Empathy is being able to understand what someone else is feeling or being able to see a situation from another person's point of view. The capacity to have empathy for another is essential for the success of intimate relationships. This is an obvious statement, but it is easier said than done.
When moods drop, and mental and emotional bandwidths shrink, empathy is hard to come by.
Humans tend to make assumptions and not realize they are doing so. We live in separate realities created through the filter of our thought systems and don't realize how far apart the way we see things might be from our partner.
Assumptions often lead to misunderstandings.
Couples often take it personally when their partner misunderstands them. For example, when someone has good intentions, and their partner reacts to their action as hurtful and unkind, it is easy to feel hurt that your partner would think you were being unkind or insensitive. Even if the act was unkind or uncaring, we feel hurt because our partner doesn't see our intentions were good, even when our behavior was misguided.
A therapist that Angus works with at the treatment center where he consults recommends couples "hallucinate good intent." This is a great practice and will work when we are of sound mind.
Empathy is natural when people love each other and are in a good state of mind. The desire to understand each other is normal. When couples are in a good mood they easily give each other the benefit of the doubt and have room for their partner to have their emotional experience knowing their partner will stabilize and return to themselves if they are struggling. This kind of empathy is usually when one person in the relationship has not lost their bearings.
But relationships can be difficult and even feel impossible when two people lose their bearings and get caught up in low-mood thinking and feelings.
So when moods drop, and rationality goes out the window, what then?
This is code red in relationships and can result in what Angus calls the dance of death.
The most important thing about code red in relationships is understanding when you are in code red. Unlike machines with warning lights that come on to tell you they are malfunctioning, we don't have a light on our forehead to let us and those around us know we have dropped into a low mood and lost perspective.
So it is essential to recognize the warning signs of code red within you and to get familiar with what the outward signs of code red are for your partner.
That way, you will get better at recognizing when to take a step back from the relationship if your partner isn't able to be supportive at that time and focus on your self-care.
Your nervous system gives you feedback to help you recognize when you are in code red. When you are in distress, you will feel it and likely experience behaviors that fall into one of the categories of the fight, flight, freeze, and faun responses.
Here is an article that describes these responses in more depth:
Common signs and behaviors that let you know your nervous system is dysregulated:
- Feeling a rush of adrenaline.
- Becoming argumentative
- The impulse to fight, yell, throw things
- balling your hands into fists, feeling a knot in your stomach, crying, tight jaw
- Feeling the need to escape
- Avoiding communication
- Feeling immobilized
- Spacing out
- Feeling numb
- Feeling confused
- Not feeling present
- Feeling checked out
- engaging in pacifying behaviors.
- diffusing conflict at the expense of your needs
- Approval seeking
These responses don't mean anything about you. They are involuntary, and they are all healthy. However, it is helpful to recognize what the signals are so you know your nervous system is dysregulated. This is important feedback regarding your state of mind. When you recognize that your nervous system is dysregulated, it is time to forget about the relationship and whatever problems you perceive, and instead, focus on settling your nervous system. That way, you can take care of yourself and have fewer instances of code red in your relationship.
The fewer experiences of code red there are, the less damage is done to rapport and goodwill, and the easier it is to find common ground with separate realities and feel empathy for each other.
Also, you get better at noticing when you have moved into code yellow so you can take care of yourself sooner. This allows you to give your partner a head's up about how you are doing and take preventive measures without ever getting to code red status.
It is okay to be on the learning curve of navigating our feelings, caring for yourself, and learning to love each other. We all come to relationships with our tender spots that will be touched by our partners, often innocently. Couples in healthy relationships allow room for this and understand that their primary responsibility is their well-being. This is not selfish. It is the greatest gift you can give to yourself and your partner.
Rohini Ross is co-founder of “The Rewilders.” Listen to her podcast, with her partner Angus Ross, Rewilding Love. They believe too many good relationships fall apart because couples give up thinking their relationship problems can’t be solved. In the first season of the Rewilding Love Podcast, Rohini and Angus help a couple on the brink of divorce due to conflict. Angus and Rohini also co-facilitate private couple's intensive retreat programs that rewild relationships back to their natural state of love. Rohini is also the author of the ebook Marriage, and she and Angus are co-founders of The 29-Day Rewilding Experience and The Rewilders Community. You can follow Rohini on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To learn more about her work and subscribe to her blog visit: TheRewilders.org.