Relationships: Cure vs. Comfort

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The revolutionary physician, Hippocrates, encouraged us to “cure sometimes, treat often, comfort always”.

This is relevant not only for health practitioners but humanity at large. Sometimes we can cure pain; we can often alleviate some of its negative impacts, and we can always comfort one another in its midst.

About ten years ago, I was talking with a close friend about the various difficulties we have encountered in relationships. She mentioned feeling a lot of fear about her current relationship. As she talked, I tried to find some strategies for her to try. I wanted her to feel better. She kept telling me how scared she felt, and I kept throwing what seemed like helpful approaches at her feelings. Eventually, my brave friend trusted me enough to speak up for herself. She said something like, “That’s not helping! I don’t need you to try to make it better or tell me all the things I can or should do. I need you to let me know I’m not alone. Just be with me in it.”

The lesson my friend reinforced for me is incomparable. Although my impulse was to take away her pain or change it somehow, I realized that this impulse was for me, not her. I felt helpless, so it didn’t feel like enough to empathically be with her in her pain; I wanted to fix it. I’m grateful to my friend for her courage, for knowing what she needed and telling me.

I see this a lot in relationships. One person has a problem, and the other person wants to fix it, to cure it. Sometimes this is a realistic option. Sometimes there are things one member of a relationship can do to alleviate the suffering of their loved one. If it’s a relatively simple solution like being more attentive to their responsibilities or being more sensible with shared finances, it’s easier to identify a clear cure.

Other times, there are manageable ways of sharing the burden, ways of treating a loved one’s suffering. This can look a lot of different ways depending on what the problem is. For some people, a slight change in communication can help them to feel better. For others, treatment of the problem might be a little more amorphous.

Ultimately, what doesn’t fail, the thing everyone wants regardless of what’s hurting, is comfort. We want to feel like we’re not alone in our hardships, that we have love and support and a sense of safety in the uncertainty.

I’ve found a useful (and simple) way to offer comfort to a loved one is to ask, “What can I do to help you?” Sometimes they know exactly what I can do, and sometimes they don’t. When they don’t know, I tend to stay away from suggesting a swarm of options. Unless there is an obvious suggestion, a barrage of propositions can feel overwhelming for the other person, almost like an entirely new dilemma.

It’s ok not to know what to do. It’s enough for you to wrap the ones you love in your comfort.


Love and Be Loved,

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