A man looked into his wife's eyes and said, "You look tired." To many, this would seem to be a common and somewhat mundane moment in a relationship. But to the woman, it was a possible turning point; the first time since they had dated that her partner, Mike, had noticed and reflected on her feelings in a caring manner. Olivia had endured 18 years of physical and emotional abuse by Mike. Over time, she had witnessed him shift from someone who apparently cared about her feelings, to someone who ignored her feelings, and ultimately to someone who scorned or mocked them. "He was good at winning me; just not very good at keeping me," Olivia reflected. Finally, when the youngest child had left home, she left him. In his initial attempts to get her back, Mike alternated between apologies and threats; the classic repertoire of abusers who are seeking quick fixes. However, Oliver wasn't settling for this any longer. Now engaged in a support program for victims of abuse, Olivia needed all the validation she could get to not give into him again and to recognize that Mike's latest apologies and promises would likely be followed by blame and threats if he didn't get what he wanted. She insisted that Mike attend an abuser education program. Desperate to get her back, Mike agreed. At first, Mike resented having to do this, proclaiming, "I'm not the only one with the problems." He complained that "She's never happy. There is no pleasing her. First, she wanted a house, then it was a bigger house. Then she wasn't happy with her job so I agreed she could quit so she could take college classes. I paid most of bills. I've given her everything and she's still complaining that I don't support her." It wasn't until six months into his treatment that Mike recognized that he wasn't giving Olivia what she most wanted.
Mike failed to recognize that the job description for husbands has changed. It used to be that men were doing their jobs as partners and parents by being financial providers. Anything else was considered laudatory but extra. Now, both partners typically work and both financially provide for the family. And yet many women continue to work a "double shift": their paid day job and the second one that begins when they come home to be the primary housekeeper, parent, and "emotional caretaker." Fortunately many men are picking up the slack and embracing the new job description of men as nurturers. But some men still haven't gotten the memo. Some have gotten the memo but haven't acted on it. They expect to be appreciated for doing "more than most men," or "more than my father did," rather than doing their fair share.
In our abuser education groups, we like to describe empathy as a muscle that grows stronger with use. Those who do well in our program commit themselves to working their empathy muscles. Some also learn that sometimes their partners and children do not want them to "solve their problems" but to listen to them. Active listening is the gateway to empathy and caring compassion. But empathy also requires being observant. For Mike, it is noticing when Olivia feels tired or worried, noticing the latest interests of his teen children, noticing when he is feeling anxious -- and then saying that he is anxious rather than becoming angry or controlling. Olivia likes that Mike is showing more interest in their children and listening to them rather than telling them what they should do. Though she is still taking time to decide if it is for feel, Olivia likes that he is listening to her and taking her feeling seriously. Still not back together, they are going out on dates. It reminds Olivia of the old days, only better.