Sunday, February 6, 2011

Empathy

I had a really interesting conversation recently with a woman I barely know, who is going through an ugly divorce. UGLY. Long. Drawn out. Brutal. Took years to separate and years after that to decide to divorce, and even after all that there is still a lot of energy between the two. The woman was explaining the whole mess to me and I wondered if she might be thinking it would be easier just to stay together than to go through all this, so I asked her that.

"No," she answered, "and I'll tell you why we didn't work and why we'll never work, we don't have empathy for each other." She was quick to own her own part in all this. "I think for a relationship to work you need to not only admit you've hurt each other, but to understand what that must feel like to the person. We don't."

I think she's on to something, and the more I think about it, it's not just having empathy for the ways we've hurt each other, which is big, but just blanket empathy, what it must be like to be the other person on any given day. To truly put ourselves in their bodies, their minds, their psyches, their souls, their beings.

I can think of lots of relationships I've lived through, with, in and around and there are lots of causes of death, certainly, but lack of empathy has to be a common one, and perhaps the most reconcilable of all differences.

* photo from http://philosophy.fullerton.edu

10 comments:

Wanda said...

She's right. When you are in the mood sometime, check out Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman. Couples have to like each other and feel more positive feelings than negative ones for each other for a relationship to last.

JenniferL said...

I needed this, right now, more than you could know. Impeccable timing. I thank you from the bottom of my heart - you just stopped a long unnecessary flow of tears and self pity. LOVE!

Elizabeth said...

So interesting -- it's something I actually think about quite a lot. I think the practice of metta is essential to empathy --

Lilith said...

Too true. My ability to feel empathy for my husband died a long time ago I think. I never knew him, he never let me and I never really let him know me. We married different people than we thought and were both shocked and dismayed when the real person started to come out. Ah youth.

Jerri said...

Brilliant observations, but I'm not sure how easy it is to reconcile this problem.

Even if you're willing and genuinely trying, it's difficult to put yourself in the shoes of someone who's actively trying to hurt you. I'm sure it can be done, but it's a challenge -- something you manage in fits and starts.

Angie Ledbetter said...

Hard to rekindle a fire that's down to barren ashes. Empathy is a powerful match.

Hugs (have a link to send you i think you'll enjoy)

Deb Shucka said...

Interesting point to consider. I wonder if empathy can be enough to save a relationship.

kario said...

To Deb's point, I'm not sure empathy is enough to save a relationship, but I think it's the only starting point for saving one.

There is such a thing as too much empathy, though, and it's important to have boundaries around it.

I think that empathy is one of the most important things we can teach our children as youngsters. It saves a lifetime of warring.

Amber said...

Mmmm, this reminds me of what I read last night while thumbing through an old favorite, Radical Accetance. To help us develop empathy, a meditation...

"I care about this pain. May I/they live without suffering."

:)

Lola said...

Gosh I just love this so much!