Early Marriage | Part 18

by Elouise

Empathy cat and mouse, ec849e8ce5b6ead9677d35425522b932

I’ve got empathy on my mind this morning. Or better, lack thereof. When I think about capacities I didn’t have when I married D, empathy is right there near the top of the list.

It didn’t come up for debate or discussion the way money, sex and spirituality did. Yet my cluelessness about this basic human capacity caused at least as much anguish as other challenges. I’m surprised at this discovery about myself.

Being an INFJ, I’ve taken for granted my capacity to empathize. My capacity to listen, feel and think with someone else, and to articulate their feelings and thoughts clearly, without judgment, until the other person says I understand what they’re saying to me. Or how they’re feeling right now. Which means I understand him or her now in a way I did not at the beginning of our conversation.

Easy, right? Maybe for others, but not for me. Especially in my relationship with D. I have strengths and personality preferences that support the capacity to empathize. Yet when it comes to D, the person with whom I’ve invested most of my life, I wonder.

In our early marriage, I seemed to believe that everything about me was at stake every day. Imperfection would not do, especially in my relationship with D. I had to be right and righteous. God and my brand of logic (not his!) were clearly on my side.

I was also guarded, strategic, watchful and scared. I wasn’t about to let any man take me over and try to change me into what he wanted me to be. Or thought I ought to be (more like him, for example).

And so my best defence was to go on the offense—making D the problem. The brittleness in my thinking and emotions was almost visible. I took offence quickly, and wasted no words telling D how wrong he was and how he never understood me. Never!

Virtually all these standoffs were verbal in one way or another. That means we traded and/or hurled many words, or none at all (think cold, uncomfortable, even awkward silence). Don’t believe for a minute that words or silence will never hurt someone.

Did I know what I was doing? Did I understand myself? In no way.

Nor, sadly, did I understand D. To be clear, he was fighting his own battles. This wasn’t about a good partner and an evil partner. It was about two damaged, hurting, disoriented and often lost in the woods young adults now living together by choice, trying to figure out what just happened to all that love and joy we had for each other just seconds ago.

I think of sudden electrical storms. Bang!!! The lightning and the thunder come crashing down without warning. No, we never fought physically. Just ‘harmless’ words and silence.

We desperately needed to build bridges, connections to each other. Sadly, I was not prepared to do that. Not because I chose not to do it, but because I’d never in my family or my friendships at church or school had anyone empathize with me. That would have demanded a level of self-disclosure I was totally unprepared to risk.

The capacity to empathize is like the capacity to be kind, fair and just. It, too, begins at home. If it doesn’t, it isn’t the end of the world. Yet in my experience, it made the rest of life that much more difficult to understand, much less relate to in a productive, sometimes healing way. Especially, but not only in marriage.

Right now I’m trying to recall my first memory of anyone empathizing with me about anything at all. I think it might have been in our early marriage. I’m also trying to recall when I began consciously practicing my capacity to empathize with D.

To be continued….

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 20 June 2015
Cartoon image from pinterest.com