Dr Judith Orloff's Blog

Are You a Relationship Empath?

Judith Orloff - Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Adapted from Dr. Judith Orloff’s book,“The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People” (Sounds True, 2017)

In my practice and workshops I’m struck by how many sensitive people come to me wanting a long term soul mate. Personally, I can relate to this. Yet, despite online dating services, expensive match-makers, friend fix-ups, and blind dates, they still remain single. Or else they’re in relationships but feel constantly fatigued and overwhelmed. The reason isn’t simply that “there aren’t enough available people ‘out there’” or that they’re neurotic. Personally and professionally I’ve discovered something more is going on.

In my life, I’ve found that a vital missing piece to this puzzle has been discovering I am a relationship empath. Empaths are highly sensitive, intuitive, and caring, but they’re also shock absorbers with an extremely permeable nervous system and hyperactive reflexes. They experience everything, pleasure and pain, sometimes to an extreme. The amazing part of being so sensitive is that empaths are attuned to people (at times even telepathically), to nature, and can be exquisitely sensual, responsive lovers. The downside is that empaths are sponges for the world’s angst. Without a membrane between themselves and the world, they unknowingly absorb other people’s stress into their own bodies. Then they become overloaded, anxious or exhausted. This differs from ordinary empathy, say when you sympathize with your partner’s harrowing day at work. Relationship empathy goes much further. You merge with your partner and actually feel his or her joys and fears as if they were your own. Thus, romantic relationships, particularly live-in ones, can be challenging.

In my books, The Empath's Survival Guide and The Power of Surrender I go into detail describing what a relationship empath is and also present strategies to cope and not absorb the stress or symptoms of your mate. If you’re highly sensitive and haven’t identified this dynamic, you may unknowingly avoid romantic partnerships because deep down you’re afraid of getting engulfed. A part of you wants a soul mate; another part is frightened. This inner push-pull stops you from surrendering to a partner. The closer you are to someone the more intense empathy gets. To feel safe enough to let go in a relationship, it’s crucial for empaths to learn how to set healthy boundaries and assert their needs. Then intimacy becomes possible.

To surrender to a soul mate, it's important to discuss your fears of letting go with each other. However, if you’re an empath, you may not know what these are or that you’re even resisting intimacy. Thus you can’t convey your needs or set healthy boundaries. To determine whether you’re a relationship empath take the following quiz from my book The Power of Surrender.

Quiz: Am I a relationship empath?

Ask yourself:

  • Have I been labeled as overly sensitive?
  • Am I afraid of getting engulfed or losing my identity in intimate relationships?
  • Do I prefer taking my own car places so I can leave when I please?
  • Do I get drained by too much togetherness and require time alone to refuel?
  • Do I sometimes prefer sleeping alone?
  • When my partner and I travel do I prefer adjoining rooms?
  • Do I tend to take on by my partner’s stress or physical symptoms?
  • Do I feel overwhelmed by noise, smells, crowds, or excessive talking?
  • If you answer yes to one to three of these questions you’re at least part relationship empath. Responding yes to four to six questions indicates strong empathic tendencies with partners. If you answer yes to seven or more questions you are a certified relationship empath.

    Recognizing that you’re a relationship empath is the first step to removing this obstacle to finding a soul mate. Next, you must redefine the traditional paradigm for coupling so you can find a comfortable way of being together. This means letting go of society’s stereotypes about marriage or relationships, forging a new path for yourself. If you’re an empath or if the ordinary expectations of coupledom don’t work for you, practice the following tips.

    Surrender Old Relationship Rules, Create New Ones from The Power of Surrenderr

    Tip 1. Evaluate a potential mate’s compatibility
    As you’re getting to know someone, share that you’re sensitive, that you value having alone time. The right person will understand; the wrong person will put you down for being “overly sensitive.”

    Tip 2. Vibrations Speak Louder Than Words
    Notice how you relate to a potential mate’s energy. Ask yourself: Does the person’s words match their energy? Or is something off? If you have any doubts about his or her authenticity, go slow. To avoid getting involved with someone who won’t be good for you, keep tracking the person’s energy with your empathic abilities to find out who they really are.

    Tip 3. Allow quiet time at home to decompress
    Get in the habit of taking mini-breaks throughout the day. Tell your partner how important this is to you. Stretch. Breathe. Walk. Meditate. Listen to music. This time alone will replenish you.

    Tip 4. Limit your time socializing with others
    Tell your partner what your ideal time limit is to stay at parties or other social occasions before you burn out. If your comfort level is three hours max--even if you adore the people--make an agreement with your partner to take your own car if he or she prefers to stay longer.

    Tip 5. Negotiate your square footage needs
    Breathing room is a must. Experiment with creative living conditions. Ask yourself, “What space arrangement is optimal?” Having a private area to retreat to? Separate bathrooms? Separate houses? Agree not to crowd each other. When traveling together, you may prefer getting adjoining rooms with your own bathroom (this works wonders for me). If sharing a room is the only option, hanging a sheet as a room divider will help.

    Tip 6. Get a sleep divorce
    Traditionally, partners sleep in the same bed. However, some empaths never get used to this, no matter how caring a mate. Nothing personal: they just like sleeping in their own space. Discuss options with your mate. Give yourself permission to sleep separately. Separate beds. Separate rooms. Sleeping together a few nights a week. Because non-empaths can feel lonely sleeping alone, make compromises when possible.

    In my medical practice, I’ve seen this creative approach to relationships save marriages and make ongoing intimacies safe for emotional empaths of all ages--even if they haven’t had a long-term partner before.


    Judith Orloff, MD is author of The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, upon which her articles are based. Dr. Orloff is a psychiatrist, an empath, and is on the UCLA Psychiatric Clinical Faculty. She synthesizes the pearls of traditional medicine with cutting edge knowledge of intuition, energy, and spirituality. Dr. Orloff also specializes in treating empaths and highly sensitive people in her private practice. Dr. Orloff’s work has been featured on The Today Show, CNN, the Oprah Magazine and USA Today. She is a New York Times best-selling author of Emotional Freedom, The Power of Surrender, Second Sight, Positive Energy, and Guide to Intuitive Healing. Connect with Judith on  Facebook and  Twitter. To learn more about empaths and her free empath support newsletter as well as Dr. Orloff's books and workshop schedule, visit her website.

    Anonymous commented on 20-May-2014 11:35 PM
    Interesting to me as an occupational therapist that these seem to also be the sensory over responsive types whose nervous systems have difficulty with auditory, visual, tactile or even vestibular (not secure with body in space) problems. Sometimes deep pressure, weightbearing activities and other ways to calm the nervous system can help. I love the article and am sending it on to friends I know that relate to this.
    Kimberly Cutting commented on 22-May-2014 10:47 PM
    I find the relationship empath thing interesting especially in relation to the soul-mate piece and I've discovered threw some personal areas in which it can cancel each other out in good ways. Have I been labeled as overly sensitive? I'm an Intuitive Empath myself & my fiance is as well.. (he answered yes to all of the questions in the intuitive Empath Quiz as well) However I've discovered that when 2 Empaths who are soul-mates get together some things intuively cancel out relationship empath issues... like for instance:
    Am I afraid of getting engulfed or losing my identity in intimate relationships? In the past we were somewhat, but when we met the feeling went away and we embraced and actually enjoyed the feeling of loosing ourselves to each other and becoming "one".

    Do I get drained by too much togetherness and require time alone to refuel? Sometimes, but more often then not we feel recharged by each other due to being so in synch... it depends how our conversations and moods are.

    Do I sometimes prefer sleeping alone? We did before we met, but found our energy synchs so well with each other that it actually helped us to sleep better the 1st time we tried it as a couple.

    others such as:
    Do I tend to take on by my partner’s stress or physical symptoms? & Do I feel overwhelmed by noise, smells, crowds, or excessive talking? No change to either of those really.

    Haven't experimented with travel or separate vehicles yet though. I do suspect he might though if he could, he likes to sleep in the hotel closet to isolate himself more when he travels and he has an even higher sensitivity to crowds then I do and would prefer to leave a karaoke bar or shopping mall a little sooner then I would for example.
    Sue Cameron commented on 22-May-2014 11:26 PM
    Thank you for this!! I've attended a couple of your classes at Esalen. This describes my 34 year marriage to a T. I am currently " WISHING" I had my own house!. I wouldn't mind dating him once on a while. He's a good guy. We've grown apart. He never goes anywhere! Watches TV every night and I am not exaggerating!!! I go on retreats with gf's, classes, vacations with friends, we sleep apart.. Why be married???!!!
    Wendy Hammond commented on 23-May-2014 08:25 AM
    So refreshing to read about a Relationship Empath. Have not read the book yet but know many women, including myself, who feel this way. I am twice divorced from relationships with alcoholics or drugaddicts. Have not pursued another relationship since 1994. Theoverwhelm from the enmeshment has left me very happy to live life alone. I am now 67 years old.
    Kari commented on 23-May-2014 01:41 PM
    Wow that sounds so much like me. My husband's job has changed and he is home most of the time now. I have lost my one day alone to de-stress and I feel added stress by not having my alone time. It feels like his energy is sucking the life out of me and I have found it so draining. I didn't feel like this before when we didn't spend as much time together. The odd time when he isn't home, I feel like I have more "space" and I feel "lifted" like a weight has been removed from my shoulders. I've been wondering why that is and felt there was something wrong with me but this explains so much. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!
    paulette commented on 01-Jun-2014 03:46 PM
    it really interesting , i became my husband and i did not realize it , and not knowing about empath, we had marriage problems and lead to sleeping separate room, less
    communication, and at that time i discover your info, suddenly i realized that i was carrying his anxiety, sadness and for some reason he took over my personally,
    it almost seem we switch bodies i got all his negative traits, and he seem to project my positive,
    i am still confuse by this, but i feel like i got my soul back . your work is soo important , thanks you
    Susan commented on 05-Jun-2014 10:27 PM
    well, I admire Kimberly's advantages up above this posting(May 22nd), but i'm here to tell ya, I would LOVE the freedom to let my otherwise perfect mate know that-I need to sleep alone!! He does not get it....I have shown him, I have explained to him-and it's as if I'm speaking blurbish. It is our only downfall. My saving grace? Working 3rd shift-although I am not certain how much that helps me...Otherwise, on my nights off, it isn't a night off-I wake up drained, exhausted, in pain! He believes somehow I'm to accept night terrors, snoring and thrashing as just par for the course........ can anyone help me, here? other than the obvious/ leave. . .
    Ashley commented on 20-Feb-2015 06:05 AM
    I've always wondered if there was something wrong with me growing up because I could never get used to being in a relationship like my friends had.. I'm still that way only being 18 but every relationship that I've been in (serious or not) I had to retreat quickly or I felt like I would literally drown in the other persons emotions. I never understood how some people could just let go and love with such ease..
    Barbara Brewster commented on 10-Apr-2016 07:12 AM
    Many years ago I allowed marriage (because I knew it made him happy) to a wonderful man, even though in my heart I knew that I might find the closeness too much. I at least recognized that I'm a lover of my private time and space, but I also judged that here's a good man and I must be "bad" because I'm unable to handle so much closeness. Women who have read my book "Love or Growth: Why Not Both: A Woman's Dilemma" have said,"Thank you.I thought it was only me." Now I say THANK YOU JUDITH for this information--which is really giving me back my essential self--as a woman who yearns for male intimacy but has kept it at bay for 22 years. When I meet the likely candidate, I'll share your blog with him.

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