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Why Empathy Is Both the Hero and the Villain in a Relationship

Why Empathy Is Both the Hero and the Villain in a Relationship

Most people wouldn’t think that empathy has a downside or limits, but in our relationships it’s not always a positive tool. It’s something that can be depleted, leaving our emotional tanks empty for other family members.

Empathy is just one ingredient in the recipe for deep connections with our intimate partners. We have to look past this tool and understand its negative effects if we really want to create lasting connections.

First, some definitions are in order.

What Exactly Is Empathy

Empathy is our ability to put ourselves in the place of other people. This allows us to understand their feelings and even experience their pain. Without empathy, it’s difficult to have insights into other people’s behaviors.

Everyone has some ability to empathize thanks to mirror neurons in the brain which allow us to feel what other people feel. When we see a soccer player miss the ball only to kick another player square in the crotch, we react instantly to the perceived pain.

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We feel what they feel without any effort. We can experience a wide range of emotions for situations we’ve never been in because of these neurons. We can also learn how to do things the same way.

Feeling what other people feel can alter our behaviors in a positive way. We can predict how other people might react when we leave the sink full of dishes, or place chocolates and a card on the bed for a nice surprise.

This means we can avoid certain behaviors or adopt positive ones that make our partners happy.

“Compassionate empathy “is a balance of positive cognitive and emotional empathy, which prompts us to take action, as needed.” For instance, a messy partner, who has compassionate empathy, can imagine and feel how annoying or even distressing it is for their partner to deal with their mess, so they modify their behavior and pick up after themselves, she said.”  – PsychCentral

Arguments can be diffused when we pause to understand someone’s position from their point of view, even when we don’t agree. It allows to see how someone might take a certain stance based on where they’re coming from.

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The Negative Side of Empathy

Relying too much on empathy can be an emotional drain. In certain studies, people who used empathy in the workplace had less to give to their families. It’s a finite emotional reserve which can be depleted.

This leads to negative trade offs. Most people wouldn’t make these trade offs consciously if they knew there was going to be less empathy available for loved ones.

Empathy can be used for manipulation too. By understanding other people’s feelings, we can use those feelings against them. In many emotionally abusive relationships, one person may use anger as a tool because they know their partner will do as they want, and attempt to “put out the fire” to make them happy again.

“Both cognitive and emotional empathy can be used in negative ways (e.g. someone might use cognitive empathy to be manipulative; someone who takes on their partner’s emotions might become too burned out to support them).” [1]

Empathy can also be misplaced when we don’t understand context. For example, being nice is generally a good thing. We want to treat others with respect, and can anticipate the same in return. We naturally like people who treat us with some level of respect and kindness.

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This can backfire in the case of the “nice guy” who wants to attract a woman. In this context, nice doesn’t equal turned on. She may like him but it will be on a platonic level. He’s putting himself into the wrong person’s shoes and won’t get the reaction he predicted empathetically.

What’s More Important Than Empathy In a Relationship

A good relationship is made up of many ingredients which can be thought of as a recipe. No single ingredient is enough on it’s own, but put everything together and you’re more likely to succeed.

  1. Mutual responsibility – Take responsibility for everything you do and never play the blame game.
  2. Shared values – Connect on shared values such as respect for life, family, success ambitions, lifestyle or any other value which is a big part of your life blueprint. Find out more about how to know your values here: Knowing My Values Has Filled up the Long-Existed Missing Gap in My Life
  3. Trust – Establish trust by being reliable. That means following through on everything you say you’re going to do.
  4. Boundaries – Create boundaries which allow for mutual respect, and let your partner know if they’re being crossed.
  5. Relationship clarity – Don’t make assumptions on the big things. Always be clear by talking about it.
  6. Emotional Intelligence – Work on your own emotional intelligence for better communication and understanding. This includes empathy. Learn from my other article How to Be More Emotionally Sensitive
  7. Shared Passions – Connect on interest which compels you. Mutual passions create deeper bonds than superficial activities. If you have a passion for the outdoors, it’s going be more powerful than watching Seinfeld reruns together (although that’s OK too).
  8. Sexual Polarity – Sameness = no chemistry. It’s important that both partners know where they stand and their roles. Although different context will call for different aspects of our personalities, both the partners trying to fulfill the same role will lead to disinterest.

Three Questions to Ask in Place of Using Empathy

Instead of trying to guess what your partner is feeling, ask him or her instead. It’s true that we can learn a lot about our partner’s emotions through observation and empathy, but don’t underestimate the power of a direct question.

“When trying to empathize, it’s generally better to talk with people about their experiences than to imagine how they might be feeling.”  – Adam Waytz [2]

That doesn’t mean you’re always going to get a complete answer though. This is where asking the right questions comes in. It also pays to ask questions that hit a few different angles so that you can have ‘big picture’ understandings.

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Start with these:

  • How do you feel?
  • What do you want?
  • What do you think?

When communication is open, these questions will open up a dialogue. It’s also a lot easier than trying to guess emotions and desires, and will reduce the need for empathy. This means we can save more empathy for situations where it’s more useful without getting burnt out.

Outside of asking, pay attention to what your partner actually does. A person’s actions always speak louder than words.

Featured photo credit: Alvin Mahmudov on Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

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Eddy Baller

Dating & Confidence Coach

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Last Updated on September 12, 2019

12 Things You Should Remember When Feeling Lost in Life

12 Things You Should Remember When Feeling Lost in Life

Even the most charismatic people you know, whether in person or celebrities of some sort, experience days where they feel lost in life and isolated from everyone else.

While it’s good to know we aren’t alone in this feeling, the question still remains:

What should we do when we feel lost and lonely?

Here are 12 things to remember:

1. Recognize That It’s Okay!

The truth is, there are times you need to be alone. If you’ve always been accustomed to being in contact with people, this may prove difficult.

However, learning how to be alone and comfortable in your own skin will give you confidence and a sense of self reliance.

We cheat ourselves out of the opportunity to become self reliant when we look for constant companionship.

Learn how to embrace your me time: What Your Fear of Being Alone Is Really About and How to Get over It

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2. Use Your Lost and Loneliness as a Self-Directing Guide

You’ve most likely heard the expression: “You have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going.”

Loneliness also serves as a life signal to indicate you’re in search of something. It’s when we’re in the midst of solitude that answers come from true soul searching.

Remember, there is more to life than what you’re feeling.

3. Realize Loneliness Helps You Face the Truth

Being in the constant company of others, although comforting sometimes, can often serve as a distraction when we need to face the reality of a situation.

Solitude cuts straight to the chase and forces you to deal with the problem at hand. See it as a blessing that can serve as a catalyst to set things right!

4. Be Aware That You Have More Control Than You Think

Typically, when we see ourselves as being lost or lonely, it gives us an excuse to view everything we come in contact with in a negative light. It lends itself to putting ourselves in the victim mode, when the truth of the matter is that you choose your attitude in every situation.

No one can force a feeling upon you! It is YOU who has the ultimate say as to how you choose to react.

5. Embrace the Freedom That the Feeling of Being Alone Can Offer

Instead of wallowing in self pity, which many are prone to do because of loneliness, try looking at your circumstance as a new-found freedom.

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Most people are in constant need of approval of their viewpoints. Try enjoying the fact that  you don’t need everyone you care about to support your decisions.

6. Acknowledge the Person You Are Now

Perhaps you feel a sense of loneliness and confusion because your life circumstances have taken you away from the persona that others know to be you.

Perhaps the new you differs radically from the old. Realize that life is about change and how we react to that change. It’s okay that you’re not who you used to be.

Take a look at this article and learn to accept your imperfect self: Accept Yourself (Flaws and All): 7 Benefits of Being Vulnerable

7. Keep Striving to Do Your Best

Often those who are feeling isolated and unto themselves will develop a defeatist attitude. They’ll do substandard work because their self esteem is low and they don’t care.

Never let this feeling take away your sense of worth! Do your best always and when you come through this dark time, others will admire how you stayed determined in spite of the obstacles you had to overcome.

And to live your best life, you must do this ONE thing: step out of your comfort zone.

8. Don’t Forget That Time Is Precious

When we’re lost in a sea of loneliness and depression, it’s all too easy to reflect on regrets of past life events. This does nothing but feed negativity and perpetuate the situation.

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Instead of falling prey to this common pitfall, put one foot in front of the other and acknowledge every positive step you take. By doing this, you can celebrate the struggles you overcome at the end of the day.

9. Remember, Things Happen for a Reason

Every circumstance we encounter in our life is designed to teach us and that lesson is in turn passed on to others.

Sometimes we’re fortunate enough to figure out the lesson to be learned, while other times, we simply need to have faith that if the lesson wasn’t meant directly for us to learn from, how we handled it was observed by someone who needed to learn.

Your solitude and feeling of lost, in this instance, although painful possibly, may be teaching someone else.

10. Journal During This Time

Record your thoughts when you’re at the height of loneliness and feeling lost. You’ll be amazed when you reflect back at how you viewed things at the time and how far you’ve come later.

This time (if recorded) can give you a keen insight into who you are and what makes you feel the way you feel.

11. Remember You Aren’t the First to Feel This Way

It’s quite common to feel as if we’re alone and no one else has ever felt this way before. We think this because at the time of our distress, we’re silently observing others around us who are seemingly fine in every way.

The truth is, we can’t possibly know the struggles of those around us unless they elect to share them. We ALL have known this pain!

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Try confiding in someone you trust and ask them how they deal with these feelings when they experienced it. You may be surprised at what you learn.

12. Ask for Help If the Problem Persists

The feeling of being lost and lonely is common to everyone, but typically it will last for a relatively short period of time.

Most people will confess to, at one time or another, being in a “funk.” But if the problem persists longer than you feel it should, don’t ignore it.

When your ability to reason and consider things rationally becomes impaired, do not poo poo the problem away and think it isn’t worthy of attention. Seek medical help.

Afraid to ask for help? Here’s how to change your outlook to aim high!

Final Thoughts

Loneliness and a sense of feeling lost can in many ways be extremely painful and difficult to deal with at best. However, these feelings can also serve as a catalyst for change in our lives if we acknowledge them and act.

Above anything, cherish your mental well being and don’t underestimate its worth. Seek professional guidance if you’re unable to distinguish between a sense of freedom for yourself and a sense of despair.

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Featured photo credit: Andrew Neel via unsplash.com

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