Both empathy and sympathy are feelings concerning other people. Sympathy is literally ‘feeling with’ – compassion for or commiseration with another person. Empathy, by contrast, is literally ‘feeling into’ – the ability to project one’s personality into another person and more fully understand that person.
Today I begin a series of discussions with my wife, whom I have been separated from for a year and a half, on how we go forward. The life coach I’ve been working with asked me when I’m talking to my wife do I have sympathy or empathy. Her point was that sympathy has me feel what my wife feels without enough emotional distance. Empathy lets me understand what she is feeling without getting swept into her emotion. One of my concerns in talking to my wife is that she will well up with emotion, cry and I will melt and all my distance and independent thought goes by the wayside. I want to be empathetic to what she is going through, but maintain my goals as we step through the next part of our relationship.
So what are my goals? When my wife and I separated, I agreed to put my paycheck into our joint checking account to fund our joint expenses. At the time, this seemed like the price of my freedom. But as time has gone on, a few things have evolved. One, my son graduated from high school. He went to college this fall. I had assumed that my wife would go back to work when our son went to college, but she seem to have no intention to get a paying job. I would like to plan for a lower intensity job in a year or two, which would mean a lower paycheck. With a lower paycheck our lifestyle suddenly no longer works. We are spending way too much for me alone to support two homes and a son at school on a future lower salary.
A big component of our expenses is our house, which is a five bedroom house which now only my wife lives in, except for the short times my son is home from school. I would like to be able to keep our home for a few more years but sell it once our son is out of college.
When my wife and I separated, we had very little discussion about what is next. We only had one or two conversations, to my memory, about the finances and how they would work. Now a year and a half later it is time for us to talk.
One of the challenges I have faced is when my wife got sad, welled up with emotion, or cried, I melted inside. All I wanted to do at that point was to soothe her and make it all better. My mind would go blank and I could not think through what I wanted or what I felt. I guess I shut down.
A goal today is to feel empathy for her. To be empathetic to what she is going through or what emotions she might have without shutting down. I want to stay awake emotionally. I will need to keep my emotional distance, keeping my goals in mind, but at the same time still have compassion for what she is going through.
My life coach said that it takes two people to have an agreement. If I don’t agree, then there is no agreement. In the past there were lots of silent agreements that were never clearly articulated. I am hoping tonight to begin a dialogue that we can have that will be respectful, effective, clear, focused and begins to move us forward.
My long term goal is to get divorced. I want to sell our house and split our assets. I want to do this in a manner that is respectful, hopefully uses a mediator and not lawyers, and that we can move through in a reasonable time and process.
Tonight I hope for empathy.