Listen with your heart
Always lead with empathy
There are not that many things I say “always” or “never” about, but this is one: empathy is the magic pixie dust of relationships, the secret sauce, the foundation that makes everything else possible. By itself, it doesn’t fix every problem in a troubled relationship, but without it, almost nothing is fixable.
Whatever’s going on with your partner, or between the two of you, empathy is never a bad starting place.
You’ve had a rough day at work and you’re cashed? Your partner says, “Babe, that sucks. I hate those days. Anything I can do?” Things don’t seem so bad now, do they?
They’re annoyed because you forgot to get three things at the store. “I get it. I’d be frustrated with me, too. In fact, I am frustrated with myself. How important are they? Do I need to go back out, or can it wait?” Watch the irritation melt away.
What about the big things?
The things that threaten to tear you both apart, blow up your world, starve your relationship…affairs, financial betrayals, dead bedrooms. It’s so hard to feel empathy in those times, because you’re hurting just as much, if not more. It can feel like a monumental act of will to put yourself in their place, feel what they’re feeling, and find the validity in it, right?
“She has NO right to be hurting! She’s the one who cheated, I’m the one who’s in pain! And if she is, too, then good! She deserves all that and more!”
“How could he keep lying to me about our credit cards? $60,000 in unpaid balances? I don’t care that he’s scared and ashamed…he should’ve thought of that before he kept spending money we didn’t have!”
Try taking a Both/And stance; seeing their perspective AND your own.
Humans are the only animals that can hold two opposing ideas as being equally valid. You can be hurting and so can they. To be able to hold onto your own rightful indignation, pain and anger while at the same time being able to see their side is such a gift to you both.
You can be scared and so can they. You can understand their perspective without agreeing with it, or justifying it, or saying it was OK.
You can see why the man who didn’t want to say no to his wife or reduce their standard of living chose instead to rack up overwhelming debt, all the while not giving him a pass or saying what he did was right.
You can understand why the woman whose husband ignored her would find her loneliness leading her to another man, while not excusing her choice.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
Being able to take a Both/And stance, being able to see and feel someone else’s perspective while holding onto your own, allows for a level of healing that’s not possible otherwise. And the good news is, it’s learnable!
Try doing it in everyday situations, with anyone. Try seeing things from someone else’s perspective while still standing in your own shoes. Wonder to yourself if the rude barista at the coffee shop is sleep-deprived, or just got some bad news.
Ask yourself if the person doing 55 in the fast lane (my personal pet-peeve) is a new or nervous driver and scared of changing lanes.
Let someone’s infectious smile move you out of your own blue funk. Practice empathy daily and it’ll be easier to call on it when the chips are down and you really, really need it!
A Chick’s Perspective?
And that’s where I initially chose to end. I sent the above to a good male friend, who’s also a therapist. His comment:“It’s good, but it’s a chick’s perspective.”
And he was right! Empathy is different for men, which I know, but didn’t address in that post. He added, “I had thoughts about how hard it is to have intentional empathy when stressed or in crisis. and how envious I have been of people that seem to just have empathy naturally. And I have been challenged to not see them as weak, as well.”
Whew! So there you have it, readers…the crux of the problem.
Empathy is often seen by men to be a sign of weakness, while pride, ego, and a winner’s mentality are seen as strength.
And this isn’t good or bad, just the way men in our society are born and socialized to be. I’m not certain these statistics are completely accurate, but I’ve read that 43% of boys are raised by single mothers, and 77% of teachers are female.
If that’s even close to true, many boys don’t have any male influence in their homes or classrooms, much less a positive one. It’s no wonder they’re left to make it up as they go along, this ‘becoming a man’ thing.
It’s no wonder they can come to see empathy as weak, if their early influences are largely female. By not giving them access to strong AND empathetic men, it makes perfect sense they’d see the trait as largely feminine and weak.
The gender gap in empathy and intuition
I read a study recently that examined the gender gap in empathy and intuition. It turns out that men are just as adept as women at accessing their intuition, when they’re sufficiently rewarded.
In the study, women did better than men at all measures of empathy and intuition until there was a monetary reward attached. Then, and only then, did the men match the women. Isn’t that fascinating?
Men can access and activate these “softer” skills that women are more likely to use without thinking about them, if the men are sufficiently motivated.
Which goes to my friend’s statement about how hard intentional empathy can be when he’s under stress…that is, when the reward isn’t sufficient to call on the resources needed.
So, what does this mean?
Damned if I know for sure.
But I do believe there’s a particular flavor of empathy that’s uniquely male, very masculine, healthy and healing, and I’d love it if we could start a conversation about how to spread that around like confetti.
I’m going to think more about this. You do the same. And let’s talk.