Why having the right balance of empathy affects well-being in relationships

If you can’t put yourself in someone else’s position or try to understand their feelings, it is difficult to have a meaningful relationship with them. You can never really be close. By being empathic to their feelings you can solve problems in your relationship.

‘Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’ (Oxford Dictionary)

To have empathy is an excellent quality, but problems can occur when the sympathy we feel as a result, and the responsibility we feel for the person’s feelings and our need to help, is out of perspective.

Some people become overly concerned, even obsessed with other people’s feelings. This can become emotionally draining and affect the wellbeing of the caring person. In some relationships one person can feel responsible for understanding the other’s feelings and then constantly adjust their behaviour according to that person’s moods. Some narcissistic, abusive or even just needy people continually express their feelings which they believe are more important than those of others. Some empathic people with low self-esteem can get caught up in an all consuming effort to pander to them to the detriment of their own well being.

I often lent money to my ex partner because I felt sorry for him when things went wrong. I cared too much about taking responsibility for his feelings. Eventually I got into debt as he was one of those people that was always getting into money problems. There was a co-dependency issue here too as helping him made me feel of value.  So it’s about setting boundaries of what is an acceptable amount of help.

On the other hand, some people find it difficult to have any empathy at all. People with Narcissistic characteristics often show little or no empathy. Often those who have had traumatic childhoods or life events can close off their emotions. People that have been badly hurt by a previous partner are likely to be less open to shared feelings. Being closed though often drives people away.

Closing off empathy allows people to act in a certain way. My narcissistic ex never considered my feelings when he wanted me to do things for him and I was too tired or had planned something else. He had no empathy for me when he cheated. Some narcissistic people will get through multiple partners with little regard for their feelings but some people will eventually suffer from never being able to maintain a lasting relationship and this will affect their well-being.

If you don’t have empathy then it is hard to show meaningful sympathy or compassion. If you are not mindful of how someone else is feeling you cannot adjust your behaviour. For example if you can’t understand that someone is upset by certain comments you make, you will likely keep making them.

Those people who shut off emotion so as not to get hurt, often create the situation of loss that they wanted to avoid, because eventually, where there is little regard for feelings, it is likely that the partner will drift away, perhaps to someone more in tune. It is possible to be empathic and still retain some protection for your own feelings if things go wrong. If there are no shared feelings, no empathy, then the relationship is more of an agreement than being in love.

When people show empathy for each other and share feelings in a trusting way, they become closer. They are more able to adjust their behaviour to improve the relationship. Where empathy is balanced the relationship is more likely to be successful.

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