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When is the Right Time for Empathy?

Jeannine Crofton - Calgary Marriage Counsellor


There is a great deal of focus in the therapeutic community for empathy in relationships. Many a therapist in a couple’s counselling session has attempted to increase the empathy of one spouse toward the other in the hope of increasing their emotional intimacy. Yet a popular Stanford Psychology Professor, Dr. Paul Bloom, says that empathy is biased. He says that when it comes to moral judgements that empathy is a very poor guide. He would say that we have a much greater likelihood to show empathy with people in our social group, workplace, sports team and in our families. So which is more critical making moral judgements or feeling close to our spouse emotionally. Does one have to cancel out the other?

Couple taking
When is the Right Time for Empathy?

This is interesting, and I have seen this a fair amount in my sessions with clients. A spouse is torn between being authentic in their opinion and loyal to their spouse. For example, your husband comes home and says he did not get the raise he was expecting after a major project. He is understandably angry and frustrated. After all, he made a deal with himself that he would work really hard over that project in order to enjoy a financial payout at its conclusion. He further explained that his boss gave each member of the team the same bonus for his or her contribution. You are well aware of how much more your husband contributed over the life of the project.

Here you have an opportunity to be empathetic to his particular experience. After all, you also sacrificed to allow your husband to be fully committed to this project. You also listened night after night to his complaints about team members who were not pulling their weight. However, in response, you instead looked at the broader moral question of fairness and suggested to your husband it was the right thing to do to reward everyone involved. Your intention is good as being upset alongside him may only entrench him in his anger. Even your husband may, in a logical moment, agree but likely he is to feel offended that you were not taking his side. So do I empathize or not you ask?

“If you need some practice asking questions or understanding where empathy is best employed in your relationship I can help.”

I think it is okay to ask. What our spouse needs in one moment may be very different from what they need in two hours or days from the moment. Partners are sometimes reluctant to ask because they think they should know. Questions such as: What do you need right now from me? I want to be supportive to you what could I do to show my support now? These questions may allow your spouse to think about what they actually do need. It may be some space and time to reflect, or it may be a sounding board in the moment. If they need comfort and affirmation that they were wronged it is definitely a time to say “I can’t believe how unfairly you have been treated, you worked so hard, I’m sorry you are going through this”.

If you need some practice asking such questions or understanding where empathy is best employed in your relationship I can help.

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