I am thinking a lot about empathy these days — defensively, I
might add — because my wife, Anne, keeps accusing me of lacking
this quality in relation to her. Of course, I readily agree. I
sympathize with her pain but stop short of empathizing with it. My
saying this infuriates her even more, and she is the kind of person
who has no shyness about retaliating. I explain that what feeble
mechanism I might have for empathy is nullified when I’m attacked:
I cannot identify with a person who wishes to cut me to ribbons.
That is my imaginative limitation.
At what point, I wonder, did the word empathy begin to displace
sympathy? Empathy isn’t even in my 1971 Oxford English Dictionary.
This may reflect the more reserved character of the British; one
assumes the rage for empathy began on this side of the Atlantic.
(See Bill Clinton’s ‘I feel your pain.’) The most recent edition of
the American Heritage Dictionary tells us that while sympathy
‘denotes the act or capacity for sharing in the sorrows or troubles
of another,’ empathy ‘is a vicarious identification with and
understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.’
To me, sympathy suggests a humane concern for others’ positions or
plights, based partly on a generalized ethic of compassion for all
living things. Empathy conveys, to my mind, a more sticky, ghoulish
shadowing that stems from the arrogant delusion that one can
actually take on, or fuse with, another person’s feelings.
It is possible that my wife wants to recapture that sense of
romantic communion, usually strongest during the infatuation phase,
when lovers’ hearts are said to beat as one. But I can’t help
suspecting she got this empathy bug after a session with her
Since then, as a result of our frequent bickering and my wife’s
conviction that her therapist is a marvelous person, we have
entered into couples counseling with Larry. To my surprise, he is a
marvelous person. Wise, reasonable, scrupulously even-handed, and
empathic — perhaps to a fault. Sometimes, when he commiserates
about the pressures we are operating under — raising a 3-year-old
with health problems while juggling our careers — I begin to
wonder about this warm compassion, the depth of which, it seems to
me, ought to be reserved for Romanian coal miners, not yuppies like
In one session, we were recounting a disagreement we had had the
night before. As it happened, about sex. We had been going through
a dry spell, mostly because of my wife’s preoccupation with our
baby daughter and mistrust of my capacity to empathize with her.
Now she said she was getting ready to consider doing it again, and
I replied, like an idiot, something to the effect that I’ll believe
it when I see it.
Larry offered an alternative script, giving us the lines that, in
his view, we might more profitably have spoken. I was to compliment
her on making this overture to an advance, and if I still needed to
express skepticism, she was to show that she understood my feeling
‘vulnerable’ because I’d been starved for sexual affection. Larry
then asked what I thought would happen if Anne had replied that
way. Feeling the old obligation to speak the truth in therapy, I
took a deep breath and said that his suggestions had nothing to do
with life as it is lived; that he was trying to indoctrinate us to
talk the new, totalitarian Empathy Speak.
‘Are you really against empathy?’ he asked, somewhat
‘I am, yes — ‘
‘You see?’ Anne said. ‘You see what I have to put up with?’
I went on to say that I was for sympathy, that old-fashioned term.
The people I admire most, like two friends of mine, both in their
70s, operate out of a moral code older than empathy that
acknowledges that the gap between two souls can never be entirely
bridged. Nor should it. I thought of my old professor, Lionel
Trilling, who questioned D.H. Lawrence’s hunger for total honesty
by saying: ‘Why should two people have no secrets from each other?’
On the other hand, there is much in the present culture that
promotes an exaggerated or false empathy, like the figure of the
talk show host, the Great Listener — Oprah or Geraldo — whom I
As you might imagine, this did not go over well. I saw that my
attempts to explain myself were perceived as inappropriately
‘academic,’ therefore cold, removed from emotions and the business
at hand. (Interesting that therapy today has that anti-intellectual
edge. This is no place to start thinking.)
When people start speaking of reason as a ‘defense,’ I get nervous,
considering where the irrational has taken us in this century. And,
grateful as I am for Larry’s willingness to help straighten out our
problems, I can’t help watching my tongue now in counseling
sessions. I have a lingering suspicion that couples therapists
train you to say not what you genuinely feel, but what is less
confrontational, all the while telling you that they want you to be
in touch with your feelings. They want you to make nice.
I suspect I will never be able to empathize with the panic and
depression my wife sometimes feels — for the simple reason that
both terrify me too much. I grew up far too close to such emotions
in my parents, and it took all my strength to distance myself from
their debilitating pull so as to form a workable, reasonably
cheerful self. Where does that leave the marriage? My wife still
hungers for a more empathetic soul mate, while I am equally
convinced that I am realistically offering something else that is
of value. Call it an understanding of limits, based on the
intractability of human nature and the intensely problematic — not
to say tragic — dilemma of modern marriage.
Given my empathy-challenged situation, I am faced with the choice
of trying to fake an empathy orgasm — a distasteful proposition —
or waiting out my wife’s rage, hoping that in the end she will come
to accept my defects, as I hope and pray to accept hers.
Forbearance, resignation, and stoicism still seem to me the only
way to go. Someone once said, ‘genius is a long patience.’ I don’t
know about genius, but I would maintain that marriage is a long
patience — at least when you’re committed to making the marriage
last.Phillip Lopate is the author of
Portrait of My Body and editor of Anchor Essay
Annual. Adapted from Family Therapy Networker (Nov./Dec.
1997). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (6 issues) from 8528 Bradford Rd.,
Silver Spring, MD 20901.