Do the Walls Come Down

This is a situation that therapist's see often enough; you might see yourself here.
Switch the she to a he, the he to a she, do whatever you want with the genders.  We'll get to Carly Simon after awhile. 
File this under empathy training.

A woman comes to therapy because she thought she had a great relationship with a man.  She has invested much time and emotional energy to make it work, and it did work, for over a year.

Now she finds that she's not sure about the two of them as a couple anymore. Something has happened. He did something, or hid something, has disappointed her somehow, and she feels very, very angry, although expressing anger is hard. She's not an angry person, and she's not the type that gets depressed, either.  So she's strangling, basically.

We discuss childhood, rather than what actually happened, aside from the bare facts, because we're interested in how she turned out as she did, someone who can avoid depression, someone who tends not to get angry. 

Sometimes placidity is what we get out of a functional family of origin, sometimes it is learned when the family is anything but functional.  Possessing calm is considered a genetic trait.  And sometimes, truly, one's defenses simply haven't been tested.

Not surprisingly, we hear that she had at least one physically abusive parent and no protector.  The patient's life lesson, her world view, is that it is admirable to be tough, smart to brace for pain, and best to breeze by things you cannot change, quickly. Get your coping skills in a row and use them.

As children, people like her study hard in school.  (One of the better things about being a child, for some of us, is that gift of concentrating even when as plates fly in the next room.)  Study is an escape from the fracas and it has its benefits: recognition and respect for good grades, fame as an achiever.  Self-esteem is salvaged from a dysfunctional childhood all thanks to esteeming educators.

We hear that our patient did excel, earned her degrees, and now earns a good living. She's a problem solver and a fixer in relationships at work, at home, and with friends. But he, her gentleman friend, has erred, and this is a problem she cannot fix. Only he can fix it, he says, and he is working on it.

Neither can escape the fact that his mistake has caused them distance. She won't throw him out, but she isn't warm and fuzzy, either. She wants to make it work, but can't generate any affection, has no desire to touch or hold him, even though he has apologized and is changing before her very eyes.  She can't trust the change, feels she has wasted time, a valuable commodity.

You can't wish away anger, is the truth. It has a mind of its own, has to be worked out over time, discharged not with words, necessarily, although these are good, but in our sleep, over television, at work, with each passing day.  Anger is invisible negative energy expressed, for some silently, over time, until it is gone.

She can't wish anger away because he deceived her and she trusted him, and trust is not her strong suit.  Well before he came around she learned that people disappoint and don't care about the disappointed. Disappointed now, her walls* are up, good, solid walls.

They can be so solid that even the builder can't tear them down, not at will, which is exactly why we say that anger has a mind of its own. Unresolved anger and disappointment are the equivalent of abandonment and loneliness.  She didn't sign up for this, didn't commit to it. And who says he won't do it again?  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Better to be alone. There's happiness in a predictable, sensible, good life.

She is in a place she has never been before.  Irrational, even to her, she still wants to protect her investment, so she self-reflects, wonders what she is doing wrong.  He has been told in therapy that he should talk to her more, should vent, complain, share his feelings. Except that she sees his complaining as self-pitying and childish. She offers solutions to his complaints and he shrugs, walks away, tells her she doesn't understand.

She feels that if anyone has the right to complain about, it would be her, she suffered far more in life. (She may not even voice this in therapy unless you ask, too ashamed of the family dysfunction.) His complaints about his boss, traffic, his sister not returning his calls, whatever, sound lame. She thinks he needs coping skills.  She wants someone autonomous, like herself-- a man.

You tell her, "He's human.  Bi-peds like to kvetch (rhymes with retch, Yiddish for complain).  It is healthy.  Part of being a partner is putting up with a little of that, maybe a lot."

"But he won't listen to my advice." 

"Did he ask for it?"

"No, but why bother talking about something if you don't want to fix it.  All he wants to do is complain and not fix anything."

Why bother talking indeed.  Because it feels good, and quells anxiety, dismisses scary thoughts, at least for a little while.  And it gets a nice response, if we're lucky:
Hey, that must have felt terrible!'  
Therapists say that about fifty times a week. You pay for that emotional validation. 

"But he's handling it all wrong!" she cries.

"And he's not ready to hear that."

"Adults want the truth." 

Not really.  Maybe we'll hear suggestions, stomach the truth, even begin to problem solve, after we are validated.  Maybe, if at all.

Think about it from her perspective.*  If you were hit as a child for not listening to your parents, or even if you did listen, then you might become quick to respond to the suggestions of others.  It is a conditioned response.  Those whose opinions mattered aren't so quick to have to change for others, or to please.  We want to express our thoughts, uninterrupted.  We want to be truly heard.

The psycho-education in a case like this is empathy training, working with the patient to find the missing piece in her interactions with others.  It is usually empathy that is missing, the good kind, the one that feels, senses the pain of others, emotional empathy. The other kind, intellectual empathy, is good, too, but it is not as good.  To intellectually empathize is to recognize the feelings of another, identify them, but not feel them, not personally.

The better empathy is the one that is emotionally involved, truly affected by the experience of the other.  Feeling the pain along with another may feel bad, but you glom on on anyway.  The boundaries between the two of you get gooey, and neither of you cares. This is love as a process, a verb, and it isn't only something between intimate partners. It is just love.

When you tell people about the two kinds of empathy, those who only intellectualize get a blank look on their faces.  But most of us feel something, faced with someone who is clearly emoting.  Probably the more others empathized with us as children, the more we will empathize with others.  But not necessarily.  Some say it is all in the genetics, and there is good reason to believe that to be the case.  Empathy can be learned regardless, but it will be harder for some than others.

What should she do, she asks you.  Her work, at least initially, isn't complicated.  She begins by listening patiently to her partner, noticing when he stops ranting, then says, Hey, that must have felt terrible! 

Nothing more, unless it is to mirror back what she heard.  So he really said that to you, that you probably should consider finding another job?  How awful!

For some of us, this is a foreign language. Growing up hard you learn to keep your mouth shut, or life will get worse.  Bow your head.  Keep quiet.  And whatever you do, get things done, and do a good job, avoid too much attention, you'll avoid harassment. And fix something.  problem solve.  This is the survivor's mantra.

Then along comes a partner, and what he needs in order to grow, to feel better, at least initially, is the option to do the very opposite, to do nothing, to talk out loud.


*Do the Walls Come Down is a Carly Simon song. I'm linking to a video with her singing it produced by Frequency

** Seeing something from the perspective of someone else, by definition is intellectually empathizing.


kg said…
I relate to this. I've learned the listening, emphathizing part, but am completely stuck on the part where partner wants me to reciprocate and share my feelings. I've never been allowed to have feelings. I wouldn't dare talk about them. It is feeling like a big flaw.
lynetteb said…
there are so many layers to how i can relate to this i won't even try to put it into words. except i was not the partner in my long-term marriage who could not empathize -- i was the "other one". it left me feeling insignificant at best, despised and worthless at its worst.

your post and insight just make me feel like crying for all that's been lost, from my point of view unnecessarily.

thank you.
Lisa said…
Thank you for this. The timing is perfect. As a therapist, I'm great at the intellectual empathy. Even in my marraige. But in order to survive not blurring those boundaries professionally, I have DEFINITELY blocked the emotional empathy. There's been much collageral damage from this...Achieving that balance takes mindfulness. ANd reminders!
therapydoc said…
kg, not a loser, no way. This is so much harder than it looks, and it isn't taught in school.

Lynette, thanks for sharing. It is only one reason I can name, off hand, to leave a relationship. A person shouldn't feel that way.

Lisa, they don't especially want us to cry along. But you know, in your gut, what the patient is really going through when you feel it, too.
Medkid said…
So this line totally made me laugh and cringe: "You pay for that validation". Yes, yes I do. Is that sad that I have to pay a professional for that? Maybe. Sometimes I wonder if it is. But let me tell you, today a bunch of doctors tried to bully my patient into chemotherapy using scare tactics and threats. So she in return grappling for some semblence of control in her totally seemingly out of control situation threatened to leave the hospital AMA. So I went downstairs, sat down, took a deep breath, listened to her, and then validated the crap out of every fear and hard emotion she spilled. I told her darn right it's not freaking fair that your cancer returned. Darn right you're angry and upset and scared you have every right to be. And you know what? She stayed. I never would have learned how to do that validation if I hadn't paid for someone to validate my own emotions and tough experiences. And perhaps that is why "everyone needs therapy." It makes us better to each other.
Medkid said…
P.S. Clearly therapy is working if this story is coming from someone who totally knew the survivor's mantra by heart even if I didn't know there was one!
therapydoc said…
You're marvelous, Medkid. Like I always say, the most basic social skills, like validation, should be taught in school.

I love this post! As my 17 year old son would say... "true that!" Especially regarding anger and love...
So many layers; the talking helps, of course, I believe it does.
So many couples in my practice struggling through gender differences, and the need for so much love and empathy from each other. Perhaps more than any one person can give.
Great post, I am 50 years old and still learning things about myself and loved ones on a daily basis.
porcini66 said…
Emotional vs. intellectual empathy - this is HUGE! I've always considered myself an empathetic person...but have never, ever been really able to feel anything (like someone above said, it simply wasn't "allowed"). I could understand why people would feel the way that they did, but not actually feel the feelings. You've given me a new way to understand this dichotomy and so...a new way to try to change it! Awww,'s what does a body good! :)

Thanks for this post, TD!
Liz said…
just this morning in my office.....again,i heard this story,
"This is love as a process, a verb, and it isn't only something between intimate partners. It is just love." How beautifully put.


One of the many wonderful things about the therapeutic relationship, regardless of which one of the chairs you're in, is that it is an abundant opportunity to learn how to tune in, both to the other person in the room, to the echoes from outside relationships and, perhaps most importantly, to yourself. To truly hear the anger, the sorrow, the joy - and to respond to what you hear in a meaningful way.
Thanks! we need more psych blogs in the mental health community!!
Anonymous said…
Wow... This is so relevant to my situation. It's is and has been a continual problem for me my whole life. I listen to those I love and immediately offer solutions, when they really need a hug instead. I need to internalize this post. I need to improve my relationships by gaining emotional empathy. Easier said than done, but my life depends on it.