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How To Be Emotionally Supportive Of Your Partner Without Being Overwhelmed

Tips on how to engage in empathy with your partner without becoming burned out.

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Empathy Burnout

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When those we love, especially our romantic partners, are upset or stressed, we feel the need to support them and protect their well-being (Collins & Feeney, 2000). This is typically done by expressing empathy, and although empathy has many positive functions and allows us to support other, sometimes too much empathy can be a bad thing (Batson, 2011). Oftentimes when our partner is personally distressed, we can succumb to emotional contagion and take on their feelings ourselves (Hodgens, Biswas-Diener, 2007). If we become overwhelmed and burned out from emotionally supporting and providing empathetic responses to our partner, we can start to feel like our partner's stress is becoming a problem or burden for us. This can cause us to become anxious, angry, and even annoyed, which in turn causes us to be less empathetic overall (Collins, Kane, Metz, Cleveland, Khan, Winczewski, Bowen, & 2014 ). So how can we be supportive and empathetic while protecting our own emotional well-being in relationships that require excessive amounts of empathy and emotional support?

Types of empathy that can be exhausting over time:

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When dealing with empathy, we often feel empathic distress , which is when we begin to imagine how we might feel in others situations and focus on our own feelings related to that. We also engage in “imagine-self perspective”, which is when we think about how we would feel in our partners situation (Hodgens & Biwas- Diener, 2007; (Stephan & Finlay, 1999). Too much empathetic distress and imagine-self perspective can have negative effects such as becoming anxious and distressed ourselves, eventually leading us to use less empathic behaviors to protect ourselves from negative feelings(Collins et al., 2014) Therefore, if your partner is in need of constant support or going through distressing events such as issues with their family or their job, you should use less empathic distress, imagine-self perspective, and emotional reactivity, which is taking on and mirroring your partners feelings and emotions (Suwinyattichaiporn, 2016). It is important to know that engaging in empathetic distress and "imagine-self perspective" can be beneficial, but after repeated attempts at empathizing with your partner through this style it can become emotionally exhausting.

For instance, if your partner is constantly distressed by their family drama, such as their mother and father getting divorced, and they complain about it on a regular basis, it may become emotionally taxing for you to empathize in these ways when you are repeatedly exposed to the same situation. You may want to protect yourself from emotional distress, and oftentimes this may come in the form of withdrawal or expressing a lack of empathy. We do not want to withdrawal or become unsupportive, so we should express support and empathy in different ways to help both ourselves and our partners.i

How to protect yourself and still be empathetic:

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Rather than taking on ones feelings as our own and becoming distressed, we should try to engage in empathic concern, which involves feelings of warmth and concern for others (Hodgens & Biwas- Diener, 2007). We should also use “imagine-other perspective”, which deals with thinking about how your partner feels in a situation, rather than how you think you would would feel in that situation; this can mitigate personal distress (Stephan & Finlay, 1999). In other words, don’t focus on your own feelings, but imagine how the other person feels in order to create a slight emotional separation between yourself and your partner, which can help prevent emotional contagion (Hoffman, 1984). We can express our warmth, concern, support, and empathy for others, while protecting ourselves from emotional distress and social support burnout, through empathetic behaviors such as verbal affirmations, experience sharing, empathetic voice, and empathic touch (Suwinyattichaiporn, 2016).

For example, maybe your partner is constantly stressed about the demands of their job and it is taking a toll on then. You want to show support and empathy, but you do not need to emotionally take on their feelings and imagine how you would feel in their shoes. Instead, imagine how they must feel as a person separate from you, and show support by verbally affirming their best qualities or by comforting them by hugging them, speaking softly to them, or sharing similar past experiences. This way, by not mirroring and taking on their emotions through emotional reactivity, you don't allow yourself to become as emotionally involved and distressed, but are still able to provide them with the support and empathy they need.

References

Batson, C. D. (2011). Altruism in humans. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Collins, N. L., & Feeney, B. C. (2000). A safe haven: an attachment theory perspective on support seeking and caregiving in intimate relationships. Journal of personality and social psychology, 78(6), 1053.

Collins, N. L., Kane, H. S., Metz, M. A., Cleveland, C., Khan, C., Winczewski, L., Bowen, J., & Prok, T. (2014). Psychological, physiological, and behavioral responses to a partner in need: The role of compassionate love. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31(5), 601-629.

Hodges, S. D., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2007). Balancing the empathy expense account: Strategies for regulating empathic response. Empathy in mental illness, 389-407.

Hoffman, M. L. (1984). Interaction of affect and cognition in empathy. Emotions, cognition, and behavior, 103-131.

Stephan, W. G., & Finlay, K. (1999). The role of empathy in improving intergroup relations. Journal of Social issues, 55(4), 729-743.

Suwinyattichaiporn, T. (2016). Conceptualizing and Operationalizing Empathetic Expressions: Scale Development, Validation, and Message Evaluation. Arizona State University.

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