Frances Cohen Praver Ph.D.

Love Doc

Loving Me Means Walking in My Shoes

Intimacy that entails emotional resonance and empathy is really sexy.

Posted Nov 13, 2011

When you love and are loved in return, mirror neurons act like two-way mirrors. You look into your partner's eyes to see the magic of love shining brightly. And your partner looks into your eyes to see the same. You see your love reflected in his eyes and he sees his love reflected in yours. So the mirroring effect goes both ways with lovers.

But a one-way mirror blights empathic resonance and emotional attunement, as the story of Mark and Amanda illustrates.

"She doesn't love me anymore." For Mark, the sun shone when he felt loved. Today, rejection cast its dark shadow.

The desperate need to be loved by the world occupied Mark from the time he arose in the morning till the time he fell asleep at night. The love and admiration he hungered for from the world around him consumed his attention, leaving him bereft of empathy for his wife. He spent his waking hours trying to please others at the expense of his wife. Busy "getting" others, Mark didn't "get" Amanda. He couldn't begin to imagine why Amanda no longer loved him.

She, in turn, felt frustration, anger, and pain. "I want you to understand me, to feel for me," was how she put it to him. "You have no idea what I feel, what I'm really about. It's all surface stuff that you do to get others to love you. It's so you can be the big shot. It's always been about you."

Mark's failure of empathy and emotional attunement had simply eroded Amanda's love. He was great at superficial relationships, which he established with others here, there, and everywhere, but real intimacy escaped him, and he was unable to transcend his own emotional needs in order to empathize with Amanda's.

His own emotional needs were substantial; Mark constantly needed approval, admiration, and love. Like an emotionally starved child, he went about getting them with frantic energy, selling himself in every interaction. Mark was expert at monitoring social cues so he could give people what they wanted. He spent enormous energy pleasing others so they would take care of his emotional needs.

Why? The answer was simple: Mark was playing out an old family script, one written by his mother's interaction with him. Married to an alcoholic, Mark's mother had experienced persistent mental anguish. In her distressed state, she was unable to emotionally attune to little Mark. Rather than comfort him, she needed to be comforted. Rather than reflecting her son's needs, she required him to take care of hers. Rather than showing love to him, she needed him to show love to her. Her mirroring abilities misfired.

From very early on, Mark learned how to please his mother so she would love him. And the old dynamic crept back into his adult behavior in his people-pleasing ways of relating.

Mark's learned behavior left Amanda feeling invisible, unimportant, and taken for granted. No wonder her love deteriorated into despair. A whiz at casual relationships, Mark was a bust in intimate ones.

No one could fill Mark's emotional hunger and at the rate he was going, he managed to push away the one person who could ease his longings. With the help that is provided in my new book, The New Science of Love: How Understanding Your Brain's Wiring Can Help Rekindle Your Relationship (Sourcebooks, Casablanca, 2011) book, however, things can change.

Mark can learn how to bring Amanda closer again and, together, they can bring love back. Even though Mark's mirror neurons are not as well oiled as some people, he can learn how to lubricate them, to transcend himself, to be in synch with Amanda. Mark can move from pleasing others in casual relationships to real, lasting intimacy.

What was missing in their relationship was Mark's difficulty in attuning to Amanda emotionally. His aptitude for reading social cues, often non-verbal, with strangers, fell short in his relationship with Amanda. In therapy, however, we could harness his social skills to enhance his nonverbal empathy —the ability to stand in someone else's shoes without words spoken—so that he can then emotionally attune to Amanda.

If you feel your partner shows no empathy for you, and he or she simply will not change, there is hope. In my new book, The New Science of Love you will learn how to empathize with each other, get on the same page, and make magic together.

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