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Distancing Ourselves From a Loved One's Pain: Why Friends and Loved Ones Appear Callous and Removed

Fear is not the only reason we back away from difficulty in the lives of those dear to us. What one learns during childhood from those who raise us also sets the stage for the ability to show kindness and caring. Unrecognized envy and jealousy can also play a role in how we respond.
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Life teaches us that all lives have crisis, and the constancy and availability of friends and loved ones make all of the difference in how we are able to face them. Toward this end, we all do "have to be taught." In addition, facing our own lives and fears allows the poetry of The Golden Rule to be part of one's life. But achieving this is not easy. Following are some life examples that I hope will hold meaning...

I felt my stomach go into knots. The first time I saw a very good friend who was going through chemo, I asked how he was. His response, obviously what he believed, reflected both sarcasm and sadness: "You do not want to know," he told me emphatically. "No one really does."

"Is this true?" I asked myself. "When one we know is going through the hell of a serious illness, or any other difficulty, do we really not care? Do we merely go through motions when asking how one is? Do we not want to get involved in the pain and agony? If the latter is true, why?"

The answer, I realized, very frequently is fear. When one we care for is going through any horrid time -- from illness, to marital difficulties, to loss of a loved one, or a job loss, we can come across as unfeeling and disinterested. But very often the reason for this is overwhelming fear that these events can occur also in our own lives. Or the lives of those we care deeply about.

I will never forget the client with cancer who consulted me. She and her older brother were only 18 months apart. In Selma's words, "There were five kids in our family, but everyone always called my brother Jerry and me Irish twins, and they were right. We were inseparable." But Selma went on to explain, "The minute I was diagnosed with cancer, a wall went up in how my brother treated me. After being so close for as long as I can remember, I stopped being able to talk with Jerry about not only cancer, but everything. This is inconceivable to me. He is a doctor. He knows so much. He could help so much. But it is like he has vanished from my life."

A month later Jerry consulted me, confirming his sister's remembrances about how inseparable he and Selma were as children and how close they and their partners had remained in adulthood. "Next to my wife, Selma is my best friend," he explained solemnly. When I asked Jerry what Selma's present struggle meant to him, his voice broke in mid-sentence, "She is very ill, and as a doctor I well know that chances are strong that she will die." After this last word, Jerry wept quietly, saying, "I just cannot imagine my life and the life of my family without her."

Jean, the closest friend of a woman whose husband decided after 15 years of marriage and two young children that he wanted a divorce ASAP, told me immediately after sitting down in my office, "Cindy gave everything to this man. She put her own education on hold to go to work and made sure he got his law degree. But as soon as she called me, heartbroken, I backed away. Why am I so insensitive to my dearest friend?" It did not take Jean long to figure out the reason. She was experiencing marital problems also. She, too, had paid for much of her husband's graduate school. And she feared, in her words, "that I am looking into the mirror of my own future."

My client, Daniel, was not supportive of a very good friend who was fired because a ruthless colleague convincingly implicated him in a dishonest choice he had not participated in. Why? He feared his own vulnerability.

In each of the situations described, understanding allowed the appropriate caring and communication to take hold.

Fear is not the only reason we back away from difficulty in the lives of those dear to us. What one learns during childhood from those who raise us also sets the stage for the ability to show kindness and caring. Unrecognized envy and jealousy can also play a role in how we respond.

My client Dora came to see me because her closest friend refuses to speak to her. When I asked if Dora knew why, she nodded, explaining that when her friend's daughter was very ill, she never telephoned or visited, either while the child was in the hospital or following during her recuperation at home. Dora explained, "I just did what my folks always did -- ignore the problems of others, and then reconnect when things were good again. And if reconnection did not happen, my parents' attitude was, 'So what!'"

During Miriam's first appointment she explained that she had ignored the pain of a close friend "who was always good to me when she had disappointments and losses in her life." Her understanding came as she spoke of her own life: "I am ashamed to admit that I always thought Louise had everything, and I was very jealous. When trouble came her way, after years of watching all of her success and luck, I was secretly happy that she suffered."

As in the relationships described earlier, understanding set the stage for different behaviors in the lives of Dora and Miriam. Their friendships became solid when insight led to heart felt apologies.