By Elisabeth Young-Bruehl and Faith Bethelard
From the August 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
Cherishment: It's the essence of friendship. It falls somewhere between love, consideration, and reliance. And it's what we all desire.
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.
Friendship is about reciprocal cherishing. It may come as a surprise that to be a good friend you might need to be able to receive loving care as well as give it. But this is the essence of friendship. If you look at what you and your good friends actually do for each other from this perspective, you can see how when you are able to indulge each other you open emotional doors. The knots of hurt, the grudges, dissolve. You are receptive, responsive. So you have the feeling when you're with your friend that you are suddenly more able to express yourself, to relax, to breathe. It's like coming home to wishes that you were not able to feel, much less express. As one student wrote: "Talking with Isabelle after a painful evening, I felt free, content, lightweight."
You tell your friend, "You won't believe what happened today..." and this means, "You, as my friend, will help me figure out what happened today." This "you won't believe..." conversation is a crucial part of friendship; because it is the channel for relieving a diffuse "down" feeling we all have under our surfaces at times. Everyone has experienced some degree of depression, and at the bottom of that depression is our shock that our inborn expectation of cherishment has not been fulfilled. We are incredulous to find that our expectation could have been disappointed, whether it happened today or in the long ago past. "I do not believe that they treated me like that!" we say. Or "Oh my God, they were not there for me!" "My parents expected me to parent them!" "Why was I surprised...?"
Your friend is the one who can hear this cry of incredulity and comfort you. How? By being there, by letting you be a child asking for help. With your friend, you can revisit and work through your disappointments, get back in balance, restore your trust in people's goodness.
A deep friendship is therapeutic. But it differs crucially from psychotherapy. With a friend, you trust that if one day you are exhausted and harassed, the next you can be depended upon and dependable. Neither of you is the designated needy one; the helping role shifts easily—as it does not and should not in psychotherapy. When you are asking your friend for support, you are at the same time expecting to give it—and feeling able to give it because you have asked for and received it. There's mutual cherishment.
Because the basic dependent-dependable roles shift easily in a friendship, other roles can shift. So friendships have a fluidity other relationships may lack. Conventions and stereotypes do not apply. Adult playfulness is promoted: You be the parent, I'll be the child! You be the woman, I'll be the man! If your friend opens the door or pays the check, it's that you have agreed to that arrangement, not because you take it for granted and just carry it out. No meter is running when friends take turns; it happens spontaneously, like the Latin con-versare—to turn around together—in genuine conversation.
The readiness to play different parts is a manifestation of the freedom you have in a relationship that allows you to be yourself, to discover yourself, to develop. Ideally, unlike most parents, who have an investment in their children being mirror images of themselves, your friend recognizes and honors the goals you have set for yourself without imposing her own.
A friendship can come apart if one or the other of the friends is untrue to the bond or to what they have in common—their group, their cause, a moral precept they have accepted. Friendships can also come undone because one or the other of the friends has been uncherishing or fallen into envy of the cherishment the other is getting. Renewing the friendship then requires forgiveness.
Our expectation to be sweetly and indulgently loved is bound to be frustrated at times, no matter how caring a friend may be. And the frustration will echo what we experienced as children, when even the most conscientious parent in the world had more to do than attend nonstop to that helpless creature we all once were, the one Sigmund Freud jokingly called His Majesty the Baby. But good friendships have a built-in cure for lapses and shortfalls. A good friend will tell you when you have been uncherishing—and she will tell you in a cherishing way so that you will be able to hear her. Friends who have cultivated a relationship over time do the cherishing work-and-play that is friendship's essence without self-consciousness or straining. They operate with their version of the intuitive ease and reciprocity that, in the best of all possible worlds, mothers and babies have with each other. Then friends are free to be kindred spirits, to bask in the mutual love of two who wish each other well. Friends who have found each other become a whole greater than their parts.
Within friendship you can practice, safely and freely, the ingredients of cherishment you need in all relationships—at home, at work, in the world. Your friendship becomes a standard to live up to, and your friendship can be an example to others. Cultivated well, friendships seed beyond themselves; a culture can grow from them. Imagine! Cherishment culture.