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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 August 6, 2020

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

We’ve all done it. That moment when a series of words slithers from your mouth and the instant regret manifests through blushing and profuse apologies. If you could just think before you speak! It doesn’t have to be like this, and with a bit of practice, it’s actually quite easy to prevent.

“Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.” – Napolean Hill

Are we speaking the same language?

My mum recently left me a note thanking me for looking after her dog. She’d signed it with “LOL.” In my world, this means “laugh out loud,” and in her world it means “lots of love.” My kids tell me things are “sick” when they’re good, and ”manck” when they’re bad (when I say “bad,” I don’t mean good!). It’s amazing that we manage to communicate at all.

When speaking, we tend to color our language with words and phrases that have become personal to us, things we’ve picked up from our friends, families and even memes from the internet. These colloquialisms become normal, and we expect the listener (or reader) to understand “what we mean.” If you really want the listener to understand your meaning, try to use words and phrases that they might use.

Am I being lazy?

When you’ve been in a relationship for a while, a strange metamorphosis takes place. People tend to become lazier in the way that they communicate with each other, with less thought for the feelings of their partner. There’s no malice intended; we just reach a “comfort zone” and know that our partners “know what we mean.”

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Here’s an exchange from Psychology Today to demonstrate what I mean:

Early in the relationship:

“Honey, I don’t want you to take this wrong, but I’m noticing that your hair is getting a little thin on top. I know guys are sensitive about losing their hair, but I don’t want someone else to embarrass you without your expecting it.”

When the relationship is established:

“Did you know that you’re losing a lot of hair on the back of your head? You’re combing it funny and it doesn’t help. Wear a baseball cap or something if you feel weird about it. Lots of guys get thin on top. It’s no big deal.”

It’s pretty clear which of these statements is more empathetic and more likely to be received well. Recognizing when we do this can be tricky, but with a little practice it becomes easy.

Have I actually got anything to say?

When I was a kid, my gran used to say to me that if I didn’t have anything good to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. My gran couldn’t stand gossip, so this makes total sense, but you can take this statement a little further and modify it: “If you don’t have anything to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

A lot of the time, people speak to fill “uncomfortable silences,” or because they believe that saying something, anything, is better than staying quiet. It can even be a cause of anxiety for some people.

When somebody else is speaking, listen. Don’t wait to speak. Listen. Actually hear what that person is saying, think about it, and respond if necessary.

Am I painting an accurate picture?

One of the most common forms of miscommunication is the lack of a “referential index,” a type of generalization that fails to refer to specific nouns. As an example, look at these two simple phrases: “Can you pass me that?” and “Pass me that thing over there!”. How often have you said something similar?

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How is the listener supposed to know what you mean? The person that you’re talking to will start to fill in the gaps with something that may very well be completely different to what you mean. You’re thinking “pass me the salt,” but you get passed the pepper. This can be infuriating for the listener, and more importantly, can create a lack of understanding and ultimately produce conflict.

Before you speak, try to label people, places and objects in a way that it is easy for any listeners to understand.

What words am I using?

It’s well known that our use of nouns and verbs (or lack of them) gives an insight into where we grew up, our education, our thoughts and our feelings.

Less well known is that the use of pronouns offers a critical insight into how we emotionally code our sentences. James Pennebaker’s research in the 1990’s concluded that function words are important keys to someone’s psychological state and reveal much more than content words do.

Starting a sentence with “I think…” demonstrates self-focus rather than empathy with the speaker, whereas asking the speaker to elaborate or quantify what they’re saying clearly shows that you’re listening and have respect even if you disagree.

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Is the map really the territory?

Before speaking, we sometimes construct a scenario that makes us act in a way that isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual situation.

A while ago, John promised to help me out in a big way with a project that I was working on. After an initial meeting and some big promises, we put together a plan and set off on its execution. A week or so went by, and I tried to get a hold of John to see how things were going. After voice mails and emails with no reply and general silence, I tried again a week later and still got no response.

I was frustrated and started to get more than a bit vexed. The project obviously meant more to me than it did to him, and I started to construct all manner of crazy scenarios. I finally got through to John and immediately started a mild rant about making promises you can’t keep. He stopped me in my tracks with the news that his brother had died. If I’d have just thought before I spoke…

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