NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Caring” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome.
Caring: The languages of caring
Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
In my work with couples, I’ve observed that we each have our own ways of showing we care about one another, and that these ways are also, most of the time, how we want love to be shown to us.
I think of this phenomenon as our Languages of Caring. Unlike the spoken word, where it is obvious when two people are speaking a different language because nothing the other person says seems to make sense, we often don’t know when our languages of caring are dissimilar. And because we are frequently drawn to romantic partners whose demonstrations of caring are different from our own, much is misunderstood – or missed entirely.
The result is like the O. Henry tale “The Gift of the Magi,” in which a young man sells his prized possession, his father’s watch, to buy his new bride a fancy comb for her beautiful hair. Meanwhile, the young woman has cut off and sold her hair so she can buy an expensive chain for her husband’s watch. Both try their hardest to please the other, and each sacrifices something important to do so, but in the end they have only their good intentions.
Like so many aspects of love, our languages of caring are largely products of our families of origin and of the culture we grew up in. We learn from our parents, neighbors, and school teachers how to show love and affection. Some families do it mainly with words, others with physical affection, others through gifts or by doing nice things for each other, or by showing keen interest in each others’ lives. In some families, love is conditional – if you do this, I will love you, if not I will withhold my love. In others, we grow up knowing we are loved no matter what we do.
We take all this into our later relationships, and we speak to each other in the languages we learned, expecting to be spoken to the same way in return. Most of us have the best intentions. But when our languages of caring are dissimilar, our good intentions can get lost in translation.
So: A man is doing everything he knows to show his partner how much he loves her. He works hard every day, takes care of the finances, pays for wonderful, expensive family vacations, cleans up after dinner. But she keeps telling him he doesn’t care about her or their relationship, and as the years pass she grows increasingly resentful and distant. Or a woman tells her partner every day how much she loves him and is often physically affectionate, but more and more he becomes sullen and withdrawn for what seems to her like no reason. The problem: he shows love through gifts and doing for his loved ones, while she may need loving words to know he cares. Or she shows love through sweet words and physical affection, but he may need her to take an interest in the things he is passionate about. And so on, and on, in various permutations and combinations of misconnection.
Although sometimes the caring really is only one way, most people, like the couple in the O. Henry story, start out truly attempting to show they care in the best way they know how, but because of language differences, sometimes they miss the mark. So, each tries harder in the ways they know, as we might speak more loudly to a foreigner who doesn’t understand our language. Because these “louder” signals are still misinterpreted, both giver and receiver feel increasingly rejected, angry, or hopeless as the cycle continues. The eventual consequence: both shut down.
By the time people show up in couples counseling, they really have stopped showing they care and, frequently, one or both actually has stopped caring. The hurt has built up too long; each has been withholding from the other what they feel they haven’t gotten, often recreating a past experience of conditional love, neglect, or deprivation instead of enabling their relationship to be the emotionally corrective, co-transformative experience it has the capacity to become.
The key to reversing this destructive cycle is awareness that there actually are differences in languages of caring, followed by mutual willingness to learn a shared one.
My landlords in Albany, where I lived shortly after my near-death experience, were Holocaust survivors. He was Polish, she Hungarian. At critical points in their imprisonment, he had found ways to provide her with enough food to prevent starvation. After their concentration camp was liberated, they left together, eventually to arrive in the United States. When I met them, they both spoke English quite well, but in the camp, she spoke only Hungarian and he only Polish and Yiddish. At first they communicated through sign language and the occasional inadvertent interpreter who spoke both Hungarian and Yiddish or Polish. They knew they had to learn a common language if the relationship was to survive. And so do we, in our languages of caring, if ours are also to survive.
In practice, successful couples, once aware of their language of caring differences, seldom need to learn an entirely new one. Instead, each becomes increasingly fluent in the other’s language, between them developing more varied ways to express their love. Even after years of misunderstanding and hurt, expressing their feelings in a shared language of caring can reverse the disintegrative process of misunderstanding. Rather than breaking apart or living parallel, disconnected lives, couples can transcend their limitations and become not only closer, but more full versions of themselves.