It’s a fine line between healthy spiritually-sanctioned detachment and an almost psychopathic lapse in empathy that pokes and prods with cold insight. I often walk that line, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to keep the former while minimizing the latter.
Just to clarify early on, I’m not talking about the psychopathy that reveals itself as harming animals as a child. Instead, I describe a capacity to apply strategic logic in a way that sees people as objects with a detached observation that leads to jarring and insensitive comments. I see these capacities for logic and detachment as aspects of neurodiversity, which can show up in intimate relationships without resulting in criminal behavior.
When you have incredible observational skills, heightened sensitivity and awareness, and an uncanny ability for strategic thought (and you partner with someone with comparable intensities), all hope for romance can be quickly shaken.
Last week, my partner Sara and I went on a roadtrip and listened to the audiobook of “The Science of Evil: Zero Degrees of Empathy” by Simon Baron-Cohen; and two nights ago, we finished up the first season of Hannibal. Together, we’ve been engrossed in the study of psychopathy, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how some of my behaviors in relationship (and at work… and everywhere else) can be seen as cruel. Also, I disagree with Baron-Cohen’s description of high empathy: offering somebody tea is lovely and kind, but not the summit of awareness and intuition.
My tendency towards detached observation has always been there. But perhaps it was well-reinforced by some of my training. I have long been inspired by the teachings of Marshall Rosenberg and the process called Nonviolent Communication that he developed. The process-language includes gaining clarity about the focus of a conversation (Observation), vulnerably expressing how it matters to us (Feelings and Needs), and asking for what we want next (Connection Requests or Solution Requests).
Many people benefit from the training to make observations clear and specific, without resorting to evaluations or judgment (or inaccuracy). It turns out, I did not need further help becoming rigorous in my observations; my path is to learn vulnerability in self-expression.
Sometimes, my communication style is just “OK”: I make an Observation that speaks for itself, and the second sentence is an implied Kabaam!!! By coldly pointing out a detail (intentional and unnecessary use of reassurance, time spent talking, or sudden shifts of focus), I can unravel my well-intentioned partner right in the middle of an excited conversation. With my singular focus on efficient use of my own time, I can be some combination of oblivious to and disinterested in secondary impacts… like my beloved not wanting to be my friend.
But then, with some processing time, I notice. And it turns out I care.
In an effort to defend myself to a partner, I’ve often argued that people pay professionals for empathic mirroring, and to see what sometimes nobody else has ever seen. And I have the ability to notice strengths, like a potential that has been dormant. Or I can point out deficits, like a precise surgery that removes a splinter or beam from an unseeing eye. As a professional, especially one who has taken a look at his own deficits, this is an incredible strength.
In relationships, however, partners more frequently prefer to be seen and known for their beauty. Even if you have a pretty strong hunch about a micro-expression, the initial trappings of a behavior pattern, or even a sense of the unconscious revealing itself, a partner may not want to hear about it, especially when she’s in the thick of it. Some observations, no matter how accurate, are not immediately welcome. No partner wants a detached observation of their situation. They want a present and accepting partner who can hold them with compassion.
So, now to my point: what does one do with an ability to notice subtle expressions and surprising word choice? How can someone so good at observation remain empathic in an intimate relationship?
Perhaps, notice privately, and choose an appropriate emotional response and a course of action that includes your partner’s hopes. You are not claiming to be a mind-reader, but you are practicing care and consideration. I used to rail against what I named “speculative contribution”, envisioning instead a world where everything was clearly observed and named, and every action was framed with its context and followed with a request. That may be the paradise of a logical thinker like myself, but I prefer joining the pile of a neurodiverse humanity where people have different preferences in what observations are shared, and when.
The truth is, most intelligent people are capable, upon reflection, of detached observation. In certain heated moments, however, sharing detached observations can result in the other person experiencing a sense of being accused, attacked, or prodded. If your insight is a knife, don’t cut your partner in the middle of his or her experience, whether pleasant or challenging.
Instead, wait until you are in bed, lying safely in each other’s arms.