A lot of our social culture relies on pretending you care less than you actually do, from the three day rule of yore to simple (and rational) little self rules we have for social media: don’t initiate every texting conversation with someone. It’s generally just a bad look to appear too needy (thirsty). I think this has created a misunderstanding about what it means to be the person who cares more and what it means to be the person who cares less. One isn’t right while the other is wrong. The person who cares more isn’t “right” simply because they are getting hurt — that’s not relevant, the person who cares less doesn’t do it out of cruelty.
A person can’t choose to care more about you any more than they can choose to wake up tomorrow and decide they are going to passionately care about mathematics. I for one would love to passionately care about engineering or whatever STEM thing could give me a six-figure salary. I’d also love to passionately care about running, I’m super jealous of people who love long distance running, it seems very romantic and cathartic and healthy. But our minds don’t work this way, it’s not a menu we can order off of.
I’m not implying that we are victims of our fickle desires, that if you marry someone and wake up one day and suddenly it’s a big drag to be respectful to them you should just leave — that’s why marriage is a commitment: because you promise to cultivate your existing passion and nurture it forever. I’m talking about dating relationships where you haven’t gotten to that point yet, where you see a future and you want to go for it but one of you is running and one of you is walking. I’m talking about pacing.
This is especially true when we are young and we have (hopefully) a lot of life mileage in front of us. Some people wish to spend their 20’s traveling and figuring out who they are, some work at their career, some spend it looking for their husband or wife because family is what they believe is most important to them, others spend it dealing with illness or loss or addiction. People are made up of so many different histories and desires, we’re bound to find ourselves in relationships where we’re running vastly different temperatures.
When I’m the person that cares less, it isn’t because the other person isn’t phenomenal, it’s not a reflection of them at all. How a person treats you is a reflection of them, not you — that mantra applies here. It’s just that relationships aren’t the most important thing for me, so they get the time and energy that is left over from the things I need to do to feel alive and healthy and passionate: mostly boring, uncool things like working, compulsively reading internet articles and non-prestigious books about happiness and thought and anxiety and having a lot of quiet, alone time where I’m formulating ideas and arguments that become catalysts for the next books I read, conversations I have, and result in the writing projects I’m most proud of, that I want to continue to do forever and get better at it and figure out why it’s so important to me.
The last thing I would ever want to be to another human is cold. Or, to make someone I loved feel unloved because I wasn’t meeting their needs. But you can’t force yourself to need the same amount and kind of interaction to feel “full” as another person does. You can meet their needs if they are greater than yours, as long as you are being authentic about it. Authentic means that the person knows how you feel, you are merely having a translation problem where, say, growing up your family never said “I love you” out loud but your partner is a person who needs that, so you learn to do it. Being authentic is not forcing yourself to be on the same page about how important the relationship is in your life or making them feel loved by saying you see marriage in the future and a life together, when you simply haven’t experienced those feelings.
I struggle with not seeing this as selfish. If you love someone and they are, truly, a phenomenal person, why wouldn’t you want to make them feel loved at the cost of anything else? Why wouldn’t you spend your time figuring out how to give them the care they need? Isn’t human life all about our relationships with others? Isn’t that the end game? Let me explain what it’s like.
Anselm’s ontological argument is a famous philosophical argument for the existence of god. It says that definitionally, god is the greatest conceivable being. One of the attributes we’d assign to the idea of “the greatest conceivable being” is that it actually exists, since existing would be superior to being mythical, therefore, god exists. It’s a logically valid argument, but it doesn’t convert anyone to Christianity. It isn’t compelling because we don’t make decisions based on what is logically valid, we make decisions based on our emotions and intuition. And most people’s guts tell them this is a pretty sleazy reason to change something as big as your religious beliefs.
Like the ontological argument, it makes so much sense that relationships and other people should be the bulk of your life. It gives you a reason to live: you contributed to the lives of others. Other people take up your time and make you feel good, and it’s what everyone says you are supposed to do. None of this is lost on the person who cares less, it makes sense, it just isn’t what their gut is telling them is the most important thing for them, for right now.