Toxic Relationships: The Empathy Trap
People who are unfamiliar with narcissistic relationships or toxic, abusive relationships in general often ask why people stay in them. A common answer is "fear," and while that is certainly the case in some situations, it doesn't seem to be the reason for a majority of people. The answer for most people actually seems to be empathy.
The Trap is Laid
That sounds weird, right? How can empathy keep you in an abusive relationship? But the truth is, most people in abusive relationships love the abuser. They see the other things - the things outside the abuse. They see that this person is lost, lonely, broken. They see that the abuser is often someone who has a large amount of difficulty with life in general. The abuser may have a mental illness, disorder or other psychological problem that causes enormous trouble and pain. Victims don't ignore the abuse, but they balance it against all of these other things until it seems understandable, maybe even acceptable.
After all, everyone feels sorry for a victim. And the truth is, most abusers either are or were a true victim at some point in time. They may have been one in childhood, or they may be one now because they have psychological or emotional problems. It is completely understandable and healthy to feel empathy and sympathy for people in that situation.
The Trap Springs Shut
That being said, it is not healthy to have so much empathy or sympathy for someone that you believe their well-being is more important than your own. It is not healthy to have so much empathy or sympathy for someone else's problems that you believe your own safety is less important than their feelings.
This is not OK, but it is often what happens in abusive relationships of all types:
"He hit me because he was mad."
"She blew up because she was stressed out."
These are common rationalizations we hear from victims of abuse. They all center around the idea that the abuser's feelings are more important than anything else - certainly more important than the safety of other people in the home. This is nonsense. While this idea is of course advanced by the abuser, it is also accepted and even reinforced by the victim and the victim's own beliefs. Victims may even hand their abusers excuses in their efforts to make sense out of the abusive behavior, and to make everything OK. In this situation, often the victim and the abuser work together to convince each other that the abuse was a freak thing and that this is not who the abuser really is, or how the relationship actually works.
"What's the problem? Why are you doing this? Are you tired from working?"
Then the abuser might say, "Yes, that's the problem." Now the behavior becomes justified or even acceptable every time the abuser is tired from working. The victim may offer other excuses at other times, and the abuser will certainly offer plenty of their own (along with blame for the victim), and soon, there is nothing left that is not an excuse. If they're tired, if they're hungry, if they're angry, if they're sad, if they're stressed, if they're drunk, if they're high, if they're sad, if they're jealous, if they're scared... Eventually no situation exists where their behavior is not excused. If they don't have an excuse, the victim is the excuse: "Well, you did this! You did that! You made me act that way!"
How It Happens
While it is a common belief that abuse victims stay because they believe the abuser's promises to change, that doesn't actually seem to be true. Most abuse victims know what time it is. They know exactly what is going on, and exactly what they are dealing with. They hope the abuser will change and they love the abuser, but they don't actually believe the abuser is going to change. They may have hoped that for a short time in the beginning of the relationship, but most seem to realize relatively quickly that it is not going to happen. So why do they stay in the relationship anyway? Conditioning.
We always hear that, in intimate relationships, abusers brainwash their victims after a fashion and there is some validity to that, but the truth is that most victims were already conditioned before they ever met their abuser. Many adult victims of abuse have been conditioned since childhood to believe that they are responsible for other people and that their own needs, feelings, well-being and safety are just not important. This conditioning does not just affect how someone interacts with their abuser. It affects how they interact with everybody, and even when they break away from the original conditioning environment - such as leaving the family home where there was a narcissistic parent - they still take that conditioning with them. They may unconsciously seek out relationships as an adult that allow them to perform according to this conditioning, even though they are unhappy with these relationships. They may unconsciously look for people to take care of, or to sacrifice for - even though they feel resentful and used when they find them.
This is empathy that has turned maladaptive and dysfunctional.
Break The Pattern, Escape The Trap
The key to breaking this pattern is becoming aware of it in the first place. People often ask how they can stop getting into relationships with the same type of person over and over. In order to do this, you must figure out what the attraction is. This can be painful or confusing, but it's necessary to unravel the threads that are making up your particular relationship tapestry. What needs are being served by the relationship? Many people are quick to answer "none," but the truth is that if that were actually the case, the relationship would probably not have continued. You were getting something out of it which is why you kept doing it, and once you identify what that was, you can start learning to fulfill this need on your own in a healthy way.
Many times when someone is learning to create boundaries and stop becoming entangled in abusive or toxic relationships, they can feel very guilty. This is, again, conditioning. They've been taught that they are not allowed to tell others "NO!" They've been taught that they don't matter and to try to matter is wrong, or selfish. They identify too closely with the pain of other people and feel guilty for "abandoning" them or severing the relationship. They are often vulnerable and feel that they are being mean or cruel. This is all normal, it's understandable and it's also not true.
You don't have to sacrifice yourself to prove that you care. You don't have to solve other people's problems. You don't have to save the day. It's not healthy to base relationships or your value on these things. If someone insists that you do that, they are not looking for a healthy relationship. You cannot have a healthy relationship with an unhealthy person. It's just not possible.
Disarming The Empathy Trap For Good
If you are struggling in an empathy trap, remember that it is possible to feel empathy and even sympathy for someone without accepting responsibility for the situation or the person. Try to focus on observing your emotions instead of reacting to them. Stop and think. Why do I want to help?
Now, dig deeper: Why do I really want to help?
What need would it serve for me?
Am I trying to achieve something?
Am I trying to avoid something?
How can I fulfill or address this without having to engage in toxic behavior or with toxic people?
- Does it make me feel needed?
- Does it make me feel loved?
- Does it make me feel important?
How can I achieve these things without involving myself in situations that are painful?
Am I trying to avoid painful feelings that will arise if I don't help?
How can I deal with those feelings without having to sacrifice myself?
By honestly examining your motivations, you can unpack what is really going on here and face the conditioning head on so that you can defeat it. Remember too, if you are struggling with guilt, that there is a difference between abandoning someone and escaping them. There is never any reason to feel guilty for escaping a toxic or abusive situation and never any reason to accept abuse in your life. Abusive behavior stops when you decide to stop it. You really do have the power. Please use it.