Mark B. Borg, Jr, Ph.D., Grant H. Brenner, MD, & Daniel Berry, RN, MHA

Relationship Sanity

5 Ways We Benefit When We Give

Accepting the value of what others offer us.

Posted Dec 10, 2018

I don't believe we're only motivated by our own self-interests. Often out of crisis comes this enormous wellspring of generosity and motivation. —Josh Fox

Steve's story

"Just as I was leaving for my softball game Saturday morning, my phone rang. It was my doctor, finally making the call whose anticipation had been causing me to lose sleep.

"'Steve, I’m sorry to tell you this, but the tests are back. It’s definitely prostate cancer.'

“In that moment, I felt as if my life ended—or might as well have. In fact, as soon as we hung up I started planning my funeral.

“I’d been going to the same doctor for almost 20 years, so he was more like an old friend than just ‘my doctor.’ He told me to be in his office first thing Monday so we could start putting my treatment together.

"Anyway, I called my friend Duane right away to tell him what was going on.  “Hey, Dua'—I just got some bad, bad news: the biopsy says it’s prostate cancer.

"Duane’s response wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. 'Oh man—sorry to hear that, bro, but you won’t believe what just happened: Carrie just walked out on me—said she was done. Then she took the girls to her sister’s, told me I’d better start packing, and then said the next voice I hear will be her lawyer’s.'

“Now, the news I’d just gotten was scary as hell, but giving Duane a chance to tell me what was happening to him gave me enough of a pause to realize that my fate wasn’t exactly a done deal—not be any stretch. Meanwhile, my buddy Duane had just had his whole life ripped out from under him. Anyway, when we got done talking and I came back to myself, I had enough calm to be able to sit down at the computer and do some googling about prostate cancer treatment. So when I got my doctor’s office that Monday, I had enough information on board that I was ready for an intelligent discussion about what was coming up.” 

What's the irrelationship angle in all of this?

Actually, it’s pretty straight up Irrelationship 101 stuff: It’s literally in our DNA to need one another, so the most powerful thing we can offer each other is the willingness to “be there” for someone else—especially in times of crisis. This cuts into the isolation we feel when troubles come. Even better, the mutuality of giving and receiving leaves both parties feeling not only less alone, but cared for and cared about. 

This is the polar opposite of irrelationship, in which caretaking is one-dimensional and includes no genuine sharing of heart and experience. Instead, it leaves both parties feeling oddly isolated and ripped off.

“So,” Steve continued, “I went into treatment. It was scary and complicated, and sometimes made it hard for me to sleep—not so much the treatment, actually, but the way my head got busy worrying and wondering if it was doing any good. Sometimes I’d wake up at one o’clock in the morning in almost a frenzy.” Steve chuckled. “I did a lot of funeral planning during those hours. Meanwhile, Duane and I made a point of talking on the phone regularly and even put aside times to meet for coffee—something we’d never done before. I mostly talked about the trouble I was having sleeping Mostly we talked about his divorce and how worried he was about the girls. Funny thing is, every time we talked, even though it was usually pretty one-sided, I always came away with a better grip on what was happening with my cancer without getting locked into wondering which suit I was going to be laid out in. Of course, Duane needed a shoulder to cry on, so we both felt better after we talked. Nothing had really changed in our situations—not really—but building that contact with each other into our lives made it all seem more, well, livable.”

Steve was still not able to bring himself to ask Duane to reciprocate what he was giving him, which would have given Duane the same type of relief Steve was getting from their sharing. So Steve’s also needing a shoulder to cry on never made it onto Duane’s radar.

Ultimately, Duane’s altered financial situation forced him to move to another town, resulting in a dwindling of his and Steve’s contact. Steve’s disease went into remission, but Duane wasn’t around to hear about it and didn’t pursue Steve to ask questions about it. About a year after moving away, Duane did call Steve once, but “the conversation was pretty much the same as it always was before he moved away,” Steve said. 

In the interim, some members of a cancer support group had stepped in and given Steve a hand during the roughest periods of his chemo and radiation treatments. It took some time for him to allow that to happen, and even longer for him to feel grateful for it. Finally, though, he found himself reflecting, “What’s so bad about needing help—and asking for it? Somehow, sooner or later, everybody needs help some kind of way.”

What takeaways can be gleaned from Steve’s mixed experience with showing up for his friend Duane?

  1. Generosity toward others provides relief from preoccupation with our own fears. Uncertainty and danger make the brain shut down “non-essential services” so that we can focus on others’ more immediate problem. After a time, most (though not all) people will then down-shift into a more measured response. Meanwhile, respite from our own burdens provides opportunity to recharge. Then, when we return our attention to our own problems, we’ll be able to address them with a frame of mind that’s better prepared to determine our next steps.
  2. Generosity and compassion give us purpose, although if our own well-being or survival are critically at risk, we may not “feel” generous—at least, not all the time.
  3. Focusing on what’s happening in others’ lives lessens the likelihood that we’ll be overtaken by self-pity or even panic. This leaves open a healthier space for self-care. 
  4. Opening ourselves to others’ issues provides mutual companionship and builds back-up in our lives that will be needed in times of stress. Even just having someone in our lives who encourages us to “stay on target” during crises makes us feel less helpless and hopeless, and better about our lives generally, 
  5. Focusing on others instead of our own problems has positive physiological effects: it reduces levels of cortisol and adrenaline in the bloodstream, which allows us to relax and improves our resilience.  

An unexpected add-on to Steve’s experience with the cancer support group was that he moved from seeing it as “a bunch of pitiful wounded birds caring for other pitiful wounded birds,” to seeing and appreciating that the group was, in reality, no more and no less than humans sharing the experience of being human. “I never had a clue what that was, or that it was something that had been missing from my life. I damn sure never would have asked to get cancer,” he reflected, “but being so sick gave me a chance to let others into my life like I never did before. And that’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”