FAMILY MATTERS; the Limits of Empathy

By Lopate, Phillip | Family Therapy Networker, November/December 1997 | Go to article overview

FAMILY MATTERS; the Limits of Empathy

Lopate, Phillip, Family Therapy Networker

I am thinking a lot about empathy these days--defensively, I might add--because my wife, Anne, keeps accusing me of lacking this quality in relation to her. Of course, I readily agree. I sympathize with her pain, but stop short of empathizing with it. Saying this infuriates her even more, and she is the kind of person who has no shyness about retaliating when ired. I then try to explain that what feeble mechanism I might have for empathy is nullified while I am placed under sharp attack: i.e., I cannot identify with a person who wishes to cut me to ribbons. That is my imaginative limitation.

At what point, I wonder, in the last 30 years' inflation of emotional discourse (if not actual emotions) did the word "empathy" begin to displace "sympathy"? My 1971 Oxford English Dictionary does not even carry an entry for empathy. This may reflect the more reserved character of the British; one assumes the rage for empathy began on this side of the Atlantic. (See Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain.") Certainly the most recent edition of the  American Heritage Dictionary does not hesitate to include "empathy," and tell us that while sympathy "denotes the act or capacity for sharing in the sorrows or troubles of another," empathy "is a vicarious identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings and motives."

To me, sympathy suggests a humane concern for others' positions or plights, based partly on a generalized ethic of compassion for all living things. Empathy conveys, to my mind, a more sticky, ghoulish shadowing ("vicarious," indeed!), a doppelganger act of appropriation stemming from the arrogant delusion that one can actually take on, or fuse with, another person's feelings.

It is possible that my wife wants to recapture that sense of romantic communion, usually strongest during the infatuation phase, when lovers' hearts are said to "beat as one." But I can't help suspecting she got this empathy bug after a session with her therapist, Larry. It was he, I am willing to bet, who crystallized her omnidirectional complaints about me with the helpful e-word formulation.

Since then, as a result of our frequent bickering and my wife's conviction that her therapist was a marvelous person who might benefit both of us, we have both entered into couples counseling with Larry. To my surprise, he is a marvelous person. Wise, reasonable, scrupulously even-handed, with a salvific lightness of touch, and empathic--perhaps to a fault. With his soft eyes and menschy beard, he is obviously one proximate model of empathy for Anne. Sometimes, when he commiserates about the pressures we are operating under--raising a 3-year-old with health problems while trying to juggle multiple careers--I begin to wonder at his warm compassion, the depth of which, it seems to me, ought to be reserved for Romanian coal miners, not yuppies like ourselves.

Larry is someone always listening for a musical leitmotif in our conjugal conversation: the possibility of harmonious mutual accord. Sometimes it is so far off only he can hear it. In one session, we were recounting a disagreement we had had the night before. As it happened, about sex. We had been going through a dry spell, mostly because of my wife's preoccupations with our baby daughter and mistrust of my capacity to empathize with her. Now she said she was getting ready to consider doing it again, and I replied, like an idiot, something to the effect that I'll believe it when I see it. Larry, hearing us, began offering an alternative script, giving us the lines we might more profitably have spoken, in his view. I was to compliment her on making this overture to an advance, and if I still felt the necessity to express skepticism, she was to show that she understood my feeling "vulnerable" because I'd been starved for sexual affection. …

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