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Need for empathy nap hits healthy partner [UPDATED]

Published 9:39am Thursday, May 24, 2012 Updated 11:43am Thursday, May 24, 2012

My husband felt sick last week. Well, not sick exactly; he was recovering from surgery. Bottom line, he wasn’t his usual chipper self. He spent his days stretched out on the couch, recuperating, and I — inexplicably — felt the need to do the same. Recuperate. Even though I had nothing to recover from.

I was surgery-free. I wasn’t running a fever. My throat wasn’t sore. My back didn’t ache. I didn’t have so much as a hangnail to hang my under-the-weather hat on. Still, I longed to plant myself on the loveseat next to his couch and take what I refer to as an empathy nap.

Why did my husband’s condition affect me? I’m not sure, but when you’ve been married to someone for over half your life, I guess you can’t help but empathize. My husband and I met in driver’s training class when we were 15. Empathy is practically my middle name.

This explains, why last week, when I felt perfectly fine and not one bit sick, I could have napped like a hibernating grizzly bear. My incentive for the day’s regular action had been zapped by surgical sutures — located across the room — on my husband’s shoulder.

The same sort of thing happens when my kids are ill and I experience an inexplicable urge to watch Disney movies and Sponge Bob reruns.

Perhaps this proves I have a propensity to empathize. (Either that, or I enjoy lounging on the couch.) I’m not sure if this is something to be proud of — or just the opposite. I do think it gives us a window into human behavior.

There are men who find themselves in the throngs of sympathy symptoms during their wives’ pregnancies. Other spouses report sharing headaches, joint pain and allergy symptoms. A little further from the emotional aspect of the phenomenon is the empathetic implications associated with yawning. Yawning is extremely contagious. If I yawn, and you see me do so, chances are great you’ll feel the urge yourself.


What does all this mean?

We are social beings, created to live, work, play, eat, laugh, yawn and perhaps even be sick together. It’s the gift, opportunity (or curse) of empathy: the ability to look outside ourselves and understand the feelings of others.

We aren’t the only ones. The experts aren’t in total agreement, but I’ll take a stand and declare empathy isn’t a human-specific trait. Anyone who’s owned a dog will agree. Our pet canines sense when we are sad (or elated), and react accordingly. That’s empathy in my book.

From birth, we learn to take our cues from each other and alter our behavior to meet with the needs of those around us. It benefits us because it augments our social abilities. If you are crying and I meet that with laughter, we find ourselves in a socially awkward situation. So we empathize. And we get along together. Social beings.

Sometimes this means giving a hug, lending an ear or maybe even taking a nap. It’s what I did last week. My husband rested on the couch. I curled up on the loveseat. And the dog? She sprawled between us on the carpet — snoring most of the afternoon.

Her, not me.


Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist and author of “The Do-It-Yourselfer’s Guide to Self-Syndication” Email her at

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