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?
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.