I’ve been thinking about care and affection a lot lately- how I show it, how I understand it, and how I receive it. I always feel slightly… limited… by the language surrounding the “5 Love Languages” concept, but the idea is pretty spot-on, I think. We all give, receive, and understand affection, care, love, whatever you want to call it in a variety of different ways.
As someone who is notoriously terrible at receiving care, it’s hard for me to identify in what ways, exactly, I can and do. Tangentially, I’ve been trying to learn to see the ways that others show their care, even when it’s not typically a way I identify it.
For me, giving care comes out in different ways, depending on the person. For some, it’s making time. For others, it’s writing. For others, it’s picking up a gift or something to let them know they are on my mind.
Perhaps that has more to do with understanding how different people receive care, and adjusting my showing accordingly. Or perhaps different people bring out different things in me. Most likely, it’s a combination of the two.
But receiving care- this has been a harder one to grapple with. I want different things from different people, and I have to be careful that I don’t equate “showing care” with “working on problematic aspects of a relationship.”
For example, if I’m with someone who is emotionally unavailable, then I might want them to open up- but this doesn’t come from a sense of feeling cared for; this comes from toxic social narratives that support codependence and a lack of respect for boundaries, as well as identifies something problematic in the relationship (emotional withholding) as a self-centered ultimatum (“if they cared for me, they would open up more.”) That’s not healthy, and leads to a lot of resentment really fast.
Also, “I want you to do X because you’re not the type of person who normally does X, so if you do it for me, that means you really care for me,” is a gross kind of manipulation/ultimatum trap. It’s good to ask for what you need (at least, this is what people tell me. I concede that, so far, it has been working out decently.) Asking someone to “prove” affection through manipulation or “hoping they will change” is not the same as asking for what you need.
Anyway, in trying to parse out how I receive care, I’ve tried to think of the times that I felt truly seen, loved, and cared for outside of the specifics of any one situation, and find common threads. And one glaringly stood out and it would be, of course, the most complicated thing to ask for.
I love being surprised. It’s my absolute favorite thing. To me, planning and executing surprises takes forethought and planning, perhaps a bit of research and (in some cases where other people might be involved), herding kittens. It shows that someone thought about me at a time that I wasn’t right in front of them, thought about something they thought I would like, and went about making preparations to make the thing happen.
My all-time favorite kinds of surprises are people showing up where I have no right to expect them to be: a knock on a the door, a face out of the blue at work, etc. Letters (especially when you had to work a little to get my address) are a pretty close second. Anything involving language, words, math, or the synthesis thereof. Hearing me state a thing I need and working to make that happen when I don’t necessarily expect it.
It’s part of why I love kidnappings: the surprise of it automatically makes me feel cared for. But surprises are tricky. They involve planning, coordinating. The bigger the surprise, the more work it takes. A letter is easy. But if you show up at my doorstep, there’s a chance I have the kid overnight. You have to understand my life, how it functions, who knows the information you need in order to pull this off.
I think that’s the other piece of it. Surprises aren’t just about time, energy, work, forethought, but also about understanding. It means you know me well enough to know what you might need to plan for. You know who to ask and maybe even what to ask. You understand me, my life, it’s structure, the people in it and how they impact my day-to-day.
And that’s a lot to ask from someone, especially people I’m just getting to know. That’s partially why I’m a big, “It’s the thought that counts” kind of person. Because even if everything fails miserably, I appreciate the effort and respect the learning curve for getting tangled up in my life.
I do receive care in other ways, but it’s a lot more complicated and loaded (and I’m way more likely to apologize to you for receiving care in those ways because reciprocation and being bad at accepting things).
But surprises. That’s the big thing for me. Do something that will totally take me off-guard. Do something I have no reason to expect. Those are the things I hold onto in the moments of insecurity that remind me that there is care here, and I am worth investing time and energy into. Those are the moments that make me smile days and weeks later. These are the memories that I hold onto. This is how I best receive care.