Misplaced Empathy: What it is, and How Abusers Use it to Their Advantage
Misplaced empathy in an abusive relationship often leads to a spiritual dryness and a deep sense of wandering loss.
Empathy is a positive virtue, a trait to be cherished and nourished. Isn’t it?
Of course. Empathy is the backbone of agapé, which is true charity—love of other as other, not love of another for what they can give to a relationship or how they make you feel about yourself. Agapé is pure, unconditional love, regardless whether the relationship is romantic, a friendship, or even directed toward a mere acquaintance or stranger.
Agapé is loving the other as a child of God, made in His image and likeness (Gen 1:26).
Empathy is the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another's person's feelings. It’s that entering into, feeling another's pain, that’s the hallmark of empathy; not merely understanding it, or even being compassionate towards it, but entering into it.
But it doesn’t stop there. Empathy is even more than just ‘imaginatively’ entering into another's pain. It's actually feeling that pain within oneself, with the desire to help alleviate it and ease the suffering and burden of another.
Empathy is naturally feeling the ability to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), as well as listening deeply (without defenses or blame) and truly internalizing someone’s experience so that it becomes a mutually shared experience. When a person shares their suffering with a friend, the suffering is cut in half and the one with the pain feels less agony, and more hope. In the case of sharing joy, the joy is multiplied by two.
Yet, believe it or not, empathy can go too far.
Empathy can go too far when it’s misplaced. When someone with an abusive personality finds an empathetic partner, they take advantage of that extreme self-giving in order to manipulate and control the partnership.
Often an abuser will play the victim, thereby increasing the empathetic response in his target. This creates a trauma bond (the attachment a victim feels toward her abuser, caused by a cycle of mistreatment followed by much-needed positive reinforcement).
Being a high-empath is a very common trait for targets of domestic violence. That’s because empathy is a quality an abuser seek out, whether consciously or not. They want to be understood (because they don’t understand themselves). They long to be loved (because they don’t love themselves). They need to be filled by another (because they can’t fill themselves).
Yet they ask more than anyone should in a relationship, and so their needs result in coercive control. Their bottomless well can never be filled. They can never be loved enough, respected enough, understood enough, admired enough, or praised enough.
They always need more. And more. And when you give more, they up the ante and need even more than your previous more.
If you’re in this type of relationship, after a while it’ll begin to feel as if your soul is bleeding out. You’ve given all you have—and beyond. You’ve given pieces you should have reserved for yourself. You have nothing left. You’re depleted, exhausted, dismissed, depressed.
And still, it’s not enough.
This type of relationship is highly toxic, dangerous not only for emotional, psychological and spiritual health, but for your physical health as well. That’s why getting help is so crucial. Educate yourself, seek and cultivate rewarding relationships—and above all, nurture your spiritual life.
Quite often one of the most damaging effects of being a target of domestic abuse is acedia, or spiritual malaise. The Desert Fathers, particularly John Cassain (a 4th century monk) called this type of malaise “the noonday demon,” which he described as a form of dissatisfaction and restlessness that “creeps over the heart of a monk” and causes him to stop making progress in his spiritual life. John Damascene (a 7th century monk) described it as “an oppressive sorrow,” while St. Thomas Aquinas (12th century) described acedia as “a sort of heavy sadness … that presses down a man’s mind in such a way that no activity pleases him” and creates “an uneasiness of the mind.”
Translated into the modern-day life of a domestic abuse victim, acedia takes the form of spiritual dryness, emptiness, and a sense of separation. Often a victim of domestic abuse stops praying, or prays less—except perhaps for petitionary prayers of “please help” or “please guide him to change!”
There’s nothing wrong with those prayers (as long as you realize actual change is up to the free will of the abuser), but cultivating a personal prayer life apart from your spouse is also crucial. A victim of domestic abuse is often so absorbed with her relationship—how to make it better, what she can do to fix it, how she can cope—that she neglects other areas of her life.
Even her relationship with God.
You may find yourself falling away from your spiritual life—perhaps not losing faith (although sadly that does happen, too), but simply forgetting to pray. Forgetting personal devotions. Forgetting to talk to the One who is your best friend, your Abba and your Divine Protector. This most often isn’t something that’s intentional. It’s because being an abusive victim takes so much time, energy, and spirit.
But, ironically, this is when you need to nurture your relationship with God the most. You need Him and His guidance. You need to be able to hear the “still small Voice” of the Holy Spirit. You need His comfort, His embrace, His peace and persistence, His all-pervading love and protection.
You need to be able to feel His presence, deep within. When you nurture and cultivate this divine relationship, true healing naturally follows.
And that’s when your life will change. It will change because you will change. The form of this change will vary, because everyone’s situation is different. Yet it will happen. God will make it happen, if you allow His grace and blessings to enter into your life.
But how do you even begin? How do you create a journey toward God, and how do you nurture it along the way?
I want to help. I won’t go into details here regarding my qualifications—if you’d like to learn more, please go to my “About Me” page.
Cultivating a rich spiritual life will nurture the healing process, will strengthen its progress, and will lead you to a wholeness and fullness of life.
This is particularly crucial for those who have been damaged by domestic abuse. The key to spiritual direction rests in the realization of Genesis 1:26—that we’re all made in the “image and likeness” of God. The Latin term for this is Imago Dei.
Spiritual director will:
Help you cultivate interior peace
Assist you in finding the depths of God’s intentions for your life
Cultivate your creativity and God-given talents
Show you how to develop a rewarding, enriching prayer life
Begin or deepen your relationship with God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Love that binds them—the Holy Spirit
Teach you to learn the essential skill of “discernment of Spirits” based on the exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola
A spiritual director is a companion who can help you recognize God’s presence in all aspects of life—especially in those places where He seems to be missing, or at least silent. Help, healing, and grace are gifts from God, yet we must be open to His grace in order to receive it.
Spiritual direction isn’t new; it’s a very ancient form of spiritual companionship that has always been present in the Jewish and Christian traditions, from Moses directing the Israelites, to the Desert Fathers of the first centuries A.D. The greatest saints in the history of the Church received and gave spiritual direction, such as St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and St. Francis de Sales (among many more).
Where can you find a qualified spiritual director? You can begin by speaking with your parish priest—he may even offer direction himself. If not, he may be able to provide recommendations.
If finding a local, in-person spiritual director isn’t an option for you, I offer one-on-one spiritual direction (via Zoom) to those who are seeking to begin, strengthen, or develop their relationship with God. If you’d more information, please contact me.
And, above all, remember the promise of Jesus: “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).
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