Most of us are capable of empathy in the simple form. We can take the perspective of someone else, even if just for a moment. Sometimes we can even feel their pain. But while most of us would say we’re empathetic, fewer people identify as “empaths.” We may, however, know people who do. More specifically, we may be in a serious relationship with someone who identifies as such. Is loving an empath different than other relationships?
What Makes Empaths Different?
While the term “empath” originated in the science fiction realm, some clinical psychologists and social neuroscientists have given the term a more scientific meaning. They define empaths generally as those who report being able to feel the emotions of others in their own bodies (referred to as “affective empathy,” whereas the rest of us would call our empathetic characteristics “cognitive empathy”).
Researchers have recently applied scientific tools such as neuroimaging to the measurement of these abilities, though there’s no consensus
on an empathy spectrum or where true empaths might begin to fall on it.
[Read: “What Does it Mean to Be a True Empath?”]
Empaths are often highly attuned to what’s going on around them, both in other people and in the natural world. In fact, in certain situations, they can be overcome by these feelings and find them debilitating, leading to stress and anxiety. That’s why empaths are often (but not always) introverts and frequently need time alone to recharge and recenter themselves. Emotional overload can even manifest psychosomatically, leading to physical discomfort.
Loving an Empath
Being in a relationship with someone who is so sensitive to the feelings of others can be a challenge. As a partner, you may be empathetic and even compassionate but still struggle to understand how an empath experiences the world. This can lead to feelings of frustration, isolation, loneliness, confusion, and a loss of intimacy.
While there are resources available for empaths when it comes to self-care, we don’t often focus on what it’s like to be in a relationship with someone who identifies as an empath. You’re probably wondering how you can support your partner while avoiding your own frustrations.
Judith Orloff, MD, a psychiatrist, empath, and the author of The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People has written about relationship strategies for empaths and their partners. Her suggestions include discussing and negotiating how much time you will spend as a couple in social situations and being open to giving an empath space to decompress afterwards, or making physical space in your home that is free of possible interruptions (she even suggests separate bedrooms, when necessary). The outcomes will look different depending on the partnership, which makes sense since no two relationships look the same. The key here is open communication, which is at the core of any healthy relationship.
[Read: “5 Core Practices for More Meaningful Conversations.”]
One of the most difficult parts of being in a relationship is learning to respect the boundaries of the person you care for and recognizing that where and why they set those boundaries isn’t necessarily about you. We tend to take it personally when someone asks for space, but as long as everyone is clear about when, where, and why this needs to happen, it lays the groundwork for being able to sort through your emotions later. It’s also important to note that setting boundaries is integral to all relationships, both professional and personal. Seeing how your empathic partner takes time for themselves might just give you the motivation to follow their lead.
Do’s and Don’ts for Loving an Empath
Do: Acknowledge any fear of intimacy your partner may have and encourage them to take time to work through their feelings.
Don’t: Let yourself fall into a state of loneliness and doubt because you’re not sure why your partner needs time alone.
Do: Consider how confrontation affects them emotionally and even physically and keep conversations focused on the primary issues affecting the health of the relationship.
Don’t: Stifle all of your own feelings for fear of affecting your partner. You have the right to voice your needs calmly and honestly, and you could sabotage your relationship by depriving your partner of your honesty.
Do: Beware of people-pleasing behaviors in your partner; there may be times when they are sacrificing their mental health just to avoid getting into an argument with you.
Don’t: Take advantage of their non-confrontational nature in order to get your way.
Do: Understand that there will be times when you’re disappointed that your empathic partner isn’t up for something you’d enjoy doing together. Our needs don’t always match up to our desires, and while empaths can challenge themselves to be more social by practicing calming techniques and other self-care techniques, there will still be times when you’re disappointed.
Don’t: Let your partner dictate your social life in a way that makes you feel stifled or detached. Co-dependency is a risk in any relationship, but the key is to remember that a couple is made up of two individuals with different needs and that both people need to be respected.
Do: Find activities, friendships, and self-care mechanisms that make you feel fulfilled when your partner needs space.
Don’t: Assume you need to lead two separate lives. Sharing the details of your day and your happiness with your partner is necessary and healthy.
Do: Encourage an empath going through a tough time to seek professional help from a qualified therapist and practice self-care.
Don’t: Treat your partner’s empathic nature as a condition to be cured. People can manage their issues and grow out of maladaptive responses, but asking them to change their nature isn’t productive.
Not everyone will be happy in a relationship with an empath—and that’s fair. But not all empaths are the same either. They aren’t all introverts or highly sensitive to the same things. Believing you understand someone in their totality just because of a label such as “empath” won’t help you truly get to know them as an individual. And that’s truly the key to creating and maintaining a good relationship.
Who do you love? Is your soulmate an ideal partner or someone who offers spiritual growth?