Dear Prudence

Help! My Wife’s Bottomless Empathy for Everyone and Everything Is Going to Kill Me.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

A woman dabs her eyes with a tissue, with an illo heart on her sleeve.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Every week on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

My wife is a sweet, happy extrovert who wears her heart on her sleeve and is wonderfully, warmly, and utterly exhaustingly empathetic. She gets goosebumps if I don’t dress warmly on a cold day, limps if I stub my toe, and feels everything. Me … not so much. She recently found out that a friend has stage-two cancer, and I am bracing myself for daily, agonizing updates, like the emotion fest when her brother was sick, or her friend broke a leg, or the neighbor’s cat died, etc. I don’t want to suggest that I don’t care, but I am not interested in maundering over problems I cannot solve and find the agonizing and emotional outbursts a little self-indulgent and very, very tiresome. I need a script for shutting down all feelings, or at least deflecting, diverting, or redirecting them.

— Overwhelmed by Empathy

Dear Overwhelmed,

I shared it your letter on Twitter and, wow, it was controversial! The responses were all over the place. Some of the general categories were:

1) You are terrible and mean to your wife, who deserves better;
2) Your wife is terrible and annoying and she has to get a hold of herself because you deserve better;
3) You two are incompatible and you should break up.

I think that’s why I asked for help— because each of these very different thoughts entered my mind at some point, and I couldn’t decide where to land.

I don’t know that I really believe number 1 or 2. Number 3 deserves a little consideration, and I mostly say that because of the tone of your letter, not the content. I agree with @carolineframke, who wrote “This person does not seem to like their partner, as a person.” But assuming that’s not how you truly feel and you were just exasperated when you wrote in, a conversation could really help. Great news: Another huge chunk of the responses involved people providing the script you requested. I thought they had solid ideas, so I’ll turn it over to them and let you pick and choose the words that work best:

I think he can be honest, within limits. He can make it more about him.

“I love your empathy. I am not able to handle that kind of borrowed emotion like you are. When I get a lot of that from you, it affects me. It means I can’t focus or do things I need to do.” —@jfbeacom

Isn’t the solution to “just” tell her how you feel? “I care deeply about your friend, but hearing daily updates takes a toll on me emotionally. Could you give me updates when there are major developments?” —@nomoreevictions

Talk when relaxed. Shift your focus from shutting down feelings to validating hers and communicating yours. “I hear you.” Tell her you want to support her but struggle w/ how to do that while acknowledging your limits. Make a genuine request and try to problem-solve together. —@laurkrouse

Suggest tactical ways you can both help (send a card, make dinner)—it’s opportunity to redirect without being rude to their wife AND can build empathy for themselves. They can also set boundaries! “I know you are processing this but it is hard to hear these updates right now” —@sarahdiller

“Sweetie, I need to be honest—I do not have the capacity for engaging in emotional/empathetic processing that you do. I love you and your big heart but I am not always going to be able to process things with you and even need to just check out sometimes. I hope you understand.” —@claireczosek

Clearly not a popular opinion but I feel the LW. We do this all the time when we go into “wow that’s crazy” mode when someone is talking about something we cannot respond to on the same emotional level. So here’s how I think LW should respond… LW absolutely needs to hold space for the wife to vent & express empathy. When it gets to a breaking point for LW: “baby, is there anything concrete I can do to help? Seeing you so upset by this wrecks bc I feel helpless & unsure how to respond. Idk where to go from here.” —@tnwhiskeywoman

“I know that you’re worried for your friend, and I love how much you care about them. I’m guessing that talking about your worries helps you feel better … but it makes me feel worse. Can we cut back on how much we talk about your friend’s problems, or limit it to certain times?” —@SociologistKate

You have some really good options there that focus on how you feel, rather than on criticizing her for being the way she is. Which is good because I have a strong feeling her “exhaustingly empathetic” personality actually benefits you in many ways—like helping her be patient with you when you do things that bother her. Make sure you return the favor.