Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another sentient being. Addicts often behave as if they lack this ability. This does not mean addicts can’t feel empathy; it does mean they choose to ignore it if and when they feel it. This is especially apparent with partnered sex addicts. These individuals don’t intend to hurt their partners by cheating, they simply choose to ignore any pangs of empathy that might pop up. If they had active empathy for their partner, they wouldn’t cheat. They would think about how their behavior will make their partner feel, and then they would walk away. In the moment, however, they push those thoughts aside and do what they want.
Interestingly, women tend to naturally be more empathetic than men. If a woman’s best friend has been diagnosed with a fatal disease, the non-ill woman will feel the same emotional anguish as her friend. Because that’s how women are wired. Men, on the other hand, tend to skip the feelings and start looking for a solution. And yes, this is a generalization. There are plenty of exceptions to this. But in general, women are better at empathy than men. And pretty much everyone is better at empathy than addicted men.
This does not, however, mean that addicted men cannot feel empathy. In fact, we do. For example, in my active addiction I played on a softball team. One day our pitcher took a line drive to the groin. My immediate and unconscious reaction was to wince in pain and grab my own groin. I experienced our pitcher’s physical pain even though I wasn’t the one who got hit. That’s a form of empathy. So, like many men, even in my addiction I was pretty good at empathy when it comes to physical pain. At the same time, like many men, especially addicted men, my empathy disappeared when it came to the emotional stuff.
At this point, you might be wondering how to develop empathy. Intellectually, you likely realize that your behavior in active sex addiction hurt your partner deeply. You might also realize that if you could fully understand that pain, you might use that understanding to help your partner heal. At the very least, understanding your betrayed partner’s pain – feeling that pain with your partner – would make it significantly easier to understand and be patient with your wounded mate’s emotional rollercoaster. But how do you step into your partner’s shoes and experience your partner’s feelings?
First things first: You need to listen. And I’m not talking about listening with just your ears. Listen with your mind and your heart. Try to identify your partner’s feelings as you listen. If you are struggling to identify what your betrayed partner is thinking and feeling, don’t be afraid to ask. Simply look your partner in the eye and say, “What I heard you say is A, B, and C, and I think that you might be feeling X, Y, and Z. Is that the case? If not, please help me understand because I really want to be able to feel this with you.”
To help you with this process, I suggest you look for the following thoughts and feelings:
- Fear of further loss and abandonment.
- Shame (feeling unworthy of love, as if the cheating is somehow his/her fault and he/she deserved it and can never expect anything better from you or anyone else).
- Self-doubt (fearing that whatever move he/she makes will be the wrong one).
- Anxiety (the constant fear that something bad is lurking around the corner).
- Worries about the future related to finances, separation/divorce, caring for the kids, etc.
- Intrusive thoughts and mental pictures of the cheating.
As you work to develop empathy, do not expect to get it right immediately. Deciphering another person’s thoughts and feelings is not easy, and you won’t learn how to do it overnight. At times, you may need to say things like: “I sense that you’re feeling some anxiety right now. Is that correct? And if it is, can you explain what you’re anxious about? I really want to understand what you’re feeling.” The good news is that even when your attempts at empathy are not on target, your betrayed partner is likely to appreciate the effort you are making.
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If you or someone you care about is struggling with sex, porn, or substance/sex addiction, help is available through the free resources website, SexandRelationshipHealing.com, Seeking Integrity’s low-cost online workgroups, and Seeking Integrity’s residential treatment center.