Having Feelings vs. Caring
The people who inhabit our lives are vital. They play an integral role in our quality of life, our behaviors and what we manage to accomplish. It’s important to invest in healthy relationships. But for those of us who have spent most of our lives in unhealthy relationships, it’s sometimes hard to know what that means.
That’s what it has been like for me.
Unhealthy relationships are an epidemic, and can be difficult to identify because they are often not too terrible from the outside. Actually, they often look pretty damn appealing.
I had a loving family who always provided for my basic needs. I got to travel and spend summers on a sailboat. I always had new clothes for school. We laughed a lot together. I graduated college without student loans, got braces twice, and have always had a safety net if disaster struck, all thanks to my family. I also arrived into adulthood with a substantial drinking habit, thanks to the very same bunch.
I inherited the same functional alcohol abuse used by several generations on all four branches (a story for another time) of my family tree to cope, restricting us from truly healthy relationships. On the outside, things usually looked A-Okay, but we were all implicitly giving each other (and ourselves) passes from true accountability and growth. There was no genuine support because there were no genuine conversations. It was anything but healthy.
There was a tendency to complain behind people’s backs but never address something in person. Then the martyrdom to tolerate bad behavior, sometimes incredibly destructive, instead of enforcing boundaries and consequences. We didn’t talk about unpleasant things together or work together to heal resentments or long-standing wounds. There wasn’t really the sense that something different, or better, was possible.
It’s not a huge surprise to me now that I spent my first 15-ish years of adulthood going from one dysfunctional relationship to the next, both in my partners and friends, attracting other wounded people like a magnet. My most recent one ended in an abrupt realization that this person was not capable of healthy partnership with me. Although there were signs that make it obvious in retrospect, recognizing it only 4 months in feels like growth. And even more than recognizing it, the fact that trying to make it work was so unappealing that I actually ended it! Instead of diving in deeper! A novel concept, indeed. I have to say I’m really proud of myself. These patterns are deeply rooted and not easy to change, but I am making progress.
One of the things this last relationship made clear to me is the difference between having feelings for someone and caring about them. They are not the same.
Having feelings for someone means something in ourselves is activated by this person. We get something from them. We get a need or want met by them. It’s really about ourselves. We are using them to feel something.
Caring about someone, on the other hand, puts the center point in someone else’s sphere. Are they in a good place? What do they need to succeed? How can I contribute to their quality of life? Is my influence doing them good or harm?
If you’re able to be aware of other people’s needs, wants and feelings, while also being mindful of what is best for you, you are on the path to healthy relationships. Gold star for you! Come sit by me, baby.
Strong emotions feel good to a lot of us who grew up in dysfunctional families because it’s the most sensation we had. At least for me, I spent much of my childhood feeling checked out and numb, on my own, under the radar. There was so much going on, nobody really explained it to me or addressed it, they just lashed out or pretended it wasn’t happening and drank. I remember wanting so badly to grow up because then something would happen to me. I didn’t care if it was good or bad, I just needed to feel alive and sensation gave me the impression that I mattered.
Not the big trauma from physical or sexual abuse, but the subtle trauma of decades without accountable relationships with people truly capable of caring.
I am only starting to know what love feels like because I’m only starting to emerge from this method of survival in relationships. I’m finally able to truly care about other people. I think this last relationship completed a cycle of understanding, because I have been who he was mannnnny many times in relationships. I have prioritized and made decisions based on my feelings, which are fickle and tied deeply to my own trauma. Not the big trauma from physical or sexual abuse, but the subtle trauma of decades without accountable relationships with people truly capable of caring. I don’t say that with judgment. It’s not easy to do.
The good news, the amazing news, is that relationships with people who have been doing their own work have slid nicely into much healthier shapes. My mom, for example, and my boss. Accountability & emotional honesty has made both of these relationships positively blossom. Becoming a person who is capable of caring for others has made almost all of my relationships better. But it’s also made me recognize where I need to set boundaries with the time and energy I’m willing to put in. Many relationships have not made the cut.
Being the object of someone’s strong feelings can be intoxicating, and I suspect (though I can’t tell you for sure) that healthy people can care and having strong feelings. But strong feelings on their own are no recipe for happiness, and at this point in my life, any relationship without an articulated and demonstrated ability to care has me running for the hills and fast.
I used to want to live alone in those proverbial hills. Humans and their flaws were unbearable, and I could never seem to find peace in my life. But learning to suss out people’s intentions, including my own, has helped me find a way to experience true connection. It’s scary at times, to feel such love for another that the thought of losing them is horrifying. But I can only hope that I experience that loss many times throughout my life, because I have cultivated many such meaningful bonds. And at the end of my life I hope I am surrounded by those I love who will outlast me.
It’s the first time I feel complete without a partner, because I am not trying to fill my need to be seen and loved with the heady rush of other people’s feelings. I am available for love but it’s got to be right. My door is no longer open to self-seeking souls.
But for those precious ones who are willing and able to take good care, I will endeavor to fling it open and welcome them home.