For Couples, Empathy Is the New Anger

couples-empathy-anger-conflict-0607135For over 23 years, I have worked with numerous couples that have difficulty with marital or relational conflict. Many come into my office fighting because they don’t know any other way to express their hurt. Yet, the one behavior that seems to radically change all of their interactions is: empathy for their partner.

This may sound deceptively simple, but for many people it is a struggle. After all, it feels so much safer to go to righteous anger and blame (defensive behaviors) than to be open, loving, and vulnerable when you feel hurt. But anger pushes your partner away, while empathy is inviting and disarming. So, rather than trying to prove your point, put yourself in your significant other’s shoes and say how you feel in a compassionate and caring manner.

Below, I have written a sample letter and guide that I offer to you if you are feeling neglected by your partner, but don’t know how to communicate your feelings without anger. I have written it using “I” statements, the standard couples therapy lingo, where each partner uses “I…” rather than “you…” to express how they feel.

For example, instead of saying, “You are abandoning me,” the sentence “I feel abandoned” may earn you a more loving response, and is less likely to render your partner defensive. I cannot stress enough how helpful it is to talk about your own experience rather than to focus on your partner’s so-called wrong-doing.

Dear [Partner #1]:

Believe it or not, I loathe, hate, and abhor nagging you to connect with me. I don’t like that I crave so much attention, so I have tried really hard to take care of myself when that childish part of me emerges. But I am not always successful. I know I can be over-the- top, needy, attention-seeking, and verbose — all ways to make sure that I am seen and loved by you.

I do understand your need for space, autonomy and down time. And while these are normal, healthy needs, they are sometimes hard for me to accept, especially when you are constantly on your cell phone, iPad, and computer. I feel abandoned.

You know that I was often rejected by my mother, father, and most of my siblings, and I felt like I was always the one pursuing them. I felt like a pesky little fly and a constant annoyance. Those feelings live on in me and get triggered when you won’t connect with me.

Yet, it is humiliating and disempowering to always have to be the pursuer and vulnerable one in this or any relationship. I have spent countless hours exploring the lack of mutuality in all of my relationships and I feel that even though I get a lot from you, this seems like another relationship where I am giving too much, working around what YOU need, and getting neglected in the process. It is not a fault of yours. It doesn’t make you bad. But it is something that I hope you can look at within yourself. I love you dearly and hope you can see this as a request, not a demand. It is very important to me that we are both giving to each other in our relationship.

So please pursue me some of the time. It feels so much better. I hate being the only one who reaches out. I understand that you too have your childhood wounds and use distancing and avoidance to protect yourself. I do that, too. But I think you know you can trust me.

[Partner #2]

Please feel free to use this letter to express yourself in a nonblaming, nonshaming manner.  Soon, you’ll be scratching your head wondering why anger used to feel so good.

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  • breanne

    June 7th, 2013 at 2:49 PM

    But you would agree that anger is not always bad, that there are times that you have to get a little angry and take up for yourself, right?

  • laurel G

    June 8th, 2013 at 5:58 AM

    It is hard to feel empathetic toward someone who has made you so angry. But I understand what you are saying, that anger really doesn’t get you anywhere other than digging the hole of contempt within the relationship deeper and deeper. But if you find a way to understand wht your partner is feeling and try to get him to spell it out for you, then that could make you a little more sympathetic for what he is going through and really it could in the end bring some sort of understanding into the relationship that may not have been there before. It is so much healthier than yelling at one another all the time I would ahve to think and probably a lot more fulfilling than fighting ever could have been.

  • FH

    June 9th, 2013 at 12:09 AM

    Staying calm in such a situation?Hard for me to do.The best I can do is to walk away and I have used that to prevent an escalation many times.Happy to have done that but this certainly seems like a much better option.How do I begin to adapt this?Is anger management of relevance here?


    June 9th, 2013 at 9:13 PM

    A simple thing – but one that is not that simple to follow.

    While displaying empathy is something that I completely agree with – how does one do that in a fit of rage? When one is angry?

    I’m sure this is a problem shared by many people and I’d love to hear feedback and maybe even a few techniques that others follow to bring in this sense of empathy even when hot in the head.

    I – for one – just cannot control myself when angry.

  • Nancy Simon, Lcsw

    June 11th, 2013 at 2:03 PM

    Your points are well taken. When I wrote this article I was not focusing on the anger management piece which is key in order to get to empathy. So I will offer some suggestions now. For starters, take a breath and get some space for yourself. Maybe tell your partner that you’re taking a walk but will be back soon. Then, if you can, ask yourself what got triggered in you to get so angry. Anger is a wall shielding you from the more vulnerable feelings of inadequacy, shame, sadness, emptiness, fear and grief to name a few. Try to get to the bottom of what hurt you so that you can name if for yourself and for your partner. You might say, “i realized that I got defensive because you implied that I am too sensitive. That reminds me of how ashamed I felt as a kid when my parents told me that.” I know this is a lot of work but, in the end your arguments will be fewer, shorter and kinder.

  • louis

    November 14th, 2015 at 8:16 PM

    I guess the only way you can make anger management work,one person has to be submissive no matter what the results.2zka

  • aqua

    November 23rd, 2015 at 4:33 PM

    @ Jared I sympathise ;) One way is to seek some alone time till you can master your emotions.Going for a walk, doing some exercise, distracting with comedy shows etc – I would suggest there is no point writing the letter when your enraged. Once those hormones and chemicals in your system are less fizzy, then do it.
    If you are living in the same space – and something needs to be said immediately, then perhaps something along the line of ‘Im feeling really angry at the moment, and I dont want to say anything I might regret, so Im going to calm down and write my feelings to you in a bit’ something along those lines…Also, seemingly silly, but sometimes when youre irate, the simple act of drinking a glass of water helps a lot – anger/irritation is exacerbated by even mild dehydration, and most especially by alcohol and sugary foods, irrespective of injustices, perceived or valid…..

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