Couples Communication: Is There a Dark Side to Empathy?

If you’ve ever read any marriage or relationship advice articles/books, you probably heard the authors discussing the importance of empathy—the skill considered by many to be the gold standard of healthy relationships. I have written several relationship help articles on the topic of empathy here at strengthen your relationship.

What is needed for empathetic communication?

When trying to capture the essence of what it means to be empathetic, the metaphor of a bridge is frequently used:  Empathy involves a kind of psychological travel where you leave your inner world (for a period of time) and cross over into your spouse’s/partner’s psychological landscape.

The purpose of this bridge crossing is to allow you a better understanding of your partner’s inner world: stepping into his/her world gives you a first-hand account of his/her perspective, feelings, values and experiences. (Empathy always involves approximations, and some trial and error–we come as close as possible in capturing what the other person is experiencing, though we can never truly experience another’s feelings exactly how they experience them.)

Implied in the bridge metaphor is that there are two separate people (psychologically separate) with healthy boundaries, each with a stable sense of self that can be momentarily left (during the empathic moment) and subsequently returned to. For empathy, these psychological boundaries must be flexible, allowing for an emotional openness that grants others access into your inner world and that allows you the ability to enter into another’s emotional experience.

These empathic bridging moments are indeed a gift—this type of emotional joining allows couples to feel deeply understood and emotionally connected to one another; couples describe feeling more loved and accepted because of empathy. You may even feel less alone in the world because of empathetic experiences.

In essence, empathy is a conscious choice that arises out of love and compassion for another.

There are times, however, that couples may appear to be exhibiting empathic behaviors, yet something is awry in their communications—the relationship remains tenuous and on the verge of collapse. This danger exists when compassion and genuine empathy is replaced by a type of pseudo-empathy.  

Empathy is not…:

1) Driven by anxiety (or a fear of losing another). These fear-based reactions may lead to an emotional clingy-ness or hyper-vigilant focus on your partner that can look like empathy, but empathy is never driven by fear—rather, empathy is driven by a desire for mutual understanding. Anxiety-based behaviors have a frenetic and desperate energy often unrecognized by the fear-motivated partner.

2) Driven by martyrdom. The martyr feels the pain of others very deeply, but this emotional connection centers around the sacrifice of one’s self—a self-sacrifice for the suffering of another. When you’re feeling sad, the martyr feels tormented and immobilized because of your pain. This leads to a relationship and intimacy feed by suffering rather than mutual empowerment.

3) Driven by perpetual care-giving. The perpetual care-giver feels most at home in the maternal role, nurturing and giving emotionally without ever asking or expecting anything in return. This creates a relationship asymmetry, an emotionally off-balanced relationship where one person is constantly giving and the other constantly taking. In the long run, such a dynamic fails both partners.

4) Driven by emptiness.  Feeling emotionally empty (which we can all feel from time to time) is a highly distressing experience, an experience that can lead to impulsive behavior aimed at filling our inner vacuousness (over-eating, over-exercising, compulsive sex, abusing drugs/alcohol, etc.). When one partner feels emotionally incomplete, this partner may unconsciously attempt to feed his/her emotional hunger by taking on the feelings and experiences of the other partner—feeling everything your partner feels can temporarily fill the emotional void, giving you a tenuous sense of completeness that cannot be sustained without overwhelming the other person.

True empathy is driven by mutual compassion and a conscious decision to better grasp the ever-changing emotional landscapes that are part of every marriage/relationship. Acts of empathy strengthen your marriage or relationship, and usually, partners feel emotionally invigorated and enlivened by empathy.

When one or more of the four pseudo-empathetic reactions are occurring in your relationship, the gifts of empathy aren’t realized and you may feel perpetually stuck (a clear sign that true empathy hasn’t occurred).

Here’s to strengthening your relationship!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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