Empathy is not Enough

The key to healthy relationships is not merely acknowledging each other's feelings; it's acknowledging that we all play a part in creating those feelings.

If you asked me what one thing has sustained my marriage for the past six years, I would say it's that principle. And I'm willing to bet that in ten, twenty, thirty years, I'll still say the same thing. Because unlike empathy, affective responsibility ensures that the relationship doesn't become one-sided.

To be clear, empathy is important and it's earned greater discussion in recent years for good reason.

Our modern society has historically been resistant to valuing emotion; in fact, the only credence feelings were ever given was when they could be supported by reason. Thus, conflict resolution used to be more of an exercise in sterile retribution where emotional responses that didn't make sense were dismissed with a "get over it" and a shrug.

Empathy challenged that convention by suggesting that even unreasonable feelings were valid. Their value was not in their reasonableness, but in their reality. Meaning that feelings don't have to make sense to make a difference. So the focus naturally shifted from the conflict, to how the conflict made a person feel. And resolution came by saying "I hear you" and acknowledging those feelings.

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This shift was necessary for emotion to be vindicated, but in so doing, it devalued the existence of wrongs committed. Instead of saying "how can I make it up to you?" we began saying "I'm sorry you feel that way." I shouldn't have to point out that such a response feels more like a false apology than a genuine interest in righting a wrong. But that's because empathy, by itself, teaches us to abdicate responsibility.

Emotional acknowledgment and solidarity are not the same as sharing in the blame of a conflict, and as absurd as it sounds, no one is ever completely blameless. The kid from a broken home threw that punch because the other kid joked about divorce. The lonely wife slept with another man because the husband was working long hours. The black community in Ferguson loots and riots because the white community has ignored how their majority culture is conducive to racism.

Saying "get over it" or "I hear you" won't solve those problems because each one of them is a reaction to an unintended transgression. The kid probably thought the joke was funny; he wasn't trying to hurt anyone. The husband probably thought he was going above and beyond to provide for his wife's material needs; he wasn't trying to hurt her. And the white community probably thinks that racism was solved back in the 60's. They don't realize that subtle racism, like conflating unsafe neighborhoods with black ones, hurts the black community.

Yet in all of these cases, hurt was caused--just unintentionally.

It's hard enough to accept blame when our actions are intentional, and it's even harder to accept when we didn't mean any harm. But just like unreasonable feelings are still real feelings, so unintentional hurt is still real hurt. And saying "I didn't mean to" is like saying "I'm not responsible for how you feel."

Actually, we're all responsible for how our actions affect others. And taking our share of the blame in a conflict isn't an endorsement of another's wrongdoing; it's recognizing that a relationship is a team effort between two, imperfect people. No matter how good the relationship is or how good a listener you are, empathy pales in power to confession. And relationships suffer for lack of the latter.


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