To care for someone can mean to adore them, feed them, tend their wounds. But care can also signify sorrow, as in "bowed down by cares." Or anxiety, as in "Careful!" Or investment in an outcome, as in "Who cares?" The word love has no such range of meaning: It's pure acceptance. Watching families like Loretta's taught me that caring—with its shades of sadness, fear, and insistence on specific outcomes—is not love. In fact, when care appears, unconditional love often vanishes.
When my son was first diagnosed with Down syndrome, I cared so much that my fear for his future overshadowed my joy at his existence. Now that I couldn't care less how many chromosomes the kid has, I can love him boundlessly. For you, loving without caring might mean staying calm when your sister gets divorced, or your dad starts smoking again, or your husband is laid off. You may think that in such situations not getting upset would be unloving. But consider: If you were physically injured, bleeding out, would you rather be with someone who screamed and swooned, or someone who stayed calm enough to improvise a tourniquet? Real healing, real love comes from people who are both totally committed to helping—and able to emotionally detach.
This is because, on an emotional level, our brains are designed to mirror one another. As a result, when we're anxious and controlling, other people don't respond with compliance; they reflect us by becoming—press the button when you get the right answer—anxious and controlling. Anger elicits anger, fear elicits fear, no matter how well meaning we may be. When Loretta's family insisted she leave Rex, she insisted on staying. When I told her I loved her without caring what happened, she mirrored my relaxation. That's when she began to request and absorb the advice I was now welcome to give.
Free to Be...Carefree
If you want to try loving without caring—and by now I hope you do—here's how to get there. Just be sure to buckle up. This may be a bumpy ride.
1. Choose a Subject
Think of a person you love, but about whom you feel some level of anxiety, anger, or sadness.
2. Identify What This Person Must Change to Make You Happy
Think about how your loved one must alter herself or her behavior before you can be content. Complete the sentence below by filling in the name of your loved one, the thing(s) you want this person to change, and the way you'd feel if the change occurred:
If _______ would only _______, then I could feel _______.
3. Accept a Radical Reality
Now scratch out the first clause of the sentence you just wrote, so all that remains is:
I could feel _______.
That last sentence, oh best beloved, is the truth. It is the whole truth. Yes, your loved one's cooperation would be lovely, but you don't absolutely need it to experience any given emotional state. This is incredibly hard to accept—it would be so easy to feel good if others would just do what we want, right? Nevertheless, you can feel sane even if your crazy-making brother stays crazy. You can feel peaceful even if your daughter robs a bank. If Helen Keller could write, after growing up deaf and blind, "I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad," then you can find a way to be happy even if your mother never does stop correcting your grammar.
Accepting that this is possible—that you can achieve a given emotional state even if a loved one doesn't conform to your wishes—is the key step to loving without caring. I'm not saying that such acceptance will make you instantly content. Creating ways to be happy is your life's work, a challenge that won't end until you die. We'll come back to that in a minute. For now, the goal is just to try believing, or merely hoping, that even if all your loved ones remain toxically insane forever, it's still possible you'll find opportunities to thrive and joys to embrace.
4. Shift Your Focus from Controlling Your Loved One's Behavior to Creating Your Own Happiness
When I make this suggestion to my clients, they tend to take umbrage. "I always focus on creating my own happiness!" they insist. "That's precisely why I'm trying to get my grandchildren to visit, and my cat to stop biting, and Justin Bieber to engage with me in a mutually rewarding exchange of personal e-mails!"
Best of luck with that. Because as AA or any other 12-step group will tell you, sanity begins the moment you admit you're powerless over other people. This is the moment you become mentally free to start trying new ideas, building new relationships, experimenting to see what situations feel better than the hopeless deadlock of depending on change from someone you can't control.
Again, this is a lifelong project, a game of "You're getting warmer; you're getting colder" that stops only when you do. But the focus shift that helps you stop caring is like a little dance (drop hope of changing significant other, embrace determination to find alternative sources of peace and joy, step-ball-change) that immediately, reliably diverts your energy toward happiness and unconditional love.
Next: What's the payoff?