Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Deep Empathy Prevents Relapse

Almost three months into recovery from his sexual addiction, Troy was feeling overwhelmed by his girlfriend Heather's pain. "I've made the decision to get better. I'm trying not to beat myself up about the mistakes I've made. But then she brings up the very things I'm trying to get over. To be honest, my biggest trigger these days is talking with Heather. How much longer will she be in the depths of despair about this?"

I knew Troy's struggle was genuine, but I also knew Heather had barely begun to unload the pain she felt over Troy's porn use, illicit online chatting, and the live sexual encounters he had arranged with women he'd met online. For their relationship to have a chance of surviving and for her to forgive him, I knew she would need empathic discussions with him almost daily over a period of nine months or so and then more intermittently after that.

My assignment to Troy was to ask every day how Heather was feeling and encourage her to talk about it. His job was avoid these various human reflexes: apologizing, clarifying, promising, reassuring, explaining, and defending. Instead, we encouraged him to:

1. Take her hands in yours or put your hand on her knee if she's comfortable with either of those. Engage in some kind of touch even if it's just resting a hand on her forearm or shoulder. Imagine that touch as a bridge that enables you to better sense her emotions. Tune in and allow yourself to receive what comes through to your heart by way of that physical contact. As you listen to her pain, let that touch be the conduit that helps those feelings flow your way, like a ground wire that taps electrical energy from where it's building up and conducts it safely to where it can diffuse. (Of course, only include touch in this process if she finds it permissible. Respect her desire for physical distance if she finds physical contact aversive at this point.)

2. Look her in the eye. You don't have to make it a staring contest, but make sure you don't avoid her gaze, either. Keep checking in with how she's feeling--and really letting it in--by gazing into her eyes and trying to sense what it's like to be her right now. Neuroscientists have discovered that we have mirror neurons that enable us to empathize and genuinely feel what another person is feeling. These neurons are "turned on" as we see the expressions and micro-expressions in the eyes and on the face of someone who is feeling an emotion. When we look into the eyes of someone who's feeling an emotion, we find ourselves naturally feeling that same emotion ourselves.

3. Notice where in the body you begin to react. Is your gut starting to clench? Is your chest tightening as you hold your breath. When someone is in pain, especially the person we care about most, it's natural to want to pull away from the emotion or put up a wall to keep that emotion out. While these reactions may be reflexive, they're not conducive to empathy. Take whatever energy you feel in your body and consciously move it from your gut or throat--or wherever--to your heart. Open up your heart and let yourself feel for her. Allow that energy to move you instead of trying to fight against it. Attend to the feelings that arise in your heart.

4. Keep up the above processes as you track what she's saying and how she's feeling. Listen and let yourself feel. Listen and let yourself feel. Listen and let yourself feel.

This is the process of empathizing. Notice what's missing. I didn't encourage Troy to say anything to Heather. It's not that he was forbidden to speak, it just wasn't the first priority. Too often, we have a strong urge to speak to try to make things better, but this process isn't about fixing a problem, it's about simply joining a partner exactly where they are emotionally. It's not about helping her out of the mud puddle of her pain, it's about sitting down with her in that puddle and better sensing--experiencing for ourselves--what it's like for her.

Although this process didn't come naturally to Troy, he wanted to make things better and entered into it wholeheartedly.

I did't see Troy for a while because he did most of his therapy with a colleague at my office. Over a year later, I checked in with him again. I was impressed by what he reported:

"It's been quite an experience to see--and really get--how much I hurt Heather. You can't imagine the destruction. It's almost like I killed someone. It's as much as you can hurt someone without breaking the law and going to jail. I want to go back and do it over. The nightmare is, I can't. The best I can do is never do those things again. And that's easy compared to the alternative. I could never do those things again, given all their devastating consequences."

Later in our session we talked about situations that used to put Troy at risk. "There's a switch inside of me that has flipped. It has changed me, altered my very constitution. I could never again repeat some of those actions. I went on a two-week long trip for work recently, exactly the kind of situation that would have put my relationship with Heather "out of sight, out of mind" before. I was amazed to discover that I found myself only able to respond to women the way I would have if she were right next to me. Of course, that's the way I wanted it. I wasn't looking for a way to forget her. But it was strange to me how natural it was. I didn't have to bring her and her feelings to mind. They are a down-deep part of me now. Taking care of her is like taking care of a part of myself."


  1. THis is the truth! Empathy made such an impact in our conversations. it help change the way i viewed him. When could be empathetic and understand my pain it meant he was being "real"

  2. I'm so glad you've seen this difference in your relationship EMS! It is a profound thing for someone to willingly settle themselves into our pain rather than leaving us all alone in it. As Sue Johnson says, "To suffer is inevitable, but to suffer alone is unbearable."

  3. I really liked this post. Thanks a ton. I took this and felt impressed to send my girlfriend an email thanking her for being so wonderful and asking her specifically how she's feeling and what other things are bothering her. I hope we can chat soon and let her express what she needs. This is a good reminder for us addicts...everything becomes so much about US!