Reader Unempathic Husband writes,
I found your site and have spent several hours reading posts (obviously, it's after 2AM), as I find it on point and no bullshit. I'm willing to, as you say, cast a critical eye on myself with regards to my relationship with my wife. Here's my question: I find myself -- sometimes reflexively -- angry and resentful to the point that I have difficulty doing the things you suggest, i.e. empathetic and validating responses. A quite literal physical response.
I have made some progress on this through breathing and pacing (and digging my fingernail into my thumb to mute any unfair outward response), but what else can I do to get over this? I feel as though I am the woman sometimes, and my feelings and opinions are not being heard and have no value. I can't say day without her saying night. My desire to want to be empathetic is very low. Thank you for your insights, and any additional advice you can provide.
Well, at least you're acknowledging your block against empathizing. This is half the battle, as most unempathic people say, "I would empathize if my partner just was more/less XYZ." You do allude to finding your wife contrary and difficult, but you are also noting that you have an overarching automatic response that prevents you from empathizing.
I encourage you to seek your own counseling and also to try couples work. I bet that you saw angry and cold responses between caregivers in your childhood, because, otherwise, empathy would come more instinctively to you. I also note that you write, "I feel like the woman..." and you equate being the woman with not feeling heard or validated. This dynamic may have been one that you saw growing up, where one party's opinion never matters. If you saw a marriage where people were locked in a power struggle or where one person's needs never mattered, it is likely that you are replicating that pattern unintentionally in your marriage now. According to imago theory, your wife likely reminds you on a subconscious level of a caregiver who never validated or acknowledged your perspective, which is why it is so deeply triggering to you now when she opposes your views.
You need to learn new ways of responding, which likely start with figuring out why you yourself feel so triggered by your wife's behavior that you shut down and are unable to put yourself in her shoes. Empathy takes practice, but first it is essential to understand why you feel incapable of it, which is likely because little of it was shown to you or observed by you in early life. After processing the impact of early observations and interactions, you can move forward and open yourself up to empathizing with your wife, which takes a lot of strength that you are not feeling right now.
I believe that the next step would be to share with your wife that you are trying to empathize with her, but you feel a mental block against it, and you need to figure out what is causing it. That is when you can suggest couples work, as well as individual work for you. She will likely agree, if not the first time you suggest it, then eventually if you keep bringing it up. Good for you for trying to figure this out before the marriage is irrevocably harmed. Keep me updated and till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, The Same Advice Goes When You Find It Hard To Empathize With Your Child.
Learn about Dr. Rodman's private practice, including therapy, coaching, and consultation, here. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.