The Empathy Exchange

Everyone craves novelty. We relish new experiences and are recharged by the opportunity to shake things up. This is especially true in romantic relationships. It can get confusing because we also need some semblance of stability and familiarity. I don’t know many people who think of chaos as an integral part of their ideal relationship. Non-monogamy does a great job of forcing us to find the balance between those extremes.

Open relationships may be many things, but they are rarely boring. There’s usually some new boundary being pushed, or an exciting opportunity presenting itself. And sure, navigating uncharted territory isn’t always fun. Sometimes, it’s a massive pain in the ass. Other times, it’s downright terrifying. Even so, it’s a fantastic recipe for consistent growth.

It’s hard to go on autopilot when maintaining a relationship (or several of them) requires consistent checking-in, honest communication, and introspection. This isn’t limited to just partners, either. Maintaining a healthy relationship with oneself is not just important, it’s a prerequisite for maintaining a healthy relationship with anyone else.

This doesn’t mean that someone always has to bring their A-game to be a good partner or to maintain a healthy relationship, far from it. I’d be hard-pressed to recall a single time I found myself in any relationship thinking, “Man, I am killing this and balancing everything perfectly right now! Go me!” My internal monologue usually ran in the opposite direction.

But that’s not what matters. We don’t have to be perfect to be our own allies. As much as we all want to be our best selves all the time, it’s just not realistic. What we can do, however, is practice giving ourselves the same patience and understanding we would so readily offer to a loved one if they were having a rough time. It’s really just another facet of the golden rule:

Empathy has to be a two-way street.

Empathy is often seen as being exclusively external. That is, understanding and connecting with the experience of another person. However, the actual practice of empathy requires a process that can just as easily be directed inward. After all, it’s hard to relate to a person’s experience if you can’t deconstruct the complex cocktail of emotions behind it.

We’ve all had the experience of having a strong emotional reaction to an event, comment, or interaction that didn’t make sense to us initially. It takes some time to process and examine why we have the responses we do. But putting in the effort to examine and understand our own emotional processes helps us be more supportive to our partners and to ourselves.

As I mentioned in my first post, there was a time when non-monogamy was something I just didn’t think I could handle. The freedom that poly folks afforded their partners intimidated me, even though I had never considered myself an overly controlling or jealous partner at all.

I couldn’t grasp the idea of letting go to the degree that so many people considered not just manageable, but totally normal. So I consistently felt like I was coming up short. I remember being afraid that my partner would want more than I’d be able to provide.

Looking back, I understand that everything seemed chaotic to me because this was a door I had never considered opening before.  It made sense that I would be overwhelmed and over-stimulated upon stumbling into this strange new world. And it took me a hell of a long time to find my footing. But more than anything, what made every hurdle passable was this ongoing empathetic dialogue with my partner, and separately, with myself.

I’d be truly disappointed if at least a few of you didn’t roll your eyes at that last statement.

Seriously? Talking about your feelings ALL the time? Isn’t that just exhausting?

You’re damn right it is. At least, it was at first. But hear me out.

As a man, I have years of conditioning that tells me I’m supposed to scoff at the idea of getting “in touch” with my emotions. Emotions are what turn strong men into weepy puddles of useless, overly sensitive mush, right?

I’ve actually found the opposite. The weepy mess isn’t what happens when someone is in touch with their emotions. That’s what happens when someone is controlled by their emotions. There’s a world of difference.

Picture a boxing match. I’m sure you’ve all seen a movie where a boxer has taken too many hits, so he gets inside his opponent’s reach, grabs him, and just holds on for dear life. He stops the barrage of punches headed his direction, and has a moment to breathe.

The same goes for negative emotions. They look big and scary, and they definitely come out swinging. But if you just charge right at the suckers and hold on, there’s not much they can really do to hurt you. Sure, there’s a bit of a struggle. But pretty soon, y’all are just cuddling.

And why is that?

Because embracing your emotions robs them of their ability to control you.

As soon as I made it a habit to lean in to whatever weird or unpleasant feelings came up, it became so much easier to see any emotional reactions for what they were. The reality was they were just fleeting thoughts that I had more control over than I realized. I could indulge those feelings and let them have power over me. Or I could have a conversation with myself (sometimes quite literally) about where they were coming from and actually figure out what I could do.

I couldn’t have done it alone, however. I was lucky enough to have a partner with an immense capacity for patience, understanding, and enthusiastic positive reinforcement. This made the times when I felt like I was falling short so much more bearable. She was always eager to remind me to look back at the progress I had made. She stressed the big-picture implications, too; like how reassuring it was for her to have a partner that didn't shy away from growth.

It wasn’t always easy to remember that I was pushing myself so hard because I wanted to grow. Our minds tend to resist big changes, so there were times when part of me wanted to just go back to the old way of doing things. After all, I wouldn’t feel so exposed if I were back within the boundaries of my comfort zone.

Thankfully, those changes gradually started to become empowering. It felt good to say, “wow, this thing scared the hell out of me a month ago, but I did it and I’m still here.” There was a growing sense of resilience, and my partner and I experienced a greater depth of trust.

Surviving those negative experiences together made it clear that our love for each other wasn’t contingent on getting things right the first time. And I felt so much gratitude for her support and understanding that I couldn’t wait to give that back to her when she needed it. My lady has a great way of explaining this kind of dynamic in a relationship:

There’s a difference between being better TO your partner and being better FOR your partner.

It was abundantly clear that investing in that kind of exchange with myself improved every aspect of my relationship. My fears of inadequacy started to fade away, so I felt more secure in the relationship. Which inevitably made my partner feel more secure, too. It became a virtuous cycle (the vicious cycle’s benevolent twin) that helped us accept our reality as flawed humans in love, and find the comfortable balance between novelty and security.

After all, why not have both?


Walker Davis is still figuring out what the hell he's doing with his life, but he loves writing, feminism, secularism, extended metaphors, empathy, and cheese.