Feel Better, Live Better: Marriage is The Capacity to be Empathic, Coupled with A Willingness to be Vulnerable

Shame is such an ugly feeling. It’s sneaky and vengeful and so very confusing. It covers us and holds us down like an anchor on a big ole submarine. It’s so very powerful, it consumes us until we discover its weakness – Vulnerability and Empathy. Isn’t it bizarre that vulnerability, something we think of as a weakness, is actually so strong it conquers something as big and powerful as shame? I find that amazing!

Brene Brown, author of “Daring Greatly”, tells us that empathy is the cure for shame. She tells us that shame cannot survive in the presence of empathy, understanding, and validity and that the way to express true empathy is by sitting with another person in their pain letting them know – “Yeah, I get it – me too”. What I’ve found, in my experience counseling others, is that to truly feel the pain of others – their sorrow, regret, fear, anger, etc, we must connect with them on an emotional level – without shaming. We must allow others to freely express their pain without judgment. But, in order to do this, we must first connect with our own emotional pain. We can’t hide from it and we can’t be shamed by it. Through our experiences with our own emotional pain, we come to know empathy and develop a need for connectedness to others. If I allow myself to experience my own pain without shaming myself, I can then love others through their pain without shaming them – that’s empathy.

I see a lot of couples in my practice and find that couples typically come into counseling because they feel disconnected – they are having difficulty feeling their partner’s pain – empathy. Couples come into the relationship from different worlds expecting things to be easy. The truth is, marriage is hard and nobody prepared us for hard. But nobody said it was going to be easy either, we just expected it to be easy because the hormones that brought us together were very strong and made love appear easy – The Infatuation Trap. Infatuation has one thing on its mind – hook-up and procreate! The thing infatuation doesn’t consider is that we are two different individuals coming from two different worlds with different likes and dislikes. From the time we are born until the time we die we are building what William Glasser refers to as a “quality world” from a book he co-authored with his wife Carleen, “The Eight Lessons For A Happier Marriage”. The things we put into our “quality world” are the things that bring us pleasure so my quality world is filled with romantic comedies, warm fireplaces, and hot cocoa while my husband’s quality world is filled with crowded restaurants, red meat, and cold beer. So you see there could be a problem after the infatuation period begins to wind down.

I am a visual learner so I use a lot of analogies to understand complex things. I see the marriage experience as kind of like trying to see and hear one another from the far side of the table, only this table is one of those really long ones you see in the movies set back in the days of kings and queens. So I’m sitting at my end of the table and my spouse, AKA “The King” is sitting at the other end of this enormous table and he can’t hear a thing I’m saying. He’s trying to hear me but I’m too far away. As the servants begin bringing in the feast, we begin getting further and further apart – all this food is coming between us. We become engulfed in the whole process and soon find ourselves becoming bored with one another because we never really got to know one another in the first place; we were too distracted by the show. Now we’re bombarded by all the junk we brought into the marriage from our previous lives – If I don’t clear away my own junk, it begins to pile up between us like unwashed dishes and rotting food and it just keeps piling higher and higher until I can’t see or hear you way down there at the other end of the table anymore and you can’t see or hear me either. The way we keep the table cleared is by being vulnerable – we have to learn to ask for what we need, “Hey I can’t hear you. Are you still there. It’s pretty scary down here all by myself. Can you clear away some of your junk so I know you’re still there?”

Being vulnerable is probably the scariest thing we do with our partners and yet it is the single biggest contributing factor to having a blissful and happy marriage. I think marriage is practicing the capacity to be empathic coupled with a willingness to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable with your partner is much like going into the arena, not knowing what to expect – one more analogy before closing. I tell my clients that being vulnerable in your relationship is like being willing to go into the arena without your armor or your weapons – Yikes! Imagine for a moment what that would be like if you lived back in the time of kings and queens and now we’re adding “Gladiators”! The vulnerability we experience in a love relationship is like agreeing to go into the arena (meeting one another in the middle) agreeing to leave our armor at the door (totally exposed) while also agreeing to leave our weapons at the door (completely defenseless). Why would we do such a thing – Because you are worth it; because the relationship is worth it! Leaving our armor at the door is like letting our guard down, going in without our shield – agreeing to not use things like reasoning, rationalizing, deflecting, appeasing, placating, or yelling to shut things down – these are the things we use to protect ourselves during relationship conflict. We also agree to go in without our weapons – agreeing to not strike back even if we are slammed to the floor – we agree to not use things like criticizing, judging, interrogating, controlling, attacking, disapproving, or yelling to make a point. Being willing to share the things we fear the most about ourselves, knowing all the while that we may get punched in the gut yet, we agree to not punch back; we may get shot in the heart yet, we agree to not shoot back. Why would we agree to do such a thing? Because you are worth it; because the relationship is worth it! And because my greatest desire is that you feel the same way. Sue Johnson, author of “Hold Me Tight”, describes this desire to nurture one another and be truly connected with one another like two porcupines in the winter needing one another for warmth but knowing the danger of being poked with those horrid quills. I think the only way to accomplish this is Me coming to You belly-up with my vulnerabilities exposed asking you to trust that I will meet you in the middle of the arena wholeheartedly – not only with My best interest at heart but also with Your best interest at heart rather than, halfheartedly – thinking only of myself.

I can just see those little porcupines shivering with fright, holding onto one another tight, belly- to-belly, praying they make it through the night. Can’t you?

Written by Tammy Kennedy LPC

Mental Health and Relationship Counselor