching sense that most people we encounter can’t really be bothered to take the time to imagine themselves correctly into our lives. Perhaps there was a history to this: our parents might have been practically minded, busy and successful but somehow rather callous and distracted in the way they sought always and immediately to push our difficulties out of the way with logic. Now we feel how an immediate ‘solution’ can be an excuse for not listening to the problem. That’s why just being heard feels like the quintessence of love. We might almost deliberately take our time, go back over points our partner had thought were finished and re-explore a jagged bit of our story, not to mislead, but because such rehearsals create the backdrop for the only style of help we crave and trust: receptive, quiet attention.
Then again, at another end of the spectrum, love might not feel real unless it is accompanied by precise and concrete solutions. Vague sympathy is worthless. We might want to hear a flow of ideas as to what we should do next, what sort of strategy we should deploy, whom we might call and how we can get answers. It’s very well for someone to say they feel our pain; we would prefer a plan. Love is a sheet of paper with a list of bullet points in your partner’s handwriting.
In addition, we might not be averse to evidence that our partner has spent some money on our problems. Time isn’t a currency we respect. We might want them to pay for an accountant or a lawyer – or offer an evening in an expensive restaurant. After an economically fragile childhood, to feel really helped, we might long for evidence of financial outlay; we can’t be reassured just by what someone says. We have built up a residual suspicion and distrust around lone verbal offerings. We remember how nice it was when an elderly relative unexpectedly gave us a very well-chosen present when we were nine and in hospital after a bad fall. They never said very much to us (perhaps they were rather shy) but this gesture truly touched us. We felt sure of their kindness – as if for the first time – when we learnt just how much the present had cost.
Differently again, when we divulge our agonies, our priority may just be to hear that everything will eventually be OK. We don’t mind a little exaggeration. Despair strikes us as cheap, reasons to give up are always obvious. For us, love is a species of hope.
Or, alternatively, it’s hope that may be enraging. What calms us down is a quiet walk around the prospect of catastrophe. We don’t want to be alone in our fears. We long for someone to explore the grimmest possibilities with bleak sang-froid: to mention prison, insolvency, front page headlines and the grave…. Only when our partner is ready to match our most forbidding analyses can we be reassured we’re not in the hands of a callous sentimentalist, rather someone honest enough to see the dangers and to worry about them as much as we do – and perhaps stick with us while we serve out the prison sentence.
A cuddle can sound to some like a petty response to bad news, but for us it can be the most reliable evidence of heartfelt love. To help our minds, we need someone first to reassure our bodies, to hold us tightly and quietly while we close our eyes in pain and surrender to their firm embrace. Help in adulthood may for others be associated with the gift of insight, but for us, it is touch that soothes. We are picking up on memories of early childhood. Our wise parents knew that a distressed child does not need a lesson or a lecture; they should be laid down on the bed, held and their head stroked by a giant soft adult hand.
The misfortune lies in how easily we can irritate with the wrong offer of love – and in turn, how quickly we may be offended when our efforts go unappreciated. A gift of pessimism or optimism, of a cuddle or some cash won’t seem to the partner like a touchingly off-target act of kindness, it is likely to be read as an insulting failure to understand who they really are.
Recognising that there are different styles of help at least alerts us to the severe risks of misunderstanding. Instead of getting annoyed at our lover’s inept (and sometimes widely misdirected) effort, we can grasp – perhaps for the first time – the basic truth that these blundering companions are in fact attempting to be nice. In turn, the clearest clue of the kind of help our partner wants is the help they offer us.
It seems love can’t remain at the level of intentions alone: it must involve constant strenuous efforts to translate our wishes into interventions truly aligned with the psychology and history of another human being.