Most humans experience empathy to a greater or lesser degree. Even psychopaths are capable of feeling empathic in some situations, rare though that might be. If people had no empathic skills they would not relate to anyone. Empathy is the capacity to imaginatively understand and share the feelings of another. It is why we tear up in sad movies, when a friend is suffering, a child broken-hearted or when a tragedy occurs. Helpful, loving, forgiving and generous behaviours generally follow.
One of the confusing factors in domestic violence relationships is that abusers appear to show genuine empathy sometimes but at other times they treat their partners with cold indifference or even cruelty. This is one reason why leaving an abusive situation is so complicated. People live in a state of confusion when they bond to the empathic side of their abusive partner.
In working with abusive men and abused women it seems apparent to me that an abuser’s empathy is both time limited and conditional. As long as what is happening is not a threat to him in any way – that he is not being criticised, held to account, challenged or inconvenienced – then he is quite capable of empathic understanding. Women describe their partners as being unexpectedly understanding and patient on some occasions such as when they are suffering from a death in the family, an unexpected retrenchment, a depressive episode or a serious physical illness. His empathy may not last long but it is there nonetheless. As soon as such life changing episodes impact negatively on the abuser though his patience wanes and empathy dissipates.
What we all need is a partner who is able to be empathic even in situations when you want to do something or to go somewhere but he does not. You want to be able to disagree without being punished. You want to be able to say what you want without being silenced. You want to be able to be yourself without being remoulded. You want to be accepted and supported. You want to be free, to be you.