A few years ago, as good friends and practicing therapists, we found ourselves thinking about the curative power of friendship—that vital relationship Aristotle once called the mutual love of people who wish each other well. Our own friendship had begun when we were training as psychotherapists, and it was clear to us that without all the talking, talking, talking we did together, day in and day out, we would never have learned how to be professional listeners. A lot of our conversation then was about how therapy heals. That process seemed so mysterious to us, both in our personal therapies and with our clients. Reading around in the literature, we wondered why it was silent about a particular kind of love that we and our clients were struggling to find and name. We sensed that this sort of affection was at the core of our own friendship—in our helpfulness toward each other, in how we could intuit each other's needs, encourage each other's growth. Why, we puzzled, was it so hard to find words for what we were experiencing? The answer arrived, unexpectedly, from Japan. We came across a book by the Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi called The Anatomy of Dependence. And in it, he provides the concept we were trying to pin down. Doi was saying that in Japan there is an everyday noun, amae (pronounced ah-mah-ay), which means "the expectation to be sweetly and indulgently loved" that babies are born with and seek throughout their lives. From Doi's Japanese perspective, this "dependent" love is not immature, to be outgrown as quickly as possible. Normally and naturally, adults continue to be animated by that same wish. It is the foundation of all love.
But Americans grow up in a culture where being "independent" is held up as a supreme achievement; we consider "dependency" a liability, not an ability. Having lost its association with "dependable," "dependent" has only negative connotations. So it was not surprising that there was no immediately equivalent English word for the "indulgent" love Doi describes—even though when we encounter it we all say spontaneously, "Oh! That's what I always wanted." The lovely 17th-century cherishment, from the Latin caritas, is the closest we found to amae.
We asked some college students to set down what came to mind when they heard the word. One wrote, "When I was really, really young, my mom sang a song called 'Peace' while she rocked me. Even now when I hum that song to myself, I feel a kind of soothing, but also I am kind of sad and lonely because I miss the safety and protection of her and the song...." Another student thought of her boyfriend: "Dave gave me roses, which he dethorned, one at a time. I thought to myself, He cares so much more about me than he does about himself." A young man told how his father once got up out of his chair "when he was awfully tired and made me an egg sandwich." If you attune your ear to these notes, you recognize the common theme: the experience of feeling precious.
Cherishment is what people want from their friends, and this warm, embracing feeling harks back to childhood, because it is rooted in the loving care a baby expects from the moment of birth. And it is an expectation to be loved in a particular way: cherished—spontaneously, generously, playfully. Each person in an adult relationship brings to it early experiences of amae satisfied and amae frustrated.
From this point of view, you can see how deep the roots of intimacy are and begin to understand what can go wrong. When people get stuck in emotional trouble, a story of their frustrated "expectation to be sweetly and indulgently loved" is unfolding or being repeated. Someone who has been disappointed in that expectation may focus all her thwarted desire for connection on the hurt. (Fear of being unlovable is characteristic of those who have not been cherished.) She is responding to the pain by putting up a strong defense against her own desire to be loved, denying that she is needy and aggressively rejecting help in order not to show weakness. Feeling unlovable, she closes down, pulls away from relationships. Cherishing a grudge becomes a preoccupation.
If you listen, you'll hear people indicating in all kinds of ways that they will not let themselves be cherished—for example, someone who exhausts herself helping others but when she needs help herself quickly says, "Oh no, I'm fine." Ironically, those people still experience a kind of elemental disbelief when they feel uncherished and think someone has let them down. "Oh no! It can't be! Why am I not loved?" A sense of loss, a basic anxiety, grips them. This sense—at the core of many depressions—is what we as therapists so often find ourselves treating.
We Hear You!