Archive for the intimate relationships Category

Empathy and eros

Posted in emotions, empathy, Eros, intimate relationships, John Powell, Narcissism with tags , on March 10, 2011 by Steve

In a previous blog post, I lingered at some length on why it is so important that finite, vulnerable, and ever-changing individuals care about and esteem those around them with dignity and acceptance. Basically, we need each other because throughout our lives we are interdependent “social selves”, not independently made individuals. We are who we are in relationship to others. In the words of John Powell: “I can only know that much of myself which I have had the courage to confide in you”.

Empathy in this sense of acceptance and maintaining a non-judgmental stance is particularly relevant to the practice of counselling and psychotherapy, and it was client-centred therapist Carl Roger who triumphed this understanding of empathy as the core component of successful therapy. Recently, though, I have been lead to contemplate empathy as a variable central to intimate relationships which are authentic and allow for individual change and growth. In his Eros in a Narcissistic Culture, Ralph Ellis proposes that eros, or the experience of being in love, can occur between two people only where the following three conditions are met:

  1. Both people feel the need for radical existential transformation
  2. There exists between them a ‘space of empathy’
  3. Each of them has decided to be attentive to the other’s sexuality

Thus, in the context of intimate relationships, empathy allows “me to both to be fully who I am in relation to this person, and to become within this space a continually new, changing and non-static person as the conscious progressions unfold and develop.” (p.170) Like the Rogerian therapist, Ellis defines the space of empathy in an eros (erotic) relationship as “an attitude of complete, non-judgmental and non-directive acceptance of all the other’s feelings and attitudes, so that the flow of conscious progressions is never cut off, deflected or forced into inauthenticity.” (p.170)

In contrast to this relationship of authenticity, intimacy, nurturance, and self- and other- exploration, the relationship in which the ‘space of empathy’ has broken down or never existed, the heart-pounding ecstatic thrill of eros is simply no longer possible:

I cannot open myself up to a space of empathy with someone in precisely those cases where I cannot trust the other not to judge me, condemn me, direct me to be different from who I am, and thus require me to pretend to be someone I am not authentically motivated to become – or perhaps even pressure me to deceive myself that I wish to be such a being. (p. 170-171)

Empathy is important not only in this definition based in Rogerian therapy, but also in its more basic meaning as a capacity to understand and appreciate the feelings and experiences of others. Intimate partners need not ‘become one’ in the sense that they renounce any individual differences or non-shared interests and hobbies. Rather, oneness and unity comes from the appreciation and enjoyment of the other’s personhood and uniqueness:

“We want to understand them so that we can see the complete vision of the richness of the being of the other, so that we can contemplate its full beauty and vicariously enjoy the pattern of the flowing of this person’s form of consciousness, and so that we can participate with it and flow together with it.” (p. 91)

Thus, an underlying space of empathy is essential for an ongoing experience of erotic love (not just sexual attraction or companionship) since it allows the verbal and non-verbal communication between the two partners to unfold in an unobstructed, authentic and free-flowing way.

Without empathy, eros is dead.


Ellis, R. D. (1996). Eros in a Narcissistic Culture: An Analysis Anchored in the Life-World. Kluwer Academic Publishers: Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

Powell, S. J. (1969). Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? Argus Communications: Niles, Illinois.