Empathy & Embracing Fear
When you sense a threat to your relationship, the first instinct you likely have is to fight for it. You begin by telling your partner how wrong he or she is to think the relationship is in trouble. You desperately want to correct his or her view. Unfortunately, being told s/he is wrong only inspires your partner to fight harder for his or her view. What started as you carefully naming all the reasons the two of you are good together, escalates into name-calling and blame. Your partner stomps out and you are left alone, stunned and hurting.
Giving your partner empathy when s/he threatens to leave the relationship, is likely the last thing you want to do in the moment. A threat to leave is like a big monster, and you hope you can make it go away by not giving it any attention and shoving it into a closet. It's scary to turn and face what's happening with empathy. What if your partner thinks you agree? What if you give empathy and you find you agree? What if you really hear your partner's needs and you are unwilling or think you are unable to meet them? What if, and this is likely the scariest one, hearing your partner with empathy reveals that you aren't lovable?
Whatever the biggest fear is for you, being able to name it clearly gives you a chance to work with it in yourself before talking with your partner. This means calling a time-out and asking your partner to make a date to talk later in the day or the next day. Let's take a look at the fear of being un-lovable. Here's what an internal self-empathy dialogue might sound like*:
Hearing my partner say s/he doesn't know if this relationship is going to work I feel my whole body tense up with fear and anger. What am I telling myself? I can hear the angry voice yelling about how I don't deserve this after all I have put into this relationship. I can hear the fear voice talking about what we would do financially and how will the kids would handle it and who gets the pets? Then back to anger, I sure as hell am not leaving this house, if s/he wants to end this, s/he will have to move out. Okay, let me take a breath, I am starting to practice my angry speech and that's not helpful. If I can't come back to mindfulness in a few focused breaths, I will get some exercise to clear my head.
Okay, I am back. What is most triggering about this? What am I making it mean? I ask this question and then just sit in stillness focusing on my breath until the answer comes up by itself. Ah, there it is, no one will ever love me, that's the most difficult voice, the part of me that isn't sure if I am deserving of love.
Okay, let me breath in love and acceptance to that part of me. It's okay that it is coming up. Of course, it would come up at this time. That's okay. What are the feelings and needs behind this voice? I'm feeling fear, grief, and disappointment and I need love, security, and caring. My "am I lovable" voice is imagining that if my partner ends our relationship that these needs can't be met. Is that true? Is there any other relationship in which these needs are met? Yes, there are these relationships….
There are the people in my life who meet these needs in addition to my partner. Whenever, the "am I lovable" voice comes up, I am going bring these people to mind.
Even though I feel much more grounded now and back in touch with my lovability, feelings, and needs, I know this conversation will be hard and I will be tempted to fall back into my habit of arguing. What else can I do to keep our conversation connected? I will ask if I can call a pause in our dialogue any time I feel myself wanting to argue. I will also ask my partner to tell me what s/he wants along with what's been missing or gone wrong. I know that just hearing what's missing or has gone wrong is something I can only hear so much of before defensiveness takes over. Now I am going to take some time before we talk to look through the feelings and needs list and circle the feelings and needs I think might be up for my partner, so I have a head start on offering empathy.
This process of turning towards what's happening and naming what's true takes courage. It requires you to be vulnerable and live fully in your experience. This is living a whole-hearted life. As you find your courage and turn towards vulnerability in yourself and others with honor and respect, you will experience a precious opening to life energy. As you awaken to this truth that this precious aliveness is accessed through turning towards vulnerability, habits of arguing, convincing, blaming, and shaming will begin to drop away because you will see the cost of these and not want to pay it. You will be standing in the truth of connection and trusting it.
PracticeTake a moment now to reflect on an interaction in which you hear yourself wanting to argue, convince, blame, or shame. Use the process demonstrated above (or the guide on my website) to turn towards your vulnerability in that interaction. From a connected place in yourself, ask wisdom and compassion to guide you in taking action that best honors life.