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Unilateral Empathy in Couples Therapy

By Karen R. Koenig, LICSW, M.Ed.

During the therapy hour, there are few situations more challenging than remaining neutral as the couple before us wages weekly warfare. We know what is expected of us: to be objective, neutral, unbiased, provide parallel support, repair whatever is broken in the partners and in the relationship. With some couples, neutrality is effortless and our empathy slides from one partner to the other; there is no right or wrong party, only a double dose of pain and unhappiness. With other couples, we find ourselves truly torn, as our hearts champion first one partner, then the other, with equal enthusiasm, a situation which generally maneuvers us back into a neutral position, right where we belong. On occasion, remaining neutral is not an option: when one partner is physically abusing the other, we are compelled to voice our opinion loudly and clearly - love is not a contact sport and the abuser’s behavior should not be tolerated.

But what happens when, try as we might to see both sides, our empathy, and along with it our allegiance, is drawn to only one partner? What happens when we contract a fierce case of "sympathetic towards," a case of "prejudiced against"? When we mean to be equal opportunity empathizers, but can’t help feeling that one partner is being unfairly trounced upon, sorely neglected, mistreated, maligned, misunderstood. He is wildly insulting and hardly appears to give a fig for her feelings. She never seems satisfied, no matter how much he bends. She won’t let go of his past betrayals; he won’t let her win an argument. We hope she’ll end her misery and walk out; we wish he’d find someone who really deserves him.

It is a common enough experience, this internal taking of sides, one which can be disturbing both in theory and practice. After all, we are stringently educated to treat "the unit," guided by supervisors toward nonalignment, discouraged by books, articles and workshops from getting caught up in the "who’s right?" game. No wonder we feel trapped in a terrible bind when our mind tries to remain on the sidelines while our heart takes sides.

When we are mindful and notice that we are drifting off course toward one partner - and always therefore, away from the other - the therapeutic antidote is to turn about and head toward a more neutral position. We know the drill and ask ourselves the usual questions. From where does the pull toward this partner originate? Is it coming from within us as countertransference or from the partner who is fighting hard to win us over? Are we being overtly or covertly triangulated, caught up in a tug-of-war between partners, maneuvered into a game of monkey in the middle?

We may bring up the case in consultation session and solicit advice from colleagues. Meaning to set things right, we may even redouble our efforts to understand the unsympathetic partner’s perspective, slip our feet farther into their shoes, delve more deeply into their history, try and place their behavior in a less undesirable context or more positive light. Naturally we will visit and revisit our own feelings, experiences, tendencies, traumas, and current life situation. We will search for clues - and more clues - to explain this unaccountable conjugal drift.

And yet, after all the self-examination and discussion, we may find that we are still internally taking sides, still secretly rooting for one partner, convinced that she’s getting a raw deal or that he’s wasting his time trying to change her. If we are merciful toward ourselves, we will feel curious, intrigued, challenged by the strength of the current pulling us along, eager to solve the mystery. If we are less forgiving, we will feel guilty, incompetent, inadequate, ashamed, a failure.

Dove-tailing patterns, co-dependence, countertransference, empathic failure, and triangulation aside, could it be that there are times when our unilateral empathy is telling us something important, something crucial for us to know if we are to help the couple? One obvious interpretation of bias is that one partner is an unsympathetic character, not only to his/her partner but to us, and most likely to many others. If we, as highly trained, professional empathizers are unable to make and keep a true connection to this partner, is it not probable that he or she is doing something (more likely, lots of somethings) to elude our empathy? And, if so, what does this mean to the potential of the partners to mend fences? Can a partner who continues to evade our empathy and, presumably that of his/her partner, really ever approach the fence closely enough to see the damage, never mind mend it?

Another possible interpretation of our unilateral empathy is that there exists more potential for health, that is, mental health, in one partner than in the other. Our bias may mean that the partners no longer function on the same level of differentiation nor seek (nor avoid) the same level of intimacy. They may have begun their relationship with similar levels, may have come into treatment with them, but, along the way, one of them may have taken a turn toward health.

Secretly rooting for one partner in couples therapy is something neither to be ignored nor ashamed of. It is, instead, natural, inevitable, and profoundly diagnostic. Think grist, not guilt; information, not inadequacy. How we choose to operationalize recognition of our unilateral empathy depends upon our therapeutic approach and style, the length and type of treatment involved, the stage of the couple’s relationship, and the quality of our rapport with each of the partners.

A good rule of thumb is to keep trying to engage the unsympathetic partner while strongly supporting the sympathetic one. All things being equal, the unsympathetic partner will likely continue to turn away our empathy. Nevertheless, our efforts will accomplish two important goals. First, they will show the sympathetic partner that his/her experience is valid: their partner is hard to connect with, relate to, engage. By repeatedly mirroring this failure, we are reinforcing the sympathetic partner’s accurate perceptions which will, hopefully, lead them to realize in whom the faulty connection lies, that is, not within them. Second, continued efforts to empathize with the unsympathetic partner show good faith on our part and reaffirm that we are not taking sides and favoring one partner over the other.

An alternate intervention might be to lay the unilateral empathy issue out on the table for the couple (in a most empathic way, of course). By wondering aloud, we enlist the partners’ curiosity about why this dynamic is occurring, in a way that relates back to their relationship. Obviously, the one tack we want to strenuously avoid is acting out the fact that we are secretly rooting for one partner. Even though we may feel at the time that we are being helpful by doing so, this behavior will do nothing to aid the partners in resolving their intrapsychic or relationship problems. Not only will it impede the resolution process, but it may leave us feeling guilty and ashamed of a well intentioned but inevitably untherapeutic impulse.

A feeling of unilateral empathy toward one partner in couples therapy is no different than the myriad of feelings that arise within us in the course of a session. Our inclination toward bias merely generates useful information for us and, subsequently, for the couple. In the short run, this feeling may discomfort us. In the long run, its artful application will surely make us better couples’ therapists.

FOCUS Newsletter - June 2000


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