Empathy When Your Partner is in Pain: A Path to Grow and Healing
Sex addiction is a serious issue that wreaks havoc on both the addict and their partner. When faced with the heart-wrenching pain of their betrayed partners, they often struggle to show empathy or even worse, they become angry and defensive leaving their partner more hurt, more confused and sometimes wondering if they are with a sociopath who is incapable of empathy.
A friend of mine, Jason, would always describe what he called an “empathy gap” with his husband. My friend was a sensitive, thoughtful man. Jason could show up and have empathy for his husband about many things but when his husband was upset at him he couldn’t access his empathy. He said it was like there was a gap there with no empathy at all. He felt confused and stymied in his inability to access empathy with the person most important to him.
Empathy is like the secret sauce that makes relationships work. But when it comes to sex addicts trying to show empathy for their betrayed partners who are in pain because of them, it seems to be challenging. This creates a problem because the betrayed partner who has already been hurt so deeply now needs to contend with the experience of not being able to talk about it or being attacked back.
Developing the ability to show up with empathy in the face of their partner’s pain is often more difficult than stopping acting out sexually and is an essential part of recovery.
It’s worth examining the reasons behind this struggle in order to shed light on how to help them truly understand and support their partners.
Many people who struggle with sexual addiction are actually very capable at displaying empathy. They can listen to others and show empathy to what they are going through. They can listen to their partners and show empathy too - as long as the source of the pain is someone else, not them. For example, if their partner is upset because of how someone else treated them, then they can show up, listen and be empathetic. The challenge is when their partner is upset and hurt because of them.
The difficulty in accessing that empathy in the face of the pain they have caused their partner starts with shame.
Sex addicts often carry a heavy load of shame due to their addiction and the negative core beliefs about themselves which fuels their addiction. When their partner shares the pain they are experiencing because of them, it mirrors back to them the most shameful parts of themselves and the reaction can be to either get big and defensive, shut down, or walk away. All of these are shame reactions.
Sex addiction in every form is all about intimacy avoidance. From watching pornography alone to having multiple relationships, the compulsive behaviors prevent intimacy with oneself and others.
Sitting with a partner in their pain because of your actions is a very intimate act. It requires the ability to be intimate with oneself about the uglier parts. Active addiction allows the addict to disconnect from these uncomfortable feelings and not feel them. When someone has had a lifetime of avoiding the most uncomfortable feelings, it becomes harder to access them which is what is required to show empathy.
Denial doesn’t just come in the form of not admitting having a problem. It comes in many forms. One of them is not feeling the full emotional impact of one’s actions. In the first months of recovery, even into the first year of recovery, denial in its various forms has to continuously be smashed. It takes a while for this to take hold but as this happens, they begin to comprehend the depth of their partner's pain.
Messages to men from a young age come in many forms of “be a man” which is equated with not showing weakness. Boys and men grow up internalizing this message that they can not show weakness. When confronted with someone’s pain and anger at them, they are faced with the fight, flight or freeze responses. Flight and freeze are considered to be weak options so the masculinity messaging they have grown up with leaves them with no option other than to fight which comes in the form of not just lacking empathy but even arguing, being defensive, or reversing the blame onto the other person. Unfortunately, this just increases the betrayed partners pain and confusion how their “special person” could act this way on top of the deceit and infidelity.
Empathy is the glue that holds relationships together and for sex addicts, it's a real struggle. The barriers of shame, intimacy avoidance, denial, (and masculinity messaging for male sex addicts) make it incredibly difficult for them to empathize with their hurt partners. This is not to excuse the lack of empathy or justify angry defensive and controlling reactions. Let me be clear - those reactions are unacceptable and harmful. What we are doing here is attempting to understand these baffling reactions that seem incongruent with the addicts recovery.
It's important to recognize that change is possible. Shame reduction, denial busting, emotional literacy and developing intimacy muscles can bridge the empathy gap, foster healing, and rebuild relationships on a foundation of understanding and compassion.
Individual therapy is a space where these issues can be explored deeply and worked on. Group therapy and 12 Step recovery are also key places where shame reduction happens as well as developing emotional literacy and building intimacy skills. For the sex addict, more healing comes from developing relationships with others than it does from reading books, doing step work or listening to podcasts. Learning to be more relational comes from having relationships not from workbooks.
At the Center for Intimacy Recovery, we help clients develop their ability to be more empathetic with their partners by 1. focusing on providing the psycho-education necessary to help develop better empathy skills; 2. breaking down denial and disconnection from self; 3. the way our therapists work relationally with their clients also focuses on being relational in the therapeutic relationship; 4. our groups are designed to help people develop more tolerance for intimacy and reduce shame, and 5. we strongly encourage our clients to develop more healthy relationships in their lives which helps them build their capacity for intimacy and to tolerate uncomfortable feelings which is necessary in order to have empathy.
If you or someone you know needs help in developing empathy please reach out to us now to schedule a consultation.