You need to care deeply about what is happening for her and not so much about what she thinks of you.

Posted on November 13, 2014


Answer: Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except For Me and My Monkey

Question: What is the longest Beatles song title?

If you’re ever on Jeopardy and that comes up, now you know.  This is my longest blog post title.

If you have been reading my blog or my bio, you may already know that a large part of my practice is working in sexual addiction recovery.  On the whole, empathy does not come naturally to addicts.  Most have come from rigid and disengaged families of origin where discipline was harsh and there was little closeness.  Additionally, many of them have suffered trauma and abuse themselves.  Consequently, it makes sense that empathy is not their default position.  They did not receive it or see it modeled when growing up.

To my thinking, there are two aspects to empathy: 1) an experience of empathy, 2) a skill in communicating empathy.  You really need both.  The first is about being able to relate to the experience of another.  This is being able to understand what life looks like through the eyes and the emotional experience of another human being.  The second part is about being able to communicate to someone that you get what something was like for them.  In a marriage this is a critical skill.

I often coach married men that when your wife is upset, don’t make it about you.  If she brings a complaint and you start to defend, you just made it about you.  She essentially said, “I am having an experience and I would like you to understand what it is like for me.”  You essentially said, “Let’s skip that part and talk about me.”  If your reaction to your wife’s distress is, “I can never hit the mark,” or “I am a failure,” again, you made it about you.

Many of the men that I work with have wives who have been traumatized by the man’s sexual acting out.  Even when the man is doing a good job working his recovery, his wife can still be very reactive.  Sometimes this has nothing to do with what he said or did today.  It comes from the pain of past betrayal (“If you love me, how could you do what you did?”), and fear of what the future might hold (“How can I know you are really getting better and won’t do it again?”).  My best coaching is when she is in pain (even though you caused it), don’t make it about you.

A man this week asked me about how to not make it about him.  My answer was “You need to care deeply about what is happening for her and not so much about what she thinks of you.”  You need to care that your wife is in pain or sad or fearful.  When she is working through that pain, you can’t worry so much about what she thinks of you.  She may be totally misjudging your motives in a particular interaction.  She may accuse you of things you have not done.  Even if that pain is a result of what you did, her experience is still not about you.  The facts don’t matter.  It is about that she is in pain and she needs you to see that pain and to care about her pain.  Her perception of you and your recovery will grow as she feels more comforted by you.  Nothing you say in your own defense will help, and will in fact, slow the recovery process.  As you are better able to empathize, she will be better able to heal.  As she heals, your relationship can recover.  As your relationship recovers, then her feelings toward you will become more positive.