Empathy is a humane quality that is beneficial to all parties in most social contexts. But in intimate relationships, especially those that have suffered damage, empathy is woefully inadequate.
Empathy is identification with what another person is feeling. (“I feel your pain,” was a hallmark of empathy, before it was relegated to political satire.) We empathize with our partners based on our ability to identify with what they feel. Here’s why this is a serious limitation following relationship damage. You and your partner probably will not understand what support you each want during recovery, because you will most likely have a different core vulnerability, which will require different kinds of support.
Core vulnerability is the emotional state that is most dreadful to you, against which you’ve developed the strongest defenses. The most common core vulnerabilities are fear and shame. Both are dreadful, of course, but your core vulnerability is the most dreadful to you.
For example, people whose core vulnerability is fear of harm, isolation, or deprivation will accept shame, even humiliation if they have to, in order to feel safe, secure, or connected or, at least, to avoid feeling isolated. People whose core vulnerability is shame (failure or loss of status) will risk harm, abandonment, and resources to feel successful or, at least, to avoid feeling like a failure.
In general, fearful and shame-based people attract each other. Those for whom the most dreaded emotional experience is fear are likely to cope by forming emotional alliances with others – there is strength in numbers. They are apt to seek partners they perceive to be protective, powerful, and generous. Those whose most dreaded emotional experience is shame are likely to cope with their vulnerability by projecting power, protectiveness, generosity, or other visages of success and will look for partners who are especially appreciative of those qualities.
While these qualities often bring partners together, they also tear them apart during crises, when mutual compassion is needed. A fearful partner can hardly identify with the deeper experience of a shame-based lover, because failure, though unpleasant, is not nearly as bad for her, as long as she feels connected to others who care about her. And shame-based partners can scarcely identify with the deeper experience of their lovers’ fear, because anxiety is not that bad for him, as long as he can feel successful. These limitations of empathy become a trap in intimate relationships when they inhibit understanding and provoke negative judgments:
“I can’t empathize with you, because I wouldn’t be afraid of someone yelling. There’s nothing to be afraid of!”
“I wouldn’t be ashamed to ask for a raise that will help our family, because I wouldn’t feel like a failure if the boss said no. Grow up already!”
Think of how often you've heard statements like, "I would never have done what he did," or "How could she have possibly felt that way?" or "I could not have reacted like they did." Empathy is, in general, confined to one’s experience of core vulnerability.
In the next post, I’ll argue that empathy must be replaced in intimate relationships, especially those that are damaged, with a higher order compassion for vulnerabilities we do not share.