Empathy in Relationships
Don't Be Upset; It's Upsetting Me
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | December 2014 (edited February 16, 2021)
Our response to a partner's upsets builds or destroys closeness. These difficult moments are where trust and safety are created.
We reach limits, pushing our tolerations beyond the tidy boundaries of self-control and we explode. But rarely does the explosion resolve the upset. Rather, it furthers the separation, weakening trust. These trying moments demand empathy. Empathy bridges relationship crevices and paves roads to connection. During difficult conversations, one of the partners must make this leap—a leap of faith, into the heart of the emotion; feel what the partner is trying to express with the flow of inadequate words.
Relationship Conflict is the Opportunity to Build Trust
The precious moments of conflict, when empathetically approached, build the bridges of trust and safety—the foundations of intimacy. Empathy is a process of the heart, but also, a cognitive process—we observe and absorb emotions. We feel what the other person feels. Empathy creates appreciation for another person's experience.
When we navigate these difficult moments with dignity, maintaining an environment of safety by respecting our partner's vulnerability, we build trust. Only during conflict can we show that disagreements are not devastating to closeness. We show that our partner's autonomy is honored, respected, and protected.
See Autonomy in Romantic Relationships for more on this topic
Absorbing Emotions through Empathy
Sharing emotion is not always welcomed. Our empathy impacts our emotional valence as we absorb the discomforting emotions from a partner. If our emotions overwhelm then sharing a partner’s emotional upsets will also overwhelm. Their upset can be very upsetting.
Our mind absorbs and then reflects emotion; others' emotions reverberate through our own system. Emotional communication is the movement of energy from one person to another. We first experience feeling, then interpret the sensations as a distinct emotion.
See Shared Emotions for more on this topic
Processing emotions is a skill laced with biological sensitivities. If we are sensitive to emotions, the negative feeling affects are distasteful. We don’t like them. We rush to resolve or escape. When resolutions fail, the sensitive, unskilled in regulating emotion, become frustrated with the sadness, anger, and guilt. When their being is charged with someone else's emotion, they easily assign blame, responses attack rather than support.
The emotionally immature are often confronted with a relational paradox of wanting to support but inability to compassionately comfort when flooded by accompanying emotions.
Empathy is the ability to emotionally attune to what other people feel, seeing their experience from their point of view.
Energy Budgeting and Empathy.
We predict life. We predict the demands. We predict possible difficulties. Our extensive work in prediction is essential for budgeting life energy. Our predictions are never perfect. Life routinely surprises. Healthy relationships increases resources but also complicates predictions. Adding another dynamic, living being to the mixture always creates more variability to our lives.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, a distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University, focusing on affective science, explains in her recent book that "a surprising disadvantage of shared body budgeting is that it has an impact on empathy. When you have empathy for other people, your brain predicts what they’ll think and feel and do." Predictions of others is an inexact science. We struggle to predict our own needs and emotions. We predict and budget for partner's emotions. Barrett continues, "the more familiar the other people are to you, the more efficiently your brain predicts their inner struggles" (2020, location 881).
Emotional Attunement and Intimacy
We build intimacy through emotional attunement, accepting and holding partners during emotional experiences. Inability to stay with an emotion creates deep fractures when we fail to support during these critical moments. Instead of comforting, the incapable partner becomes irritable, failing to embrace a partner during critical bids for support. When we can't hold emotion, our bodies loudly scream, “Don’t be upset!”
Emotions provide an opportunity for connection. Emotional expressions give insight into the other—their past and their present; fears and insecurities are exposed. With intimacy, a partner feels these expressions and connects, providing understanding and comfort—not necessarily resolving the pain. Dismissing a partner’s discomforting emotions limits the richness of the relationship, driving a wedge between partners, making the emotional experience isolated and not understood.
See Emotionally Connected for more on this topic
Emotional Regulation Skills
As adults, we have an array of options to negotiate difficult emotions. We have measured control over our environments. We can plan, organize and change circumstances to create stability. We can restructure the meaning of an emotion to something more palatable, or rely on mindfulness practices to restore homeostasis.
See Emotional Regulation for more on this topic
Disconnection and Lack of Empathy
Childhood learning stubbornly continues, haunting adult freedoms. Escapes we used in childhood infiltrate adulthood processing. The sensitive child becomes the sensitive adult. When limited in emotional maturity, the adult still seeks escape.
When a sensitive adult absorbs a partner's emotions and lacks skill to hold emotion, the feeling is painful, creating insecurities. Instead of comforting their partner, they retreat. The abandoned partner—alone in their pain—quickly learns emotions are unwelcomed, creating disconnection.
Facing aloneness during adversity is not what most desire from a relationship. The emotionally abandoned partner must internalize their experience, feeling shackled to a lonely existence, hiding emotions to not upset the child living inside of their partner.
If this is your partner, have patience. If this is you, seek help to improve your skill to compassionately hold emotions.
Life is full of positive and negative effect. We feel life. Inability to process the emotional flow of living is extremely limiting. Learning to productively process feeling enhances our existence. The developed skills open our hearts to the experience of others, creating stronger bonds. When a partner is upset, we also feel upset, but with emotional maturity, we smoothly hold that upset, providing healing comfort.
Showing Compassion for Partner's Lacking Emotional Maturity
Our partners may not have this skill yet. A partner unable to patiently hold emotions will seek escape—physical or emotional, like a frightened animal, they may aggressively strike back, our expressions of emotions exposes their vulnerability. Our emotions are threatening to them. Being upset, upsets them. We must understand and properly predict our partner's ability. If they struggle with emotion, we can’t unload the entire heap of our emotional lives on their sensitive souls.
By being patient and understanding (even when upset), we can help partners productively experience emotions through careful and measured expressions. A screaming match only destroys the progress. When they are upset, we can create a safe base for their honest expression or respect their need for solitude.
Strenuous and repeated efforts to solve a partner’s underlying problem often backfires. A more productive approach is a compassionate presence, supporting the emotion and providing continued acceptance. Of course, there are limitations. When a partner’s emotions are destructive, hurtful, and dangerous, we must seek safety. Empathy should not include physical or emotional abuse.
A loving partner willingly ventures into the internal landscape of a partner’s world. Trudging through the discomforts and fears may be awkward, encountering our own discomforting responses; but to intimately connect, we must travel down this path. During emotional moments, when we compassionately feel and hold a partner’s experience without judgment or correction, we exhibit love, showing them, they are not alone. These are the precious moments of vulnerability where we can provide safety. These moments of compassion tear down walls built in the early years of living, and open widows to the delicate and beautiful souls of others.
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Barrett, L. F. (2020). Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.