two cats, one caring for and licking the other
Illustration by Marta Pucci

What's an Empath, and How do They Survive in Relationships?

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
5/23/2022
Last updated:
5/30/2022
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
5/23/2022
Last updated:
5/30/2022

TL;DR

  • An empath is a particularly sensitive person, someone who is able to feel and experience exactly what others do.
  • While empaths can make wonderful caring friends, in a romantic relationship they can often find it difficult because they tend to quickly become very intense.
  • Empaths and narcissists are often drawn together but this rarely, if ever, leads to a successful and happy relationship in the long term. 
  • As an empath, there are ways of protecting yourself in a romantic relationship by learning to set boundaries and regulate your emotions to prevent them from overwhelming you.

We often view empathy as a desirable trait. It allows us to understand how others are feeling, to relate to them and offer help and support. But for empaths this can be a curse as well as a blessing.

What do we mean when we talk about an empath as opposed to simply an empathetic person, and how do their deep levels of empathy affect them in their social interactions and intimate relationships? 

What’s an empath?

An empath is a particularly sensitive person, someone who is able to feel and experience exactly what others do. If someone cries, they cry, if someone is outraged, they feel that pain. Emotions and energies hit deep and physically impact them in a way they don’t for most people. In fact, they feel everything deeply. Crowds, movies, chaos, even the news - it can all become too much. Only silence and stillness can recharge and replenish them.

There are many different types of empath, those who are particularly attuned to the different types of energy given out by other people as well as by nature and the earth as a whole. For some, the pain of others can be strongly felt, with them even going so far as to feel physical symptoms. Over time this burden of energy and emotion can become overwhelming, impacting both the mental and physical health of an empath.

Empaths and intimate relationships

While empaths can make wonderful caring friends, in a romantic relationship they can often find it difficult. Empaths tend to love hard and intensely, experiencing deep feelings of connection. They are fully in tune with their partners - reading not only what they say but also what they don’t say - their body language, their silence and even their lies.

But that constant taking on of a partner’s emotions can be draining. On a positive note, highly empathic people can be incredibly supportive to their partners. They recognise quickly when their partner needs help and are able to provide the emotional support required. This can mean deep levels of connection that quickly lead to meaningful relationships.

It is said that being loved by an empath feels different to any other kind of love. But does that mean it’s always the basis for a healthy romantic relationship?

The link between empaths and narcissists

Drawn together, empaths and narcissists often just can’t help themselves.

First, the similarities. Both empaths and narcissists have built mechanisms from learning when and where they get attention. However, each varied in terms of their psychosocial development as a result. While the empath turns this lack of care and attention into an outward leaning emotion – the need to tend to and care for others, the narcissist becomes bent on getting as much attention and affection for themselves as possible. And an empath who is unable to regulate the emotions overwhelming their system is the perfect person to provide that.

Unfortunately there’s too much of an imbalance here for these two partners to form a successful relationship in the long term. Typically, the empath will try hard to please their partner and give them the attention they desire, while the narcissist will take advantage of this nature and potentially mistreat or gaslight their empath partner. Seeing them as weak or an easy target, they'll tell them “You’re too sensitive” or "You're pathetic". The empath will feel their narcissistic partner’s scorn deeply, they’ll feel responsible for that emotion, acting with compassion and affection to alleviate the situation.

As you can see, this sets up a vicious cycle in which there are no winners. And one that is hard to find a positive route out of.

So how can you, as an empath, survive a romantic relationship?

It’s important to put some self-preservation tactics in place to prevent you becoming emotionally drained

Try to set clear boundaries so you get better at recognising which are your partner’s emotions and which are your own. Remind yourself regularly that in adult relationships your own feelings are as important, if not more important, than those of the people around you. You BOTH deserve to be happy and fulfilled by your relationship.

Practice self-care and allow yourself space and alone time to regulate and work through intense emotions from time to time – ideally spend time in nature. Ensure your partner understands this need and, if they are unhappy about it, ask yourself why. If you’re the type of person that prefers intimate group settings rather than going out with a crowd, accept that about yourself – it’s a common trait in empaths. Of course, it helps if your partner enjoys similar types of social events.

Try to open up and talk to them about how you feel. Perhaps offer some useful reading material so they can start to understand things from your perspective a little more.

Never allow yourself to take responsibility for your partner’s emotions. Of course support them, listen and try to help, but don’t expect to be able to ‘fix’ the situation. You cannot take your partner’s pain away as much as you may want to.

As an empath it can be difficult to find and devote yourself to a romantic relationship that will be happy and successful in the long term. But if you can go some way to creating boundaries for yourself and learning to regulate your emotions, you will surely find someone who appreciates you for who you are. And they in turn will be very lucky to have you.

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