Scientific research these days is turning some old concepts on their heads. For those of us who have believed that humans are aggressive, competitive, and always looking out for number one, current research says, “Wait a minute. That isn’t necessarily so, and may never have been so.” The gist of the research is that humans have succeeded more through cooperation than competition, in part because our brains and nervous systems are soft-wired to feel what others feel. Mirror neurons in the brain allow us to feel the experiences of others. So if someone who is deliriously happy is nearby, we actually pick up on joy. Similarly, if someone is suffering, we literally feel their pain. We may not feel at with the intensity that they experience it, but we feel it nevertheless. This is empathy.
In general, empathy connects us to others. It can be hazardous, however, in divorce. Sometimes clients feel so worried about the spouses they are leaving that they fail to consider their own needs. A client recently told me that her husband wanted to celebrate certain holidays with her family, even though they are separated and will shortly be divorced. She was conflicted, she said, because he has no family, and she felt so sad for him. But the truth was that she felt he would be intruding on her family at a time when she craved the support of her parents and siblings.
It was time to say no. But not easy.
When boundaries are shifting, when a relationship is in the process of being restructured, things can get murky. It’s very important to test out your own feelings first. Do you want to say yes? It may be hard to say no, but saying no, setting new limits, is part of altering your relationship. If you fall into empathy, feeling for your spouse, who’s taking care of you?
Empathy is a marvelous phenomenon; we can truly feel what others are feeling. But we need to be wary of empathy that becomes self-sacrifice. In a divorce, empathy for yourself—self-care—comes first.