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Sure, You Crave Companionship But How Much Do You Want It?

Thinking realistically about how much intimacy you really want and can afford.

Setting aside for the moment how much you crave bonding intimately with people, there’s the question of how much you think should bond with others by your own best standards. Because of course, what we crave doing and what we think we should are not always aligned.

When you bond intimately with someone, you’re pledging away choices for your future. To care about, and for others takes effort that can’t be spent elsewhere. Loyalty limits your freedom of movement. If they go down, you’ll be responsible for going down after them to help them back up. Fair’s fair: If they have your back, you should have theirs. Our craving for intimacy can get so strong we dare not think about these limits that intimacy imposes.

Public service tends to attract people who crave a kind of intimacy — the intimacy of power and influence to help or shape other people’s lives. Ideally for us, they would recognize the cost, the limitations and burdens it imposes on them. Ideally, firefighters and nurses stay on the job during crises, as should politicians, working long hours to solve the problems of all those people who depend on them.

My father was charismatic. Lots of people cared about him. Some of his charisma came from being cool and aloof. It took me decades to recognize that modeling myself on him, I too wanted to be adored more than I wanted to adore. I’d position myself for fawning attention, like mounting some pedestal and standing like a stone statue with a lofty distant gaze, waiting for people to notice and care about me. I’d do it in partnering. I’d want to be adored and cared for more than I wanted to adore and care. I didn’t notice that fair caring is reciprocal. I didn’t dare notice.

I suspect that would be the case for others. My dad demonstrated that stance better than some fathers would, but one way or another people would be drawn to that unfair approach to care. Why not? What’s not to like? Who wouldn’t like to be cared for more than they want to care?

All the benefits of intimacy, none of the costs.

That’s the state of things at birth. Parents care about their babies more than the babies care back. We try to raise children to curb the double standard that they’re born into, to become conscientious, caring for those they care for. The curbing doesn’t always take and when it does it can always slip. The more you're reliably cared for, the more you’ll tend to stop reciprocating.

Devoted carers can enable us, letting us slip into not caring back. Plenty of partners remain babies, expecting all the devotion without the inherent constraints. There are plenty of lovers who expect their partners to be there for them when and how they want them but not to pester or limit them.

Politicians are besieged by people expecting them to care. It must become a numbing din, background noise motivating a cynical attitude about all of the people who expect so much of them. Politicians are supposed to be our public servants but any servant overwhelmed by demands is likely to get cynical.

It’s a rare politician who remains the caring servant of the people and plenty. Plenty didn't get into politics as a chance to help others but rather for the one-sided intimacy, voters caring about them without them having to care back. Elections keep politicians caring a little, but they can often get by with as little care as a negligent partner shows, minimal gestures of caring as necessary to keep their partner strung along, just enough to keep their partners from guessing that really, they don't care back. Throw the dog an occasional bone.

There are plenty of sad and angry love songs in which the singer laments and scorns unreciprocated care. “You’re so vain. You don’t care; you don’t even listen.” They’re evocative. Most of us know the feeling. They’re also funny: Singing to someone about how they’re not listening – if they’re not listening they don’t hear the song, right?

Recently, a single woman I know called all men who don’t care back as much as they're cared for, “losers.” I get it, but I also notice that she too is on the fence about how much she wanted to care back.

She’s a self-declared romantic. I suspect that romantics are often just the kind who don’t dare think about the constraints that caring fairly imposes on them. Romance as such is a win-win fantasy: We’ll both get all the care we want and the match will be so perfect that no one has to compromise. It’s the interpersonal equivalent of libertarianism or anarchy: We can all just do our uncompromised thing and no one will be compromised by it.

All the more reason to get realistic about how much reciprocal caring we really want in our lives. Set aside the cravings for a moment. Also set aside the social pressure and social norms that make you think you’ve got to want a partner, you’ve got to want to constrain yourself by encumbering yourself, or you’ve got to land yourself on a pedestal with others caring about you and you not caring about them, as though being cared for proves that you're an honorable person.

No, the honorable thing to do is to set aside the cravings and get realistic about how much intimacy you really want by your own best standards. We do that on other matters. We distinguish, for example, between the food we crave and the food that, by our own best standards we decide we should eat.

Not being realistic tends to encourage that self-serving double standard. Either that or an unexpected encumbrance that you regret and resent. The real “losers” are those, male and female, who pledge more than they can deliver.

And of course, there will be plenty of us who, by their own best standards really want to care as much as they’re cared for. That's what makes for more sustainable, responsible coupling we find throughout society.

And beyond coupling, there’s the question of where you decide you really should allocate your discretionary care more generally. We all create care-o-spheres, spheres of reciprocal influence and intimacy.

Life is inherently unfair. It takes effort to eke out even a margin of fairness in an unfair world. Our effort is a finite resource. We can’t care about making it fair with everyone. Care-onomics is real, the question of how best to allocate your finite supply of care in a world of infinite need.

Our care-o-spheres are populated by obligations made through past encumbrances. You have to allocate effort to your children and your aging parents. You have to allocate effort at work to keep food on your table.

Cravings aside, where do you want to allocate your discretionary care? Who else do you want to invite into your care-o-sphere – realistically, knowing that all elective caring will likely to encumber you?

Because fair's fair.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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