This week’s topic pushed me into a careful consideration of words and their nuances. Ten days after a significant surgical repair, I was feeling profoundly grateful for all the caregiving provided by my loving husband and I wanted to write about “Caregiving” — providing help to someone who needs it. But “Caregiving” conjures up images of dependency more profound and perhaps more permanent than I wanted to address. Similarly, “Support” didn’t capture the phenomenology of need. I was indeed dependent on much of the care that was provided. “Helping” came closer, although I was aware it could also imply collaborating or cooperating, a topic I had addressed in a different context and will work on for this series in the future. Eventually that word won out and I began thinking of ways in which helping one another becomes a way to show love.
What kinds of help might be provided?
- Filling a request for help. Most important, if the loved one wants the help, providing it has a good chance of being a loving act. Yet again, do not make assumptions about what is wanted, even when it is needed or you believe it is needed.
- Providing obviously-required assistance. Learning to walk again. Tying a shoelace. Eating soup without spilling. Standing up and walking safely when blood pressure is low.
- Doing a task for the loved one. Making a meal. Doing the laundry. Offering transportation. More subtly, returning a phone call, organizing a meeting, doing the logistics of daily life. For example, the one wanting help might benefit by someone else contacting the doctor, arranging a playdate, keeping track of the soccer schedule.
- Taking care of yourself. Often when a need arises for the loved one, the best response can sometimes be to take care of yourself. Data are notorious that marital quality nosedives with the arrival of a first child. One reason is that one partner has become accustomed to being doted upon by the other and when that person’s attention turns to the profoundly dependent infant, the doted-upon partner can feel abandoned. By far the best thing he or she can do to be helpful is to take care of his or her own needs. Providing reassurance that two competent adults inhabit the household can be a powerful way to show love.
How can you help?
Acknowledging and meeting needs or requests. When you provide help that is either obvious or requested, you validate the loved one’s ability to both know what they want as well as the limits of their perceived ability to secure it. Acceptance of inevitably dependency becomes a source of intimate connection.
- Recognizing contrasting styles of perceiving and wanting help. Do know if you and your loved one share or diverge on where you get your energy and how you refuel. As Jung pointed out, an introvertlooks within and to solitary pursuits to recover strength; an extravert looks to environmental sources, especially other people. This is not about social skills; it is about when intervention from another person is desirable and when a person prefers to be left alone.
- Asking the loved one what is desired. There is a difference between helping to identify a solution to a problem and implementing a solution. Both tasks are great candidates for helping — but be sure not to infringe on the loved one’s autonomy if they prefer to find solutions alone or, once a creative solution is identified, to implement it.
- Taking care of yourself first. As in the airplane, put your oxygen mask on before you secure one for someone who needs help. The benefits and joys of caregiving can be great, as long as the burdens of helping do not result in resentment or burnout. Know how much sacrifice you can tolerate and when you need to say “no” and find an alternate solution.
Why (and when) is helping showing love?
- It underscores that the relationship is a priority. By rearranging your routines to accommodate a request or meet a need, you signal the importance to you of the person you help.
- Being helpful is intrinsically rewarding for many people. As I have pointed out before, those long in the “Agreeable” personality trait are most comfortable providing help. They are naturally altruistic. But for everyone, the rewards of helping others can be personal (better health, happiness, even longevity), obvious (the other benefits from the help), and even societal or spiritual (our connections to one another and their potential for good is underscored).
- Helping is a built-in expression of loving. Oxytocin, our “cuddling” and “helping” hormone, increases when we love, when we give birth. As Glenn Geher eloquently argued, it is evolution’s way of guaranteeing the continuation of the species.
When have you been helped and knew your helper was expressing love? When have you reached out to help another, motivated by love for them (rather than their need or your desire to see yourself as helpful)? Have you ever misunderstood a call for help? When have you regretted responding to one? Why?