Empathy in Couples Therapy

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In my experience empathy can make or break a relationship. Empathy can be improved through couples therapy.


When a couple attends for therapy they have usually come to a stalemate in one or more aspects of their communication. The individuals might feel taken for granted. Both parties tend to be extreemely hurt or have reached a state of apathy in the relationship. Often they are at various stages of believing that they are in the right and that the relationship would be okay, if only their partner changed. But self-reflection of both parties is required for couples therapy to move forward.

Hurt and Apathy

When we feel hurt, we feel vulnerable. Vulnerability activates the primal defence system. Many understand this as the fight/flight/freeze response. When we feel annoyed or hurt, our focus turns to protecting ourselves. It’s very difficult to feel empathy for the person who we see as responsible for our hurt. Simply put, hurt creates defence, and this effects how we communicate with, and regard our partner. When we are feeling sensitive about, or triggered by, a particular issue, our partner’s words or actions can land on a ‘sore spot’.


Hurt can create blame, and blame breeds resentment and self righteousness. It sends us into a place of rumination about our partners’s wrongdoings. Seeing them as the ‘bad guy’ and ourselves as the victim. This limits our perspective and our ability to self-reflect.

Creating a space within ourselves to put ourselves in the our partner’s shoes is so important. Even when we believe they are objectively in the wrong. Empathy can open up the ability to communicate, particularly about the problematic issue. It makes it easier to listen to our partner’s experience.


Self-reflection also opens up the opportunity to see if there are themes in the relationship that trigger your hurt. Own your own emotions. Using the format of ‘I feel…(emotion e.g. hurt).. when you….. (insert the behaviour here). This sentence format helps to remove the aspect of blame from the interaction.

No one person is going to get it right 100% of the time. It’s important to own where we might have been hurtful or unsupportive in the relationship, including when this was unintentional, or a result of a misunderstanding. Owning what we are responsible for usually makes it easier for our partner to also own what has been their responsibility. Of course this works best if both parties attempt to feel empathy for the other.

*The above does not necessarily apply in cases within abusive relationships, including coercive control. Please seek individual professional help if you are living with domestic violence e.g. https://www.safeireland.iehttps://www.safeireland.ie , https://www.womensaid.ie https://www.mensaid.iehttps://www.mensaid.ie

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The Emotional Load of Parenting

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Until recently it was enough to love, clothe, and educate your kids. Now we know that often this isn’t sufficient to meet their emotional needs. Parents have a lot more awareness these days and want to do right by their kids. We do this by helping them address social, educational, physical, or neurodiversity issues. Also we support their interests and strengths, in addition to pushing them out of their comfort zone a little.

Emotional Load

All this adds up creating an extra emotional load

*Pauses writing post as it reminds me to ask my husband to bring my son out to practice cycling this week, because he doesn’t like cycling for fear he will fall off the bike, “but not tonight as he’s more likely to cry again as he’ll be tired after the sleep over with his cousins”* -case in point regarding the emotional load. 

Children have more emotional needs than previous generations were aware of. Society’s interest in personal development often points to the origins of psychological issues, not surprisingly, as abuse and/or neglect in childhood but also (more alarming to the majority of current parents), to some emotional need being missed, even in a good, loving family. 

‘Good Enough parenting’

There’s no such thing as a perfect parent and trying to be one would be an impossible and stressful endevour. There will often be some emotional needs that loving parents fall short of supporting. This awareness can add to the burden of parenting. Love and security goes a long way, but it’s not always enough. Attunement and presence is hugely important. In the past many emotional issues ‘fell through the cracks’. Some children were more likely to be seen as ‘difficult’ or ‘over sensitive’ etc, without supporting or questioning what might be behind this.

Still, there is a lot of healing of many of those emotional deficits in an ordinary loving home. I take comfort from the renowned psychoanalyst, DW Winnicott’s phrase ‘the good enough parent’. Also Dr Daniel Siegal says that we only need to get it right as a parent 70% of the time, so this allows for a decent margin of error. 

Feeling overwhelmed

Recently I found myself becoming overwhelmed with the sense of having to keep ‘all these balls in the air’. Juggling can be surprisingly difficult. I am of course entirely grateful for my children. (I would be touching wood right now if I were superstitious – because loving these precious little people so much brings a fear of loss along with it). And while there isn’t a simple answer to these dilemmas, there is value in naming them and realising that we are absolutely not alone.


One afternoon when my children were very small we took a luas home from the Dublin city centre. An old lady looked at my family with a look of nostalgia and said, “I remember when my children were small, I thought I was ‘kilt’ with all the work, but I miss it”. 

I know that it’s easy for older parents to look back and idealise these years. But for me it’s worth recognising that even though I sometimes get tired and overwhelmed with holding the responsability of my childrens’ emotional as well as practical needs, I also know that one day, conversely, I will struggle with feeling that I have little to contribute to their lives. ‘This too shall pass’ can be very bittersweet.

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Coronavirus: Anxiety, Grief, and Hope

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The Novel Coronavirus has created a new reality in our world and we are feeling the consequences.


Anyone with difficult relationships at home may find that being in the same house together is creating a fraught atmosphere. Not having our external comforts to offload/release/escape can bring out the worst in us. We might find ourselves feeling irritated with our partner’s habits of expressing their stress. Relationships can become strained as we get irritated with each other’s particular coping mechanisms. More later on how to manage this.

Limiting information

In order to protect our emotional health we need to ask ourselves: “What do I need to know in order to stay safe?”. You most likely already know the answer to this question. Our government has a parental function here. We have been told the official guidelines clearly and repeatedly. We are the metaphorical ‘children of the nation’, the ‘parents’ have provided the boundaries so that we don’t have to guess and stress about what appropriate boundaries are necessary to keep us as safe as possible. In this instance all we can do is follow the guidelines.

By deferring to these guidelines we release ourselves from the responsibility for these decisions. Where the government has taken a parental role in terms of the nations physical safety, we need to take responsibility to create our own emotional safety by building on, and minding, our emotional resources. We can insulate ourselves from the upset of overexposure to information once we remind ourselves that experts are analysing the data already, and that it’s their job to draw useful conclusions and recommend action. This creates a position from which we can limit our exposure to media updates, depending on our own tolerance, and sensitivity.

For example: some of us are deeply emotionally affected by specific stories of loss of life, even though the person in question is a stranger to us. This level of empathy may create upset which is neither helpful to ourselves nor the people effected by the tragedy. Statistics draw us in, and headlines can become ‘click bait’ that preys on fear. Fear appeals to our survival instincts, we are evolutionarily primed to watch out for dangers. We have all come from a long line of people and species who survived long enough to procreate. In this way fear appeals to our most primal responses.

Fight, flight, freeze

One of the current difficulties is that, in terms of the fight / flight / freeze response, our ability to express our flight response has become severely limited. If you are someone who normally escapes to the shops / pub / social gatherings / walk on the beach / 5k run, you will be keenly aware how much these have been curtailed. If you tend to go into fight responses you might find that you are feeling rage towards those who are disregarding the guidelines, or anger towards the medical guidelines or government restrictions, believing them to be too strict, or too lenient. Those who tend toward the freeze position will be particularly struggling with sharing space with family members. They may be feeling fearful or hopeless.

We may feel isolated and alone, while at the same time millions of people around the world are feeling exactly the same.

In this age of technology we have options to stay safely connected with others. It has its limits of course, hugs and physical comfort are so important. However, in the current circumstance, we can only work with what is available to us.


Anxiety and control are often two sides of the same coin. When we are anxious we like to feel in control. We think that feeling in control will make us feel safe. The problem here is that there are so many things in life that we can’t control. We may feel particularly frustrated with our current lack of control over our freedom and/or over the behaviour of others. The challenge is to discern what we have control over. For example, we are in control of washing our hands, we are in control of choosing to follow guidelines provided by the medical experts. We are in control of seeking the appropriate help if we suspect that we, or a loved one has the virus. Focusing on what we can control rather that what we can’t control can help to ease our anxiety.


Although many of us are aware of stress and anxiety in relation to this current crisis, it’s also worth seeing our emotional responses through a lens of grief. We are grieving the loss of basic freedoms regarding movement and social interaction, that we have, until now, taken for granted. This is difficult for all of us, but for those who hold personal autonomy as a primary value, this will be particularly challenging.

We know that, even if we all follow guidelines, people we love may die. This is tragic, and at the same time there is no benefit to anticipating the worst. Anticipation of the worst will only weaken our emotional resources if the worst actually happens. Accepting loss is not easy, and sometimes all we can do is create an intention to accept or let go, and to be compassionate to ourselves when we notice our emotional struggles.


Although some of you will have more time on your hands than ever, I know that many of you will be busier, particularly if you are a healthcare worker or a parent of young children. There is a lot of talk about using this time to learn a new skill. If you are feeling anxious it could be very worthwhile putting aside a few minutes each day to learn to practice mindfulness, There are many free online resources including several audio files on relaxation and mindfulness from Beaumont hospital beaumont.ie/marc.

Mindfulness helps us observe our thoughts and feelings with compassion, rather than over-identifying with, and being controlled by them. Another principle of mindfulness, see self-compassion.org, is ‘common humanity vs isolation’. Understanding how stress is triggered can help us view feelings and behaviour with more compassion. When we communicate our difficulties, or requests, about the behaviour of our family members, from a place of compassion, and a place of responsibility for our own reactions, we are more likely to be heard, and less likely to exacerbate a strained atmosphere at home.

If you need further support, many therapists, including myself,  are available for online consultations. Womens aid, Mens aid, Childline, Safe Ireland, and Seniorline, are other helpful resources. 


There will be further loss, both in terms of lives and in terms of the economy. But we will prevail. As humans we have survived worse over the millennia. Even in recent centuries we survived the plague, the Spanish flu, and countless devastating wars.

Unfortunately there will be more fallen comrades. Yet the world will keep turning. It is important to remember that we are all in this together. The greatest scientific minds on the planet are working towards vaccines. Never has our global community been more united to defeat a common enemy.

Liz Wright MIAHIP

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Social Anxiety from a CBT Perspective

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 There are two characteristics that identify social anxiety:

– the fear of doing or saying something foolish in public

– the fear of being judged negatively by others

The specifics can vary from person to person. Continue reading “Social Anxiety from a CBT Perspective”

Denial: Advantages and Disadvantages

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Advantages of Denial
I always say that there’s a place for denial. It has its uses. Denial is a very powerful defence, it protects us from feeling painful emotions and from addressing difficult issues.

Many of us go through life blissfully unaware of our ‘issues’. Continue reading “Denial: Advantages and Disadvantages”

Social Anxiety and Shyness

Many people who present for therapy cite wanting to ‘feel comfortable in their own skin’ as their main objective. Feeling ‘not good enough’ is another related and very common theme. I’m interested in the history of where these beliefs came from to help the client gain more awareness and choice in their current situation. At the same time it’s important to reality test current perceptions.

Image source: Monstrous Discrepancies

Continue reading “Social Anxiety and Shyness”


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A man, we’ll say his name is Tom, gets a flat tyre whilst driving in the countryside.

He realises that he is missing his jack and can’t change his tyre with out it. He sees a house a mile or so away and walks towards it in order to ask for a loan of a jack. During the walk Tom anticipates the unwanted disruption he will cause to the occupiers of the house. He begins to imagine how annoyed the ‘man of the house’ might be for being disturbed to answer the door to a stranger looking to borrow his property. Tom works himself up imagining how angry this man will be towards him about the inconvenience and intrusion of his request. When he reaches the house and knocks on the door, a man opens it, and Tom shouts at him “you can shove your f#($ing jack up your a***!” Continue reading “Anxiety”

Surviving Crime and Trauma

For some people being the victim of a crime is their first experience of feeling powerless. For others the crime can trigger a re-experiencing of past events where there was a similar theme of powerlessness or fear. It can shake us deeply to have our primal impulses perceive a threatening event and to feel that we were unable to defend ourselves against it. Continue reading “Surviving Crime and Trauma”

Post Natal Depression

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Recently I co-facilitated Post Natal Adjustment Groups, with a former midwife, in order to address the issue of Post Natal Depression. At least 20% of women experience post natal depression, which should not to be confused with the ‘baby blues’ that can appear in the first week after birth and typically last a few days. Factors increasing the likelihood of experiencing PND include isolation from support, a traumatic labour, a family history of PND, and/or a personal history of depression. Some women in the group cited other contributary factors such as finding it hard to reconcile the difference between their birth plan and the reality of their labour where they felt out of control, others were very disappointed to find that they were unable to breast feed. Continue reading “Post Natal Depression”