"Now my whole family is abusing me!" said Loretta, a client at a women's resource center where I volunteered back in the '90s. "If I leave my husband, it'll just be out of the frying pan and into the fire."
"Are you—" I cut myself off before finishing my thought, which was, "Are you crazy?" Just the week before, I'd participated in an intervention where Loretta's family had urged her to leave her battering husband, Rex. Each person had expressed enormous love for and protectiveness toward Loretta. Now she thought they were all abusers? Huh?
"They're just like Rex," she said. "You saw it. They judge me. They criticize me. Nothing I do is enough for them."
I opened my mouth, then closed it. Opened then closed it again. I kept that up for about a minute, like a perplexed goldfish, as I groped for the right thing to say. It killed me that Loretta was interpreting her family's desire to rescue her as criticism and judgment. But even as I tried to come up with the kindest possible phrasing for "What the hell is wrong with you?" I knew my question would come across like a slap.
That's when it dawned on me that Loretta had a point. No, her family wasn't abusing her the way Rex did—and yet in its own way, their treatment of her must have felt like an attack. They weren't accepting her as she was. They needed her to change. They raised their voices, made demands, pushed hard. And their intense negative emotions were triggering her fear and defensiveness.
It was in the midst of processing all this that I suddenly heard myself say, "Well, Loretta, I just love you. I don't care what happens to you."
The statement shocked me as it left my lips. But even as I mentally smacked myself upside the head, a funny thing happened: Loretta visibly relaxed. I could feel my own anxiety vanishing, too, leaving a quiet space in which I could treat Loretta kindly. It was true—I really didn't care what happened to her. No matter what she did, I wouldn't love her one bit less.
Since then I've found that loving without caring is a useful approach—I'd venture to say the best approach—in most relationships, especially families. If you think that's coldhearted, think again. It may be time you let yourself love more by caring less.
Next: How does it work?