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.
We cause ourselves trouble because we are too slow to recognize 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.
The 5 Different Styles of Help:
We might be types who, when we are sad or in difficulties, need first and foremost to speak. 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, 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 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 perfect example of love.
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.
In addition, we might not be averse to evidence that our partner has spent some money on our problems. 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.
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. 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 composure.
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.
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.
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.
Recognizing that there are different styles of help at least alerts us to the severe risks of misunderstanding. 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.