Empathy for a Partner

Empathy for a Partner

“Before we had kids, I felt like my partner and I really understood each other, but now it’s almost like we live on separate continents . . . ?”

Empathy for a ParentWith good reason, many parents say they wish their partner sympathized more with their situation. But the other side of the coin is also often true: that the other partner wishes he or she was understood more. Since one of the best ways to receive more understanding and consideration is to give it, let’s take a moment to explore empathy for a partner. We’ll draw on our experience as parents and our conversations with parents to suggest how it may be for your partner to be a parent; this is a composite, written in the first person, a generalization of someone who will not fit their partner in every way.

  • Now I’m a parent – as profoundly as you, I love the child we have made together. We have many of the same feelings, like happiness when the baby first curls her tiny fingers around one of our own. Yet since I probably spend less time with children than you, it is quite possible that I feel less sure of my skills. Feeling awkward or inept is uncomfortable for many people and makes it hard to ask for help. Maybe I’ve asked you what I could do and been told I should already know. Maybe I’ve tried to dive in and help and then been told it’s all wrong. I pick up your underlying attitude about my parenting skills, and the way many parents talk to each other about their partners is quite disdainful. I may experience you squeezing me out of the parent role while complaining that I’m not involved enough.
  • Tugged in different directions – I show my love for my children and you in part by stepping up my efforts as a provider. Yet that tends to draw me into working longer hours when you wish I’d put more energy into our children and home. Unfortunately, my workplace may not care much about the needs of my family, so I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.
  • I’m probably more engaged in child-rearing and housework than my own parent was. Nonetheless, if you are like most partners who care for the kids, you’d still like more involvement and help, so I feel uneasy and resentful that I’m not coming up to the standard of what you want in a partner.
  • Married to a parent – I am awed at your ability to make a baby and deeply grateful that you have enabled me to have a child. I probably appreciate your sacrifices more than I have been able to say.
  • I’m also worried by any fatigue, depression, or other health problems that have developed since you became a parent. But when I offer well-meaning suggestions, like you getting more exercise or using more child care, there’s a fair chance you get irritated, because you want empathy rather than problem-solving, think my idea is impractical, or feel I’m trying to make you give less to our kids. After a few rounds of this, maybe I stop trying to help you.
  • Where did my partner go? – I love my child incredibly, but my relationship with you is still a priority in itself, not merely as a framework for raising children.
  • I feel keenly the loss of the attention, energy, affection, and love you have shifted from me to our child. It can easily seem to me that you regard me as little more than a means to your ends. One parent said: “I go out in the world like a caveman who brings home the meat. I drop it at her feet, she says ‘thanks’ and goes back to our daughter.” It’s like I’m not in the room. And this shift in a parent’s attention away from his or her partner is made painfully concrete by the disinterest many have in sex.
  • Does my partner understand me? – I cannot make my partner understand me, but I can try to understand them and have empathy for a partner: that much is in my power. I could ask them about the description of a partner just above. Or I could simply observe them for a while without any assumptions, wondering how it feels to be them deep down inside.
  • Since you give understanding to our children all day long, you might have “empathy fatigue.” So it may take a conscious decision to bring understanding and have empathy for a partner. But if you do, I will notice your interest and appreciate it and be more empathic with you as well. And when the two of us have a better idea of the feelings and wants of each other, we will be more able to solve problems together.

This article about empathy for a partner is adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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