Offering love to others that are suffering, i.e. compassion, can feel positive and motivating, and feeling the pain of the person you love, i.e. empathy, can make you feel depleted, and overwhelmed and then we are left with one option many times, and that is to detach.
So, what I advise in regards to how to help your spouse…
When your loved one is suffering a mental illness, whether it be postpartum depression or PTSD or psychosis what should you do? Rather, than offer empathy, i.e. feeling what that other person feels, which will dilute your reasoning… (think of Heavenly Creatures, a true story of a couple who become psychotic together, one of the many incidences of couples who commit crimes together), offer a little bit of empathy and then step up with a lot more of compassion. We can become absorbed and lose our sense of reason if we overly empathize.
“But I love my partner, I need to feel what he is feeling in order to help him….”
“No, you do not.” And moreso, it does not actually improve the situation.
You can offer compassion towards your husband who is unable to get out of bed, or towards your wife who is continually weeping, without being absorbed in their emotional state.
How? One might ask, especially when one is in love. Empathy looks like this. The wife does not allow anyone else but herself to care for the baby. The partner thinks: My wife is tired and stressed, but she is the mother and she doesn’t want anyone else caring for the baby, only she can truly care for the baby so I am not going to push her to change the diapers, even though I see she is tired. Empathy, you sat in her shoes, it is all emotion.
Compassion, “Hey Babe, I see you are so tired. Let me take the baby and hold the baby for awhile while you have a long bath. If the baby cries, and I can not soothe her I will come get you.”
You offer a little bit of the empathy, but a lot more compassion with a heavy dose of reason and an out. You, the partner, stay around and offer actionable support.
In the first example, is it reasonable that he believes his beliefs and thoughts about his ex-wife? Sure. There is a kernel of truth in every perspective. Is it helpful to be flooded with the same helplessness and hopelessness she feels? Absolutely not. This is why empaths tend to have depression. We absorb others emotions as our own. Stop it!
Can I offer compassion and gently introduce a helping hand? Yes, how? In many ways, there is also “the compliment sandwich.” Remind her of why you love her, then offer guidance, then again remind her of why she is an amazing mother. And then help her by helping her obtain treatment. Healing is absolutely possible. Compassion heals, empathy is important, but usually creates a feeling of being drained and then detaching when it is your only vehicle of connectivity. True honest compassion heals.