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Empathy: The Royal Road to Intimacy

What is more intoxicating than someone who is into you?

"Where should I put Sam's sneakers?" Ian asked.

Holding an ice pack to her face, Celine responded, "Anywhere. I'm in pain."

Raising his voice, Ian retorted "What's anywhere? They're dirty so maybe they need to be washed."

"You clod, can't you see that my face is swollen?" Celine said.

Still annoyed, Ian proclaimed. "I had a hard day, and I wanted to come home to some peace. Instead I trip on Sam's sneakers."

Celine's face reddened as she shouted, "You're so into yourself. I can't stand it. It's all about you, what you feel, what you need, what you do. You have no feelings for me and what I am going through. I've had it."

"Had it? What do you mean? I just signed this huge contract so that I'll be making millions." He exclaimed.

Celine shot back, "Again, it's not about me, but about you; you're such a self-centered bastard." Pausing for a moment she went on to say, "But it's more than that."

"What is it, another man?" Ian asked.

In a calm voice, Celine said, "No, I'm not having an affair, but something is missing for me and I can't really pin point it."

We did pin-point the problem in therapy. An accomplished, charismatic man, Ian lacked empathy for Celine. His failure in empathy impacted negatively on their relationship. To make matters worse, Celine did not know how to elicit empathy. Feeling alone and not heard or understood, Celine lost her sexual desire for Ian. Intimacy had gone awry.

Let me explain what I mean by empathy and its' connection to intimacy.

Empathy is when you resonate with your partner emotionally as your partner resonates with you emotionally. Not only that, but you transcend yourself and experience your partner's inner life, emotions, intentions, goals, and desires as your partner experiences yours. What could be more intimate than tuning into your partner as he or she tunes into you?

In case you are thinking this all sounds incredible, it is not. Researchers in Parma Italy made a ground breaking discovery. Recent scientific findings show that we have what are called "mirror neurons" that link us to others' internal worlds in a meaningful relationship. In a romantic relationship, matching mirror neurons act like mirrors and reflect each partner's thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and desires to the other. And so partners walk in each other's shoes emotionally, which is what empathy and intimacy is all about.

In therapy we worked on Ian's lack of empathy and Celine's inability to elicit it in order to bring intimacy and love back to the relationship.

A visit to the past revealed the roots of Ian's failure in empathy. His mother suffered from serious mental health issues so that her mirror neurons went off track and she was unable to nurture Ian. At age eight she abandoned Ian. He remained with his self-involved workaholic father. Rather than a two- way street, Ian's father's mirror neurons were on a one-way street towards himself. Emotionally deprived, Ian's mirror neurons were also on a one-way street; his empathy was reserved for himself. Never getting empathy, Ian did not know how to give empathy. Rather than transcending himself to walk in Celine's shoes, he walked in his own.

Celine's past also had ghosts that haunted her. In therapy, we learned that her mother had too much empathy for her father. No matter that her husband gambled, spent money recklessly, and drank excessively, Celine's mother felt empathy for him. Although her father had no empathy for his wife, her mother had too much for him. Celine recalled her mother's words, "He's just lost because he had a tough childhood." And so Celine's mother did not provide Celine with a good role model as to how to elicit empathy.

With matching mirror neurons, Celine and Ian are learning how to feeling and eliciting empathy from each other. If like Ian and Celine you want to learn about how to either feel empathy or elicit it from your partner, read my new book The New Science of Love: How Understanding the Brain's Wiring Can Help Rekindle Your Relationship (Sourcebooks, Casablanca, 2011) on preorder at Amazon. In this primer on love, you will learn about the power of mirror neurons on your love life, how love comes, goes, and how you can bring it back.

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