Learning the Language of Empathy

by Dan Drake, LMFT, LPCC, CCPS-S, CSAT-S


I’m often asked, “How do I get my [sexually addicted partner] to get it?!”

This hugely important question by partners brings us to the “E” word: Empathy . . .  Empathy is such an important issue to talk about, yet such a painful one.  A partner’s world shatters before her/him after discovering their partner’s sexual secrets, secrets that may have spanned decades.  This betrayal trauma is so painful, and causes an enormous rift in a relationship.  Healing this rift takes plenty of patience and a commitment to recovery from the sexually addicted partner.  Healing also takes a commitment to openness, honesty, and empathy in the relationship.

Unfortunately, so many sex addicts have narcissistic tendencies (after all, sexual acting out in the relationship is an inherently selfish act).  Narcissism and empathy, as you can imagine, don’t go together very well.  It’s like going to a foreign country where you’ve learned the basics of the language but aren’t fluent.   You can learn the “words” but it’ll be clear very soon to a native speaker that you really don’t get the language.  All too often, sex addicts can learn “formulas” of things to say but these phrases quickly ring hollow to many partners, as they really want their partners to FEEL the pain that they are experiencing.

Developing empathy CAN be done, but it does take time.  It will take some patience on the part of the partner, as this is a new language being developed by the addict.  I do want to say first that it is NOT the partner’s job to teach empathy to their addicted spouse/partner.  It is the addict’s job to learn these skills with the help of his/her therapist, sponsor, and recovery team.  Relationships starved of empathy are painful and traumatic, so it’s imperative that addicts begin learning these skills ASAP in the recovery process if they want to bring restoration to their relationships.

So what are some ways that addicts can start to learn the new language of empathy?

  1. Brene Brown has an excellent short description of empathy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
  2. I’ve often found “indirect” resources to be really helpful.  Many addicts can start to “get it” as they hear the words of others.  When they hear the words of other partners in a non-threatened state they can better gain empathy for their own partner’s pain.  Wendy Conquest has a great book of letters that helps addicts gain empathy: Letters to a Sex Addict.
  3. Doug Weiss also has an excellent video called Helping Her HealThis is an important resource from a man in recovery, talking to other men, helping them to understand the impact of their behaviors on their partners.
  4. Jason Martinkus’s book Worthy of Her Trust is another good resource.
  5. I’ve also found it helpful for addicts to draw out a scene of the destructive impact of sex addiction on their relationships, families, and worlds.  This isn’t meant to shame the addict, but rather to help them feel the impact of their behaviors on others around them.  This can be a powerful exercise done in a group.
  6. Speaking of group, therapy groups are invaluable – other recovering addicts can provide support and feedback, as well as perspective to help sex addicts “get it”
  7. In addition to group therapy, targeting underlying abuse or core wounding can help an addict develop empathy.  If the addict is completely blocked off to their own wounding and has no empathy for the wounded parts of themselves, I find it very difficult for them to find empathy for their spouses or others around them.
  8. Impact letters, or other such letters written by partners can be very helpful for addicts.  As they read and absorb the impact of the pain they have caused on their loved ones they begin opening their eyes more and more to the pain of their partners.
  9. Working the 12-steps and giving a 9th step amends is another way an addict learns what impact their behaviors had on others around them, and challenges them to take responsibility for their actions.  An emotional restitution exercise in response to their partner’s impact letter is another exercise that an addict can do.
  10. Finally, I often find it helpful for addicts to carry around a picture of their partner as a young child.  So often, anger is the first protective emotion that partners express.  Addicts brace for battle with their partners as the “enemy,” all too often losing sight of the wounded little girl/boy that was devastated with the betrayal.  Seeing the young child part of their partner and being reminded of that innocence can help some to better feel the impact of their actions on their partners.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of empathy-building tools, but it’s a way to help addicts start developing the new language of empathy.  Again, this will take time and patience, but with dedication an addict CAN learn the new language of empathy if they are committed to learning it. If you have other tools or suggestions, please let me know so I can add to this list.

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