The Guide to Empathy for Sex Addicts (Part II)
Empathy, if you recall from part I, is the ability and practice of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Most simply, empathy is an effort to take the other’s perspective and share his feelings.
We went a bit farther than that, though.
Empathy is not agreeing with the other person (most likely your partner). It’s not sympathizing with her. It’s not just listening like a bump on a log. It’s not sharing “that-time-when-something-similar-happened” to you. It’s not fixing her or making her feel better (although empathy can and will probably make her feel better and more connected to you).
Instead, empathy means that you’re attempting to know and understand the other person’s perspective from within her subjective world. Empathy constantly seeks for avenues into another’s universe, joining her mind, her heart as she feels safe enough to open it to you.
When empathy is present, it’s life-changing. But how can it help you in your relationship? And how exactly does one “do” empathy?
THE POWER OF EMPATHY IN YOUR MARRIAGE OR RELATIONSHIP
In early recovery, one of the most significant challenges sex addicts have to face learning how to connect with others in new and meaningful ways, especially their spouses. I often tell my patients that the months following the initial disclosure or discovery are some of the hardest, even though both of you are getting help, going to support groups, in therapy, and probably preparing for formal disclosure.
During the months after discovery, formal disclosure, and post-disclosure, your partner is reeling from the the trauma and pain of betrayal. Her rage, anxiety, and sadness are raw and real.
When she’s in the pain of that trauma, you may feel overcome by your shame, reacting without thinking in ways that only make it worse: dismissing her, withdrawing, or getting angry yourself, for instance. Chances are you used to act out when you felt these feelings, but now that you’re in recovery, how might you respond in a way that promotes vulnerability and intimacy?
The answer is empathy. Empathy has the power to break the vicious cycle of pain that leaves you both hurting, angry, and disconnected from each other. That’s because feelings become painful when they become unbearable—when they become too much to tolerate alone.
The magic of empathy is that it allows you to connect with your partner in unbearable feelings, which then become bearable because she’s not alone anymore. So, by entering her world with empathy, you can help her know that:
- she is not alone, and
- her most difficult feelings and pain can be understood.
When she receives empathy from you, with time, she may begin to trust that you understand her pain, that she can trust her thoughts and feelings, and that she can bring her most painful feelings to you. It’s going to be a while, but empathy has the power to transform your relationship.
So how do you “do” empathy?
EMPATHY AS A STANCE
Empathy is, first and foremost, a stance, a posture, an attitude, or orientation. It’s a stance that wordlessly communicates an interest in and curiosity about her and her feelings.
The goal of empathy is to enter into your partner’s world, to understand her feelings from within her experience. Every time she’s in her pain, every time she blames you, every time she rages at you, you have to choose to be OPEN to entering into her pain.
This is easier said than done.
For you, empathy as a stance means you’ll have to build up some tolerance to your own pain so that you don’t reactively counter with anger, defensiveness, denial, dismissiveness, or withdrawing. Again, encountering her trauma is going to activate your feelings of inadequacy, of not being good enough, or of being unloved or worthless. Frequently talking about these feelings in group, with your therapist, and with your sponsor will help you build this tolerance.
For her, it means choosing to even begin to trust you with her most vulnerable pain. This is especially difficult as you’re an unsafe person to her right now; she’s likely to be very wary of letting you into her world for fear of being hurt again.
EMPATHY AND BEING AUTHENTICALLY HONEST
Empathy as a stance is a way of “being” in the relationship usually precedes the “doing” of empathy. If you’re doing the “practice” of empathy without the stance, you might feel fake and inauthentic until you can access that part of you that tenderly loves your wife. If you don’t find your way there, she might feel as though you’re bullshitting her.
There are times, especially when you’re first learning how to deal with your shit, that there’s much to be said for the faking it ’til you make it. That is, as long as you’re trying to practice empathy and learn how to love her in this tumultuous time, and being real about that, you’ve done all you can.
If you’re actually angry while trying to empathize with her, for example, be real about it: “You know, you’re right, I am angry, probably because I feel so ashamed when I see you hurting. And sometimes when I see you this way, I really want to love you better than I have in the past, but I just don’t know how yet. But I want to learn.”
The point is that being authentic—being real—is key; you’re trying to be as open and congruent with her as possible, as opposed to the double life you were leading in your addiction. It’s okay to screw up. It’s okay to “not do it right.” If you try and keep at it, that’s what matters.
EMPATHY AS A PRACTICE
Empathy as a practice means engaging in empathic inquiry, which is a fancy-schmancy way of saying that you’re going to express your empathic stance verbally and non-verbally. There are a few main elements of the practice of empathy:
- Affective resonance: Affective resonance refers to the ability to resonate with the feelings that is being expressed by the other person. It means “going there” with the other person, being with her in that feeling, and allowing her feelings to affect you. For example, when she gets triggered because you forgot to tell her about a meeting that you had to leave the office for, you feel moved by her hurt, drawn to it, and your face and body language soften before you say, “I’m so sorry I forgot. Oh, that must have been hurtful. Can you tell me about it?”
- Vicarious introspection: Vicarious introspection refers to searching for similar experiences in your own life to help you connect with the other’s experience. It’s important here to remember that your experience may be similar but not identical, so it’s a good idea to float out a question informed by your experience: “I wonder if you feel like . . .” or “Maybe you feel as though . . .” Avoid sharing your experience directly.
- Reflection: Reflection is restating or summarizing what you’ve heard and reflecting it back to her. “Sounds like when I forgot, it felt a lot like all the times I wasn’t honest with you when I was acting out, and that made you feel really unsafe and like you didn’t matter.” Then, check in with her: “Is that right?”
The skills involved with empathy take a lot of time to master, and if you’re trying to learn to be more empathic (hey, you’re reading this post, aren’t you?), give yourself permission to suck at this for a while. It’s okay, really. All you have to do it keep trying to be empathically curious about your partner’s universe, that’s it.
If in your trying, though, all of these three elements are accurate AND are focused on your partner’s subjective experience, you’re doing great work. You’re doing empathy right, your partner will tell you.
“HOW DO I KNOW IF I’M DOING IT RIGHT?”
How do you know if you’re entering her world? How can you tell if you’re staying with her emotional experiences?
You’ll know right away.
After you respond empathically, carefully watch her response. Look for non-verbal cues that you’re on the right track. Does her body language soften? Does her face soften? Does she put her head on your shoulder or take your hand? Maybe she’ll start to cry, entering more deeply into her pain.
Whatever it is, you’ll know it, even if you can’t say how verbally. You’ll feel it first, and so will she. Then, with words, she’ll keep sharing her feelings with you, gradually allowing you in to more or more of her world.
Initially, her world might have more anger in it, in which case she will, for instance, stay angry with her for a while. Stay with her anger—empathize with her anger, validate it, and try to understand what it’s like for her when she’s angry. It might take a few minutes or much longer, but eventually her anger will open new doors to different places in her world you’ve not known.
When you go through these doors together, when you allow yourself to be affected by your partner’s universe, she will be different, and you’ll change too. That’s the beauty of empathy and the connection it creates.