Empathy - A Bridge to Healing Unrecognized Vulnerability NYC, New York

Empathy: A Bridge to Healing Unrecognized Vulnerability

Empathy, the placing of oneself into the emotional world of the other with the presence of resonance, is not only the initial step towards understanding but also holds the potential of bridging ways to forgive, negotiate and problem solve. It is the foundation for appreciating likeness and difference. The discovery of mirror neurons attests to the fact that we are wired to feel other’s emotions. Being devoid of empathy in our intimate relationships robs us of the means to provide consolation and compassion. In addition, it prevents us from sharing emotional pain caused by underlying vulnerability. This can lead to severely destructive impact on both partners in a couple.

Within intimate relationships, empathy can help to make sense of hurtful and blaming words or behavior such as chronic and unfair criticism, possessiveness, and detachment in face of conflict or inability to be alone. Empathy can facilitate making sense of feelings of perceived victimization as a partner can become the target for what appears to be unprovoked anger or mistrust. Assertion becomes easier as the criticized partner can see the fragility that exists underneath the aggression in the other partner. It makes a safer place to confront. The recognition of how one’s partner has been ignored in the past, the nature of their losses, unfulfilled achievement, and conflicts in identity are just a few of the lenses into understanding the present corrosive enactments, or how the past hurts play out in the relationship.

Exploring with attunement historical precedents can provide a base to grasp the often confusing power dynamics of a couple that are marked by domination and submission patterns rigidly acted out and often exchanged. In these scenarios that become a way of life, there is no middle ground, no flexibility or diverse ways of being with each other. Often traumatically generated, partners will do everything in their power not to relive the trauma in the present relationship. However, the price is high as contentiousness and feelings of being dismissed lead to constant fighting and elevations in stress defeating any hope for problem solving and negotiating the challenges of everyday living.

For example, an adult who has been emotionally or physically abused may have to stridently deny that she has anything to do with an impasse in communication as she had no power, no say in being demeaned and objectified as a child. She clings to her rightness for the survival of her self but injures the relationship as her husband feels he is not abusive but is always at fault. The husband subsequently feels invalidated, diminished, abused as does his partner who experienced dehumanizing assaults of her body and soul. A cycle of abuse between the partners becomes solidified and not influenced by new experience.

Many couples, because they are spending so much time in protecting their individual vulnerability, have not developed a capacity to try to know the sore spots, so to speak, of their partners or how, though often inadvertently, they may trigger an explosive reaction. Tender dimensions of their self experience can feel like wounds being ripped open without any notice in a fight or within a calm conversation that morphs into rage due to an unformulated catalyst, a fragmented memory or a visual image of past hurt. This dynamic generates feelings of devastating emotional deregulation, alienation, loneliness and depression.

Empathy begins with a commitment to take turns in listening, to withhold verbal reaction until the partner finishes speaking, usually in bits and pieces over time about experiences that have contributed to self-protective stances. Often, one partner has to have the courage to be the first one that listens with the same intensity as blaming. This willingness to hold judgment may be the most crucial factor in saving the relationship as well as not refuting the other’s experience although feeling comfortable in proposing a different perspective.

Amy, an accomplished executive, would panic when her partner Robert would not come home on time, the designation of which only had a ten minute window after which Amy would suffer panic attacks and begin to call Robert, a consultant, every five minutes, even if he was with a client. She would experience nausea, pressured breathing and feelings like she was going to die and blame Robert for not caring about her. This led Robert, who was devoted to Amy, to begin to resent these constraints and became ambivalent about a permanent commitment. This exacerbated Amy’s anxiety and fear of being alone. Robert would then purposely delay his coming home because he could not deal with Amy’s anxiety. He felt guilty but could not stop himself.

In couple’s therapy, Amy and Robert slowly became more comfortable, safe and calmer in revealing past painful and traumatic experiences. Amy’s emotional description of the sudden abandonment of her father at age 4, after her mother’s return from a extensive hospitalization following a prolonged illness and Robert’s depiction of himself as caregiver to mother after father died at age 6 saddled with an unconscious script to heal mother’s grief and anxiety provided them with a new frame concerning each other’s vulnerability. The unspoken part of the fear of being re-traumatized was the monster that was emerging so strongly between them, pulling them apart into separate worlds.

Both Amy and Robert became more aware of their own unmet needs and simultaneously formed a desire to understand each other’s emotional pain that was playing out in the relationship; Amy in finding a sense of secure attachment and mastery of feelings of inevitable abandonment and Robert‘s longing to be attached but with a degree of choice and autonomy, a place where he could find separate as well as joint fulfillment. Amy became more tolerant of Robert’s often unpredictable schedule and Robert took the role of protector of the quality and novelty of their time together. They began to provide a healing for themselves and each other.

Themes of abandonment and excessive accommodation were not the only issues that were significant in the intersubjective field of Amy’s and Robert’s relationship. However, after the acknowledgement and sharing of their unmet longings and fears in these specific domains of experience they were able to feel a sense of empathy first to their own pain, in contrast to shame which thwarted effective and sensitive communication. Ultimately, they were able to use an empathic stance toward each other. Each began to feel less attacked, more appreciative of the other’s attempts at validating and comforting, able to reassure the other of their loyalty and, on a daily basis, builds trusting routines that facilitated a sense of security, freedom in individual development and mutual flexibility and resilience.

Amy and Robert discovered how powerful empathy can be in meeting their own and each other’s needs demonstrating that gaining experience of the others’ world is a learned sensibility ; a vital tool in fostering richness in intimacy and everyday life.

Empathy - Unrecognized Vulnerability