Have you ever had an argument or a heated discussion and your partner says, “I get it?” It feels good in the moment but you really don’t think they do get it. Nor do they like what you’re saying. And they may not be ready to move on from the conversation.
Just because someone says, “I understand,” it doesn’t mean that they agree or approve. They may empathize, and understand your point and even get what you are feeling.
Empathy is not acquiescence. But it’s hard to understand sometimes what “empathy” or “acquiescence” actually means.
Empathy is when you relate to how another person feels, what they are experiencing emotionally. You can imagine, if you were in their shoes, what it would feel like to go through their situation. Even if you haven’t experienced precisely the same circumstance, you may be able to recognize the universal human emotion of joy or pain, fear or anger.
Empathy, however, is different than agreeing or acquiescing.
Acquiescence means that you agree to someone’s request. It’s not quite as strong as consenting, which requires explicit and positive agreement. Rather, acquiescence is more of a soft or silent compliance, a giving in, an implicit giving way to someone else’s desires.
Many of us are afraid to ask for explicit consent, it can be an awkward or frightening conversation. And sometimes it can be hard to deny your outright consent, you may be confused or ambivalent, unsure what to do in the moment, and so you rely on acquiescence a lot of the time, to buy time, to avoid conflict. And you find you ‘give in’ instead of standing up.
This can lead to awkward and even dangerous situations where you feel you give up your power to decide in certain situations.
Some people don’t understand that empathy, an empathetic understanding of feelings, is not necessarily an indication of acquiescence.
An Example of Empathy Being Misread as Acquiescence
Imagine your teenager asks to use the car. He or she lists all the reasons why they want to borrow the car, and maybe one of those reasons is that they’re afraid if they don’t go to visit their boyfriend or girlfriend right now, that person is going to break up with them. They seem genuine and you empathize with them.
You might say, “Wow, that sounds like quite the dilemma. I can see why you would be desperate the use the car today.”
But before you can say, “But I need it to take your younger brother to the doctor today…” they’ve grabbed the keys off the counter and bolted for the door, yelling, “Thanks, Mom (or Dad)!”
They’re gone before you can clarify.
This is a simplistic example of how one person might take the empathetic expression of caring about feelings as tacit agreement (or acquiescence) to their request.
When Empathy is Consistently Misread, Relationships Degrade
This kind of thing happens often in relationships and in sexual interactions. It can feel uncomfortable to retract when someone reads your empathy as consent or acquiescence, so you may not try to walk it back.
Unfortunately, this can lead to closed off empathy. You might become so afraid of being misunderstood, that you gradually learn to resist the urge to express empathy at all. This just contributes to a higher wall between you and your partners.
Changing the Conversation
Watch and observe your interactions. Are you experiencing this? Notice if this is happening from either side. Are you choosing to hear empathy as acquiescence and inadvertently trampling on someone’s consent? Are you grudgingly going along with things because your empathy is consistently misread as agreement?
If so, then consider opening a dialogue with the other person. If you’re the one misreading things, own that. Take responsibility, apologize, and explain how you’ll try to do better and communicate in a clearer way in the future.
If you’re the one whose boundaries are being crossed, then express your feelings, along with suggestions of how the other person might take an extra step and check in before “bolting out the door.” It could be as simple as saying to you, “Okay, does that mean you agree?”
You may need some outside assistance with these conversations, and if so, reach out and schedule an appointment with a qualified therapist.
And have some empathy with yourself. This is complicated emotional stuff. Most of us aren’t taught how to stand up for our own emotions or ask for what we need. Go easy and be gentle.