How do you get your nearest and dearest to change their behavior? Simple: Stop giving a damn what they do, says Martha Beck.
"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.
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 emails!"
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.
Once we'd established that I didn't care what happened to Loretta, our work together finally became productive. In a follow-up family session, I had each relative tell all the others, "I love you unconditionally -- I don't care what happens to you." We discussed ways in which each of them might begin creating personal happiness, regardless of Loretta's actions. And as the focus shifted off her, Loretta felt less pressured, less harried, more respected. Smiles and hugs appeared in place of tension and tears.
Supported by her loving, uncaring family, Loretta eventually triumphed: She left Rex, got a job, and found a healthier mate. As you support your significant others, they may realize this same spectacular success. Or not. You can be happy either way, so what do you care? You have the freedom to live and let live, to love and let love. Granting yourself that freedom is one of the healthiest, most constructive things you can do for yourself and the people who matter to you. And if you disagree, I truly, respectfully, lovingly do not care.
Martha Beck is the author of six books, including Steering by Starlight (Rodale).