The art of empathy can keep your love from fizzling out
Love relationships go through stages of development. Don’t we all wish we could stay in the first stage of ultimate infatuation! Let’s discuss three stages of normal growth for love connections. I like to call them: “La La Land,” The Conflict Stage, and The Harvest Stage. Have you experienced that first stage of “La La Land?” That’s the “cloud nine” feeling where the natural high of falling in love kicks in with passion, excitement and aliveness. Most experience a personal transformation in this state where love becomes blind and deaf and all control is willingly given away. Conflict is shelved. Anger is suppressed and denied, and intimacy, although superficial, tops the list in importance and meaning. The external and internal world is transfixed and mesmerized in that first stage of love: “La La Land.”
But, sadly, we fall off the cloud! What happens when the relationship inevitably moves into stage two called the Conflict Stage? Who asked for this? Because we all carry with us baggage from the past, it is common to dump the suitcase of prior issues onto the relationship bed where it gets mixed up with your partner’s baggage. Suddenly it becomes confusing trying to determine whose stuff is whose. What’s yours, what’s mine and what’s ours?
Although no one wants to drop off cloud nine and enter the conflict stage, it is the normal progression for relationships. It is also the stage of great opportunity for personal growth and change. It is in stage two that the relationship makes it or breaks it. Couples make one of three possible decisions in this stage. (1) They decide the conflict is too unbearable and end the relationship. (2) They see and feel the conflict, but do nothing about it and make an unspoken decision to live with it unresolved. (3) They embrace the issues personally and relationally and grow the relationship into a deeper stage of love. (Harvest Stage)
Stage two is where the “real” selves begin to connect and the issues surface. This is where the inner core of reality is faced. Each person in the relationship becomes stretched as they see their own unmet needs surface, feel brewing issues from family of origin, and an open wound is suddenly apparent. When a single person nests again, it is expected that prior relationship themes will come up. This is where we see couples coming to therapy and asking themselves why this theme is present again in their lives. They look at their partner with surprise, “I didn’t realize you were struggling with that!” “Did I make the wrong decision?” “What do I do now?” “Can these issues be resolved?”
So, what is the key for stage two? Empathy! If we practice empathy for our partners and ourselves…we have great growth opportunity both personally and in the relationship. Some of the deepest and most loving connections are those where each person in the relationship was able to nurture and show compassion for themselves and their partner to work through past baggage. Loving another is putting yourself in their shoes and wishing for them to be the best person they can be. It is encouraging their authentic self with all the strengths and weaknesses and being invested in supporting the making of a whole self. Creating interdependent relationships where two whole selves are operating on an adult level is the ultimate. This is hard to do without self-compassion and empathy for your partner.
Growing the relationship into deeper stages of friendship, expansion, commitment and understanding is a worthy goal. It can go to that place of inner peace, security, enjoyment, appreciation, and intimate bonding where emotional intimacy is tackled. This then, is the Harvest Stage (stage 3) and is highly desirable but it requires that seeming lost art of empathy.
Many wonder why they see patterns in their love relationships. It’s known as “repetition compulsion,” where there is a repeat of the same behaviors and types of partners over and over. This happens, of course, if each individual does not embrace their own inner demons and work on their own recovery. It is common to attempt to master the trauma of past baggage and it can be done in relationship if both partners are aware and working on themselves.
As this series continues on empathic parenting, let’s note the significance of the parental love model and what it teaches children. If we want to teach children empathy, our goals of modeling it are important. Where better to teach and guide as children watch their parents interact with kindness and compassion for each other? In a struggling world today with narcissism at its core, and much uncertainty and fear, starting at home with those we love makes the most sense. It begins with our own accountability. Reclaiming control of who we are and what values top our list is a great place to start. Try empathy with those you love. Rather than give advice, or trying to fix, just be with them when they express feelings. Comment on the feeling and validate it for them. “You are really upset right now.” “I can see that you feel so sad.” “This must be very difficult for you.”
Believe it or not, most people do not care if you agree with them or not or if you give them advice. They usually do not expect or want you to fix their situation. What they really want is acknowledgement of their feelings. It’s a great gift to give. Try it this week! It could begin to move your relationship into a deeper stage of love. Maybe even out of conflict stage! It may not be “La La Land,” but it could and likely will be more meaningful with a deeper level of emotional intimacy. Empathy is that magical gift we can all give and it costs nothing. It also gives back because simultaneously it warms your own heart.
Book: Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers
Blog: The Legacy of Distorted Love. Dr. McBride is a featured expert on Psychology Today on-line magazine
Daughter Intensives: Daughter Intensives: One on one sessions with Dr. McBride.
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