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Ask Sahaj: My husband treats me badly. When do I stand up to him?

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Dear Sahaj: I notice that your advice routinely seems to recommend extreme empathy. I am very empathetic by nature. So, empathy is my routine approach. I am in a long-term relationship that has required me to censor severely any statements about my own feelings. My husband has even asked me to agree in writing never to use any words with negative connotations — which he assesses after I use them, with the connotations chosen from online definitions he finds — to refer to his actions or statements. As an example, on one occasion he slammed a door, and my using the term “slammed” was deemed “pejorative.” So the issue then became not that he stormed out — yes — and slammed the door, but that I used a pejorative term. Never mind what had happened. He then supplied an online dictionary definition to assert that by objecting to his statement, I was misusing the term “pejorative.” I mean, what? If you slam a door, you slam a door.

I place a lot of value in your advice, and there are also times when I feel I should not have to express “genuine curiosity” about why someone whose actions are abusive — whether or not he intends them that way, or is just “acting the way he feels” and sees nothing wrong with that — feels the way he does. Many of my friends and family have told me that his behavior is abusive. I don’t think my curiosity is going to change anything about how he acts. It just opens a door for him to unleash further — which has happened, many a time, because I believe in trying to understand why people act the way they do.

When do I get to stand up for myself? When do I get to say, “This is not okay”? Where does “genuine curiosity” stop? It is just plain not going to change his behavior. I know he does not want to think of himself as a bad person and he does not intend to be a bad person, but he says awful things and treats me badly. Where does all this drive toward empathy ethically end?

Gaslit: I am humbled that you have come to this column regularly to seek out my advice, and I’ll be honest, I feel distraught that it has left you feeling like you should make yourself small in your relationship in the name of being empathetic or curious. Empathy should not be used as a tool to absolve anyone of the harm they are causing you. And having empathy is not a reason to stay in a harmful relationship.

You ask when empathy should end, and that’s because I think your efforts — to understand, to be curious — have not gotten you anywhere. Too much empathy can actually be a bad thing; it can lead to mental health struggles because you prioritize others’ needs or feelings over your own. And in extremely unhealthy relationship dynamics, empathy can be weaponized to continue to reinforce a power imbalance. It may be helpful to seek out a professional to discuss your feelings and relationship. In the meantime, you should consider reaching out to a hotline to get more resources on what may very well be an emotionally abusive relationship.

Empathy can allow you to have compassion for why someone is the way they are, but let me be clear: It should not be at the cost of your own mental health or wellness. It should not be used as a way to justify harmful behavior. While it may help you understand your husband’s behavior, it doesn’t change him. He has to want to change, repair hurt in your relationship, and take responsibility for his actions and behaviors. And from your letter, it sounds like he is not changing or acknowledging how he is hurting you. In fact, you even say that he “says awful things” and treats you “badly.” This makes me wonder if your inclination toward empathy is a way to avoid doing a really hard thing — like, setting hard boundaries, having difficult conversations about your needs, or walking away from someone you truly care about.

You can be an empathetic person and believe that you do not deserve your husband’s abuse. Sometimes in abusive relationships, the person on the receiving end can start to tie their own sense of self to how well the abuser treats them. But I want to be very clear: You don’t deserve to be hurt. Even if you did everything your husband asked of you, he would probably still find ways to be hurtful.

Remember: You are not meant to hold empathy toward others without also turning that empathy onto yourself, too. Be honest with yourself: If your empathy has run out, what are you left with? It may be sadness or resentment. It may be shame or guilt. What will it take for you to acknowledge those feelings? What would you say to a friend who comes to you struggling with the same thing? I urge you to show yourself the same level of forgiveness, love and curiosity as you do your husband. You deserve it. Please get help and consider getting out.

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