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It’s the weekend, and for the fifth time your loved one trudges by with a laundry basket full of dried clothes while you watch television.
It’s Wednesday and he’s prepared dinner, even got experimental and tried something new, but you neither mention nor notice this during the entire meal.
His feet hurt from running (sometimes literally) errands all day. At one point – likely just before bed – you even see him wince as he rubs a foot. “Do you know if it’s going to rain tomorrow?” you ask.
Five years down the line and your lover is gone. No huge event to account for the break up. You’re a bit dumbfounded.
It’s most often the little things, not the big, that end relationships. The big simply point out there was no actual relationship in the first place.
We can think of empathy as basically being observant. Allow a loved one the benefit of all five of your senses and any secret ones you might have. This goes beyond a loved one communicating all their needs.
Consensual empathy, the ability to feel for another and act for their welfare, is so important to any relationship, but is also so often overlooked in favor of superficial games of relationship power struggles.
There’s no magic to exhibiting empathy toward others, whether romantically or platonically. Empathy has never been the sole province of the mystical feelers among us. No, empathy is about emotional honesty. It’s being open and unafraid to respond to the unspoken needs of another.
Absolutists may say, “Well, if someone wants something they should speak up for themselves.” Granted. But love also means sometimes never having to actually say, “Please rub my feet” in order to get them rubbed.
You must be aware of someone other than yourself if you’re going to forge connections in this world of ours. It’s not enough merely to occupy space with another person on a daily basis and tell yourself “This is good, this is working, this is a right proper relationship,” because it is an unbreakable guarantee that if that is indeed your thinking, the other person is running a parallel thoughtline of “I must get out of here.”
Love requires a conjoining of emotion, thoughts, and desires via an openness which requires a free interchange of empathy between the hearts involved.
What’s your level of empathy toward your lover? How do you even access your empathy? And once accessed, are you expected to keep it turned on, ever ready to tend to a need (short answer: no)?
You find your level of empathy by asking yourself how honest you are with your own emotions. Many of us keep ourselves bottled up for a plethora of reasons, and in so many different ways a parade of our emotional floats would never show the same thing twice.
Life dictates shielding. That’s an unavoidable fact. Until we reach a state of supreme spiritual awareness, we need to protect bits of ourselves so that those bits can grow to protect other bits, until all the bits are – rather than being hard and armored – moreso rich and fertile on which to grow green fields full of life and vibrancy. Too much shielding, however, salts the earth around you; neighboring hillocks, rather than their grasses reaching out to merge with your own, pull away. For them, the sun is elsewhere.
If, however, you can tell yourself it’s not a weakness to show vulnerability, fatigue, need, desire, or random, spurious inclination, you’re ready to open yourself to giving empathy. You already receive it from others, you know you do. And you know you love it: those un-asked for neck rubs after a weekend tennis match; the omelets you happily devour every Sunday morning after the scents of breakfast have awakened you; the way you never have to ask for your favorite coffee when a coffee run has been made. The little things matter so much.
Empathy generates the little things. You could even call it being considerate if a more common word seems more palatable. How often does being considerate of others ever chase them away?
But the opposite, being inconsiderate, lacking in the basic empathies that communicate who you are in ways words simply cannot do, has seen the flight of millions.
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If you are lacking empathy in your relationship, you are driving your other half away like so:
Aretha Franklin didn’t sing about this just so you could ignore it. Empathy plays a huge role in respecting others, for it allows us to see them as fully-realized people rather than convenient extensions of our needs. We only respect that which we allow to become “real.”
Yet if we’re unable or unwilling to speak the unspoken languages with the beloved in our lives, we implicitly tell them they aren’t completely real: they don’t get so tired they just want us to offer our shoulder and a few minutes of silence; they don’t need to hear words of support and solidarity after delivering the news that something important to them fell through; they aren’t permitted to tremble and simply need us to look into their eyes to let them know all is all right.
A lack of empathy is a gong to our loved one’s spirit announcing we don’t respect them.
If we aren’t able to empathize with another, we take them for granted: the laundry magically gets folded and put away even when the loved one somehow manages to study for the bar; dinner might as well be an intravenous drip for all the consideration we give to its preparation.
If we aren’t able to feel what someone is putting into not just their day, but ours as well, we reduce their actions to expectation without hint of appreciation, and the quickest way to make someone look at us doubtfully is to make them feel unappreciated.
No matter how generous and giving a person is, everyone at some point expects to receive. This is practically part of the genome. It’s not tit for tat, and definitely not a matter of keeping score. A person can give a month’s worth of foot rubs, but only expect one in return. Every now and then. It’d be nice.
Or maybe they’re told we’ll make the coffee run in their stead. Better still, if they’re working on a sweet design for a client while the cat winds around their feet, we set a cup of freshly brewed tea on the table.
There are so many small, enchanting ways to reciprocate someone else’s small, enchanting ways! But if we feel this is somehow an extra demand on our capacities, our lack of empathy is causing us to miss the concept of communion.
Empathy’s not merely about providing for needs spoken or unspoken, it’s a means to strengthen the connection with our beloved. If we’re ever fortunate enough to be around a couple attuned to the flow of the other, we’ll see an invisible dance unfold. They move, think, behave and anticipate in a way that warms our spirit. This is simply them being open to the cues of the other. They know one another’s moods; they enjoy both being a pleasure and providing pleasure to the other; even in moments of displeasure they seem bonded beyond surface roles. This is empathy.
And, quite simply, if we cannot connect a dot so basic as enjoying the pleasure another receives from our love, we’re left with a relationship wherein one and one never truly make two.
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