Early Marriage | Part 19
Ever since posting Part 18, I’ve been wondering about empathy and whether it was present in our early marriage.
To put it baldly, as of today I don’t recall a specific example of D’s empathizing with me during our early marriage. I’m not saying he was a heartless, cold-blooded, disconnected man. He wasn’t.
Neither do I recall a specific example of my empathizing with D during our early marriage. If he thought I was a heartless, cold-blooded, disconnected woman, he never said so.
I do, however, remember when compassion showed up. I wrote about it way back in Part 9. It was the first time I’d ever experienced compassion from anyone in relation to my sexuality.
One evening I suddenly shut down sexually, even though I didn’t want to. This wasn’t the first time; see my poem in Part 4. Nonetheless, it was disconcerting. I’d hoped this would clear up over time.
This time, however, I didn’t hide my distress from D as I’d sometimes tried to do. He immediately assumed he must have done something wrong. He had not.
In order to convince him of this, I had to risk telling him about what happened to me when I was 10 ½ years old. I’d never told him or anyone else about it. Why not? Because deep down I believed I’d ‘asked for it.’
So I told him about the Shopkeeper and why memories of this experience had suddenly surfaced and shut me down. I struggled to get the words out of my mouth. It wasn’t easy to tell the truth. I was ashamed of the experience and ashamed of myself.
I also thought D would think less of me because of that encounter. I felt as though I were standing before God, about to be told it was indeed my fault. Or that I ‘shouldn’t have’ kept it a secret from D.
D’s response was straightforward and immediate. Bad things happen. He was as puzzled as I was about what was going on. He didn’t love me any less because of what had happened, and he didn’t doubt me. Nor did he get angry because I hadn’t told him about it before.
Instead, he comforted me. He showed compassion and understanding. He kept an open mind and was able to accept a piece of data that didn’t fit with what he thought he knew about me. It wasn’t the last time I would experience his compassion for childhood experiences.
I think compassion and sympathy are seeds of empathy. Similar, and different. Compassion showed up for me that day. Not empathy—about which I knew next to nothing.
What’s the difference? Here’s a slide that puts them together nicely.
I can’t empathize unless I consciously let go of what I think I already know about that person. In some ways, this is the most difficult thing I’ve had to do in marriage. Back then I wasn’t ready to let go of my preconceptions about D. Sometimes it seems I’m still back there.
It wasn’t and isn’t difficult to feel compassion for D. Empathy, however, is different. It requires that I put myself in D’s shoes and walk in them long enough to get the feel of them. They’re awkward and hurt my feet. Sometimes it feels like dragging clumsy weights across the ground with my feet.
I’ll never understand everything about D. But I won’t understand anything unless I try. Unlike compassion and sympathy, empathy doesn’t happen without deep listening, sharing and identification on both sides, not just one.
Empathy requires me, on my side, to trust and take risks. That means getting off the pedestal I’ve created for my supposedly superior INFJness, and actually listening to D. Putting myself in his shoes whether I like them or not. Becoming his ally, and allowing him to become mine.
To be continued….
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 22 June 2015
Image with quotation from Brené Brown at LiveLuvCreate.com
Empathy slide from slideshare.net
You-We-Me Image from interaction-design.org