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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

More by this author

Eddy Baller

Dating & Confidence Coach

emotional intelligence How to Be More Sensitive for an Emotionally Insensitive Person Why Empathy Is Both the Hero and the Villain in a Relationship marriage longevity Why a Lot of Relationship Experience Doesn’t Equate to a Great Marriage

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Last Updated on July 15, 2019

41 Beautiful Pictures That Show What True Love Is All About

41 Beautiful Pictures That Show What True Love Is All About

Some things in life are hard to describe, yet we can recognize them when we see them.

Love is one of those things.

True love comes in many different forms, but here are some that many of us know well.

True love means supporting those who can’t support themselves

supportive couple

    A young man comforts his date in Times Square, New York City. Image by mbtrama

    strong hug

      A young man holds his significant other close to him. Image by Brad Fults

      running help

        A young track competitor helps one of her injured opponents over the finish line. Image from ViralNova.com

        feeding kitten

          A soldier in the Korean War takes time to feed a baby kitten. Image from US Naval Insititute

          It’s having the perfect selfie partner

          mom and daughter selfie

            A mother and her daughter take a selfie together. Image by Andrew Fysh

            girlfriends

              Two young girls pose for the camera. Image by Rolands Lakis

              selfies

                A happy couple takes a picture together. Image by Kayla Heineman

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                selfie

                  Two best friends take a selfie together. Image by Jason Wahido

                  dude selfie

                    Friends take a selfie together. Image by Glenn Scofield Williams

                    It’s all the warm fuzzies

                    12748262703_84c008f4e5_z

                      A young man spends time with his dog on a beach. Image by Magdalena Roeseler

                      DSC06952

                        A pet owner hugs his dog while on a day trip in San Francisco. Image by Taro the Shiba Inu

                        It means having a friend to photobomb you

                        photobomb

                          A boy makes a funny face as he poses for a picture with his brother. Image by Michael Bentley

                          old man photobomb

                            A man photobombs his wife while their grandson snaps a picture. Image by Frank

                            family photobomb

                              Family members photobomb their relatives’ Thanksgiving day family photo. Image by Beth Scupham

                              boyfriend photobomb

                                A friend photobombs the photographer and their friend, the woman in the foreground of this photo. Image by Lachlan Hardy

                                True love means being there even when life gets unbearably hard

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                                shoulder to cry on

                                  A family watches the Vermont National Guard depart for Afghanistan. Image by The U.S. Army

                                  flood dog

                                    During a monsoon in the Philippines, a boy carries his dog to safety. Image by Romeo Ranoco

                                    A woman is rescued from flood waters by a resident standing on top of her car during heavy rain in Chalandri suburb north of Athens

                                      A man helps a woman out of her vehicle during a flood in Chalandri, Greece. Image by John Kolesidis

                                      lunch

                                        A woman has lunch with her husband every day, even after he’s passed away. Image from ViralNova.com

                                        hug

                                          A woman hugs the mother of 6-year-old Noah Ponzer, who was one of the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings. Image by Spencer Platt

                                          rubble

                                            An Oklahoma couple pauses while trying to salvage belongings from a family member’s home after a tornado. Image by Adrees Latif

                                            sister and brother

                                              A girl puts her arm around her little brother as they wait outside of Sandy Hook Elementary after gunshots are fired. Image by Reuters.

                                              headstone

                                                A woman sits at her husband’s grave the day before their wedding anniversary. Image from NBC news

                                                It means taking the time for long goodbyes

                                                110321-N-BT887-100

                                                  A man says goodbye to his son before deploying. Image by Official U.S. Navy Page

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                                                  national guard goodbye

                                                    A South Carolina man says goodbye to his son before deploying for Afghanistan. Image by The National Guard

                                                    saying goodbye

                                                      A Sergeant hugs both of his sons before being deployed to Afghanistan. Image by The National Guard

                                                      And cherishing reunions

                                                      husband home

                                                        A woman hugs her husband as she sees him for the first time since his deployment to Iraq. Image by The U.S. Army

                                                        boyfriend home

                                                          A young  woman hugs her significant other as he returns home for Kuwait. Image by The National Guard

                                                          mother hug

                                                            A mother drops to her knees as she hugs her son on her return home from the Persian Gulf. Image by The National Guard

                                                            True love is letting yourself feel young when they’re around

                                                            elderly women

                                                              Two friends on their smartphones. Image by Robert Neff

                                                              feeling young

                                                                A young couple getting their picture taken. Image by db Photograph

                                                                sprinkler dad

                                                                  A father plays in a sprinkler with his daughter at Millennium Park in Chicago. Image by Ben Forsberg

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                                                                  subway couple

                                                                    A young couple on a subway enjoys sharing time together, while the girlfriend’s father sneaks a photo of them. Image by Gareth Williams

                                                                    wheelchairs

                                                                      A couple holds hands on a fall day. Image by David Amsler

                                                                      It’s letting yourself be silly… just because they’ll enjoy it

                                                                      silly faces

                                                                        A grandfather makes faces at the camera with his granddaughters. Image by Tim Pierce

                                                                        vote for pedro

                                                                          A woman’s father wears a Napoleon Dynamite t-shirt to make his daughter laugh. Image by emdot

                                                                          True love is allowing yourself to show how you really feel

                                                                          date night

                                                                            A young couple kisses in the back of a restaurant in Washington, D.C. Image by Derek Key

                                                                            playing violin

                                                                              Violinist Nancy Dinovo plays at a memorial service for the victims of 9/11. Image by Christopher Morris

                                                                              True love is timeless

                                                                              old friends

                                                                                Friends spending some time together. Image by Cristian Bortes

                                                                                sitting around a fire

                                                                                  A group of friends sits around a campfire eating. Image by New Old Stock

                                                                                  elderly couple

                                                                                    An elderly couple walks down a street together. Image by Matteo Paciotti

                                                                                    Featured photo credit: Matteo Paciotti via flickr.com

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