Transformational Wisdom 2: Transforming Relationships with Empathy

Last month I shared about the concept of ENUF as a way of being with each other that encompasses Empathy, Non-judgment, Unconditionality and Focus on the Feeling to help deepen communication and connection. “Yes, but HOW do I do this?” you may be wondering. ‘What does this look like in a relationship?”

Years ago, before I was a marriage counselor, I facilitated a peer-support group for parents of children with special needs.

A member of my support group came in, dragging her husband behind her. She plunked him down in front of me and demanded angrily, “You fix him!” I had a moment of panic. I was a mom running a support group; I cannot fix anyone. Just as I gathered myself together, she added to the pressure: “Because if you don’t, I am getting a divorce.” You get the picture, right? The room is silent. He feels humiliated in front of the other group members and I am thinking this really is not going well. Trying not to look panicked, I asked her, “Well, what’s the problem?” “He won’t talk about it!” she choked out. The “it” being the recent diagnosis of autism in their three-year-old son. I silently prayed for guidance and felt to start group as I typically would. In time, one of the other dads began to talk about the dreams he had had for himself as a father, of playing ball with his son in the yard like he had wished his father had done with him. He shared the deep pain he had at realizing that his son’s Down syndrome had robbed him of this. The husband of the angry woman nodded his head and began to speak. He had just begun to share his own feelings about how autism was shattering his dreams around being a father and coaching his son’s Little League games. The pain was deeply etched on his face when his wife blurted out, “You don’t feel that way! Don’t say that. You don’t know what he is going to be able to do yet. There are special ball teams he can play on.”

I looked at her, and then at him, and asked him, “Does she always do that?” He said, “Yes, why do you think I don’t talk.” I thought for a minute and then asked him “Why do you think she does that?” I won’t tell you what he said but I responded with “Hmm, maybe but, I have a thought about that. Would you like to hear it?” He said that yes, he would and so I continued. “I think that your wife loves you so much that when she hears your pain about your son’s diagnosis, and she knows how much it hurts, she doesn’t want you to feel that way, so she does something to try to take it away. Something like telling you not to feel it, or that everything will be fine because, after all, they have ‘special teams’ for kids like ours.” The tears began to flow and they started to talk, to each other, about their feelings and about the autism for the first time. I do not know what ever happened to that couple. Although I do not remember their names, or faces, or even if their child’s actual disability was autism, I will never forget the lesson they taught me that night.[1]

When I first started focusing on ENUF as a way of being with each other, I shifted the way I interacted with my husband.

 My husband, a reserved, quiet man who lives in a world of numbers was not particularly open with his thoughts and feelings. So, I started out with simple things at first as he would talk about his day. I found I could reflect an occasional “That must have been frustrating,” or “Sounds like it meant a lot to you to be able to present that report to the company.” Then he started to talk about other things: his thoughts about our children, and his hopes, fears, and ambitions. I found the guy had a whole lot to say when I stopped giving advice, passing out judgment, or interrupting with my two cents![2]

Change happens in the present moment. We can’t change what we can’t see. The first step then is to increase your awareness of when you are:

  • feeling an urgency to give unsolicited advice
  • caught up in the story instead of focusing on the feeling or
  • having a judgmental thought

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One way to steady yourself is to memorize this quote and when you catch yourself responding in the old ways recite it to yourself: “Love is the ability to tolerate our own emotions for the benefit of our loved one’s growth and development.”[3]

It can take time to develop empathy but perfection is not attainable or even necessary. It is in the effort of empathy that our relationships are healed and connection is enhanced.

 

Adapted from excerpts in From Heartache to Hope for Latter-day Saints by Stacey B. Thacker, MA, LMFT

Links:

You are ENUF https://kentstead-media.com/2020/10/04/transformational-wisdom/?mc_cid=ac14bf12ed&mc_eid=ad1e422f08

 

[1] Thacker, S. (2018) From Heartache to Hope for Latter-day Saints

[2] Thacker, S. (2018) From Heartache to Hope for Latter-day Saints

[3] Shaw, J. (2002). Personal Conversation

Stacey B. Thacker, MA, LMFT

Stacey B. Thacker is a licensed marriage and family therapist, presenter, writer, educator, lifecoach and consultant who has devoted her career to walking with individuals and families during times of transition and growth. She is co-owner of Roubicek & Thacker Counseling in Fresno, CA. where she supervises associates in the art of psychotherapy. She specializes in sex addiction treatment, relationship betrayal trauma and food addiction recovery.

Stacey has provided From Heartache to Hope and Compassion Fatigue workshops for professionals in the helping fields since 1991. Her book Supporting Others From Heartache to Hope, based on these successful workshops, will be released soon. The Art of Ministering From Heartache to Hope for Latter-day Saints was published in 2018.

She has written the My Food Addiction Recovery Plan workbook and its companion My Transformation Journal. These self-help books are designed to be used by individuals beginning their recovery from food addiction. Additionally, Stacey has written the 13-part Lifestyle Transformation Workbooks designed for therapists and life-coaches working with individuals struggling with compulsive-eating. Stacey’s Author Page

Stacey teaches in the marriage and family therapy graduate program at the University of Phoenix and online for Brigham Young University- Idaho. She and her husband John have been married 41 years, raised 6 children and have 7 adorable grandchildren who fill their lives with love.