The Empathy Trap

Empathy can be a mixed blessing.  Empathy is defined as:

  • understanding and entering into another's feelings OR

  • denoting a deep emotional understanding of another's feelings or problems OR

  • the power of entering into another’s personality and imaginatively experiencing his feelings

Refusers seem to have a limited capacity for empathy.  They can hear and understand how their behaviour is affecting their spouses, but they are not moved to do anything about it.   Many refused partners, on the other hand, seem to have highly developed empathy as part of their personalities.    For these people, it is inconceivable that a dearly loved spouse can watch them in pain and still not be moved to do anything about it.
Empathy is a crucial element of development and begins in earliest infancy.  It is integral to attachment, to conscience, to sensitivity and to compassion.  It is a most desirable trait and generally one to be cultivated.   However, empathy can have a role to play in sexless marriages that is not always helpful.  A person who is “overly” empathic will tend towards being co-dependent rather than compassionate.  Co-dependency is a not a useful character trait – but rather one which tends to restrict our own development.
The difference between compassion and codependence centers on how a person views himself or herself. Compassionate people possess the ability to empathize and sympathize with the suffering of others while taking responsibility for their own needs. Codependent individuals put the feelings of others before themselves, setting aside their own needs in order to serve someone else. One accepted theory links compassion and codependence to setting boundaries and respecting the limits set by others.  (Marlene Garcia)  (Emphasis added by me.)

Many of us fall into the trap of placing the needs of others ahead of our own.  And there are circumstances where this essential – especially in the raising of children.  But to always give precedence to the needs of others is to ignore your own needs.  If we could conveniently banish those needs, this might not be a problem.   But as we know, our needs will not allow themselves to be permanently banished.  We can ignore them, deny them, suppress them. . but they still keep resurfacing until we address them. 

Marlene Garcia goes on to say:                                      
Codependent people typically do not set personal boundaries for themselves and cannot recognize boundaries set by others. Their behavior is based on sacrifice and a perceived obligation to help others fix their problems. They commonly work to protect others from the consequences of behavior and do things for others they are capable of doing themselves. Compassion and codependence might be explained as opposites, because compassionate individuals control their own lives and allow others to do the same.   When a person does not set personal boundaries, or if he is unsure of them, he might not feel safe. He may possess a strong urge to help someone, despite his own unmet needs. Codependent people commonly navigate toward people who need to be rescued and protected. They need to be needed and might suffer from low self-esteem. (Emphasis added by me.)

Quite a lot of refused spouses will recognise themselves in this description.  I know I did.

And it is important at this point to say that this is NOT intended to lay blame on anyone if they fall into this category.  There are profound psychological reasons for this behaviour and it is not a matter of “right” or “wrong”.  But it CAN be the reason that people stay in sexless marriages for far longer than is healthy for them.
Interestingly, it is the ability to feel compassion for oneself that allows you to recognise and address your own needs.  In doing so, we begin to set boundaries for the behaviour we are willing to accept or tolerate from others . . .    So what might seem inherently “selfish” is actually a healthy response to an unhealthy situation.

Some psychologists believe the way people develop compassion and codependence traits hinges on whether they promote their own growth. Those who take personal responsibility for their own happiness are generally able to feel empathy for others in a healthy way. People with codependent personalities might lack compassion for themselves, making them unable to give true compassion to others.
Signs of codependency include a desire to make others happy and keep peace, no matter the cost. A codependent person might believe others owe him and resent them while trying to fix their shortcomings. He generally wants others to like him and will do whatever is necessary to gain approval, even if it means neglecting himself. (Garcia)  (Emphasis added by me.)
For the refused partner in a sexless marriage, setting personal boundaries may include a wide range of behaviours.  For all of us it will include the boundary that says:
“My personal needs are important.  I need to have my needs met.”
How you as an individual will seek to achieve this is your choice, but it WILL involve you taking responsibility for yourself.  You can no longer wait hopefully for an epiphany to occur to your spouse!
And speaking of our spouses, could it be a lack of ability in ourselves to recognise that our spouses have set personal boundaries for themselves?  Again and again we see ample evidence that our spouses’ boundaries are clear – and these boundaries do NOT include sex with us.  Yet we wait hopefully (and fruitlessly) for this to change . . . In fact, we are refusing to recognise their clearly set personal boundaries when we do this.
Another equally important aspect of this is to recognise that we cannot “save” our spouses from themselves.  The urge to protect a loved one from pain can be overwhelming for the highly empathic person.  This is both natural and commendable. 
But ultimately, it might be more about us than about our loved ones!   This is because most highly empathic people place a very high value on being affirmed by others.  It is important for those of us in this group to feel that our sacrifices are acknowledged; our contributions valued and our willingness to place others ahead of ourselves appreciated.  Our self esteem hinges on this external approval.
Sadly, most of us do not receive this affirmation from our Refuser spouses.  We might be the most self sacrificing spouse in the whole world, but our partner will simply see us through his/her own prism.  As this is a prism that is seriously deficit in empathy, there is little likelihood that our great contribution will be even recognized, let alone appreciated!!
By taking responsibility for our own needs (and therefore our own happiness), we need to rethink this aspect of ourselves.  We need to recognise that the same thing applies to our spouses.  They are autonomous and independent people who have responsibility for their own choices as well.  We cannot and should not seek to protect them from the outcomes their behaviour engenders.

Often times, as people pleasers, highly empathetic people will feel a deep abiding sense of guilt when they need to act assertively. This guilt rises out of finding it abhorrent to hurt another person. But equally, it can rise out of an innate fear of being alone, or more specifically, being shunned if the other person is hurt, offended, or angered. This type of fear can hold a person’s tongue, disabling their ability to stand up for themselves effectively. And it can, again, leave them open to being treated harshly by other people.                empathicperspectives dot wordpress dot com (Emphasis added by me.)

If you recognise yourself (or some of yourself) in the above, I hope you can also see that you have the right to step outside of this behaviour.
Acting assertively is a big challenge for many of us.  We have usually approached our relationships in ways that are not assertive.  And clearly, that has NOT worked for us.

Assertiveness is defined as being confident and direct in claiming one’s rights or putting forward one’s views. In other words, Assertiveness is simply standing up for yourself, speaking up for your rights, and effectively expressing your wishes, ideas and concerns. But in doing this, one does it with consideration to others through the act of being respectful of other people’s personal boundaries and emotions.
There is an art to being assertive. This is because it is a kind of balancing act between being considerate and respectful of other people’s feelings and your own needs. It is very distinct from being passive and aggressive because of this dual focus of balancing your needs with those of others.   empathicperspectives dot wordpress dot com       (Emphasis added by me.)

Being assertive with our spouses may well involve breaking a pattern that has been engrained in our relationship from the beginning.  Doing this gives rise to great fear.  The prospect of the confrontation that will (probably) occur, coupled with the thought that we will be criticised, overwhelms us with anxiety.   If this fear is over-riding in nature, it will disable our ability to stand up for ourselves assertively.   We may begin well, but end up retracting or withdrawing our statements, or apologising, if we meet with a very unfavourable response.  Effectively, we deny our own essential needs in the face of this confrontation.  And by doing this, we fail to set our personal boundaries. 

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. ~Ambrose Redmoon
This quote is very telling, particularly to this discussion. It says that courage is simply finding something more important than fear. In this case, the fear is of being left alone. And the only thing that can be more important than that fear, is you. So it asks you to question yourself about how much value you truly place on yourself when compared with others. What are you willing to put up with in order to belong? What are you willing to sacrifice, over and over again, to stay in the good graces of those around you? Are you willing to do this, even to your detriment, in order to feel as though you have a place in this world?   empathicperspectives dot wordpress dot com       (Emphasis added by me.)

If you recognise yourself (or some of yourself) in the above, I hope you will also see that you can change your behaviour.  And that these changes will not only be in your own best interests, but ultimately in your partner’s best interests.  Staying in a dysfunctional relationship is never going to allow you to become a fully developed individual.  It may not be feasible to change your marriage at once, but you CAN begin to be assertive about your rights and needs immediately.  And you will thus begin the journey of reclaiming the “authentic you”.
enna30 enna30
56-60, F
11 Responses Jul 9, 2011

Perspective is something which becomes unclear when one has been in the fog of a sexless marriage for awhile. Often we need to take a step back and do a reality check, ask ourselves some hard questions such as how we came to believe our refusing spouses are nice or wonderful or our soul mates when they knowingly (especially after many talks and tears and arguments), stand by and watch our pain, sometimes even rubbing salt in our wounds. Another good question to ask is why it is ever okay for one spouse to shoulder the responsibility for making a marriage work, not to mention bearing the majority of the pain. There are other worthwhile associated thoughts to reflect on.

Like ++++ And great questions for each person to reflect on. I think we sometimes spend so much time telling ourselves what we WANT to believe, that we come to think it really IS the truth. But sadly, it is often only wishful thinking . . . .

Very educational Enna!
This makes it all the more clearer... I was slow to accept or understand much of what I was reading here at the beginning, when I first joined this forum, even though my story is echoed in thousands of others. The shock has worn off a little, and I am now more receptive and can finally start absorbing the knowledge from other members' experiences and put it to good use.
Thank you so much.

Unjusted, it is a slow process, fraught with pain and often VERY hard to accept. Please know that we "old timers" have been through much of what you are now processing - the shjock, the initial reactions, the slow and painful realisation that in fact much of what we read on ILIASM is NOT just "divorce mad sex fiends sprouting off"!! ut that within the advice and suggestions and support there is much we need to consider for ourselves . . . .

t is a HARD hard journey. Know your ILIASM friends are beside you for support as ou take each painful step. {{{hugs}}}

Just bumping this up . . . I read in a lot of posts that spouses feel they "can't" leave because their spouse is a nice person, or has issues, or there are reasons for the sexlessness. . . .

I seriously challenge those who believe that they need to give up their needs in order to meet those of another. THINK carefully about this. Is it really altruistic? Are you falling into the empathy trap?

This is the single best story I've read here so far. I can see myself in so much of it and it makes lots of sense.<br />
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Thanks so much for the contribution, I just wanted to say how useful it was for me.

Thanks to all of you for your comments. I hope this story will resonate with those who are conflicted about leaving - and perhaps bring some comfort to those who HAVE left but feel guilty nevertheless. I am/was one of those - I consider myself to be a work in progress.

"What are you willing to put up with in order to belong? What are you willing to sacrifice, over and over again, to stay in the good graces of those around you? Are you willing to do this, even to your detriment, in order to feel as though you have a place in this world?"<br />
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Holy ****, yes. :( That is me. I think of myself as the lowest rung on the ladder when it comes to others' needs. <br />
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What a good post. I have much work to do on myself.

Thanks Enna for your caring so much for all of us and taking such time and thought to post your story. When my husband and I first met 25 years ago we started out in therapy to deal with our codepant issues. It is a very painful process to work through codependency issues and personalities. A good book is Codependecy No More. <br />
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I am so empahetic and it is a long journey in learning to let go of others and let them fix their own problems and not take it on, especially when you have seven children, such as my husband and I. For my husband it seems to just come naturally to let go and for me it is always a work in process and a growing experience through my life to learn this very important skill.<br />
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I remember one therapist telling me, "Debbie you are in a boat in the lake with your children and husband, now there is a hole in the boat, your children and husband are sittting there frantically trying to scoop out the water. You sit there looking at all of therm like they are crazy and then you realize you have some choices, you can sit there and watch them and go down with all of them, or you can join them and try to scoop out the water, you can try to patch the hole, which is next to impossible, or you can get out of the boat and swim to shore. If some of them want to join you that is up to them." Usually my husband is already on the shore, long before me, ha haha... Anyway that was a very helpful little story that stuck in my mind to help get my codepency in line and draw my boundaries.<br />
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In most cases I think codepency issues are quite involved and take alot of time, work and insight to work through them. Another book that saved my likfe was "Healing The Child Within"...<br />
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Keep the light of hope on!!!!

Sometimes particularly statements in therapy give us an "aha!" moment. . . one of mine is the question my therapist would pose:
"Where is the evidence for that?"

Enna...your post is very timely, because it is all of the issues i am currently facing. Because I am notorius for putting the spouse before myself...and there is a lot of guilt associated with breaking away...of stopping that kind of behavior,,and honsetly trying to make choices that i want in my life..instead of just acepting what my spouse wants my life to be like....It is helpful to read this and understand the dynamics of what i am doing and why...<br />
Again...thank you for taking the time to post this...

Yep. I can echo what neuilly said.

I sometimes say this to my spouse: "It would be awesome to get a leg massage now, but I realize you are busy, so I am filling my piggy bank toward a home-cooked meal when I am in hospital with needles and meters stuck into me." I say this, I don't know, perhaps once or twice a month. She seems ok with the deferred gratification, although she says nothing. I hardly ever refuse when asked for a massage, but over the last year or two she has entirely stopped asking. I guess a backup plan with the hospital is in order. BTW, I don't jump her and drag her to bed any time I am given a leg massage. A massage (and only a massage) feels so much better than sex.

Your comment is, IMO, passive-aggressive.

Wikipedia defines passive aggressive behavior as:
A pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicted by four (or more) of the following:
* passively resists fulfilling routine social and occupational tasks (NO)
* complains of being misunderstood and unappreciated by others (NO)
* is sullen (PERHAPS, in the SM scope) and argumentative (NO)
* unreasonably criticizes and scorns authority (NO)
* expresses envy and resentment toward those apparently more fortunate (NO)
* voices exaggerated and persistent complaints of personal misfortune (NO)
* alternates between hostile defiance and contrition (NO)

Great Post Enna....YOU ROCK!!! Empathy can be a wonderful thing for those deserving. But how many people in life have we run across who use it as a means to get what they want? Not just in a SM but all kinds of people in life, co-workers, neighbors etc. Refusers use it against the refused to just continue the sad game they play. We can't however let that destroy empathy we may have for people who truly deserve it. Your post was so spot on my friend. <br />
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Keep on Rockin<br />
NSH :-)

The fear of being alone does go thourgh my mind. However I all ready feel alone. He has his room and I have my own room. This realy sucks. Thank you for sharing this.