By Orly Katz, LCPC at Everyday Counseling and Coaching Services
A couple comes in for marriage counseling to improve their communication and intimacy. After some time, the wife says, “My husband doesn’t appreciate everything I do for our family.” The husband immediately becomes defensive and replies: “She doesn’t understand how hard I work and what I go through.”
There’s an issue here, but not necessarily a lack of appreciation or gratitude. The problem is deeper – the couple’s ability to empathize with one another. Without empathy, the problems of this couple can multiply, leading to long-term consequences for their relationship. In this article, we’ll take a look at the concept of empathy and how you can use this to build up your partnership and increase intimacy, understanding, and togetherness.
According to Gottman, empathy is about understanding someone else’s emotions. It means stepping away from your own perception and embracing the experience of someone else’s life.
When empathy is used effectively, when we truly step into the perspective of another, we reap considerable benefits. A study by Duncan and Jowette found that perceived empathy among 149 couples was positively associated with relationship satisfaction and negatively associated with depression and conflict. It’s something that every couple can use to improve or repair a struggling relationship – but it requires commitment and hard work.
The terms empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. Sympathy is marked by an attempt to recognize the emotions of another, to feel sorry, and to be impacted by those feelings. Empathy is a much deeper action, as it requires one to change their perspective and share another’s experience vicariously, as if they were in their place. Let’s take a deeper look at the differences here:
Components of an Empathetic Relationship
A study by Pristang, Picoiotto and Barker examined 18 couples’ communication of empathy during the transition to parenthood. They concluded that couples showed high empathy levels when:
- They checked out and explored their partners’ meaning of their concerns: When there is a problem or disagreement, this means taking a moment to rationally discuss the issue at hand without getting defensive or avoidant. What is the disagreement? Do both partners agree to the issue and what it entails? What stance does each partner take and why?
- They acknowledged their partner’s concerns: Each partner recognizes and validates that there is a disagreement and values the difference of opinions that exist around the issue.
- They articulated the meaning or summarized the partner’s issues: After listening and hearing the voice of their partner, the other partner is capable of understanding where that person is coming from.
- They offered solutions: Instead of avoiding or stonewalling, each partner shares mutual solutions that demonstrate an understanding of each’s experience and live in the spirit of compromise and mutual respect.
- They agreed on a mutual, shared experience: Partners commit to a solution together, continuing to check in with one another about the steps taken and make agreed upon adjustments as needed.
Are You Embracing Empathy in Your Relationship?
Dr. Gottman describes empathy as mirroring a partner’s feelings in a way that lets them know that their feelings are understood and shared. He cites it as the key to attunement with your partner, as well as essential to the emotional coaching style of parenting. Take a look at the questions below and consider how often they apply in your own relationship:
- How often do you and your partner take each others’ perspectives? Even when your partner isn’t willing to, how often do you hear their words and place yourself in their shoes?
- When having a conversation where your partner is facing an issue, how often do you keep advice, opinions, and consolations out of your words? Instead, how often do you allow yourself to simply “be there” for your partner?
- When your partner is expressing a concern, how often do you look for the deeper meaning and emotion underlying the problem first, versus attempting to argue or solve the problem?
- How often do you validate your partner’s feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, or any other feelings they may be experiencing, without telling them that they are wrong to feel that way, getting defensive about your actions, or trying to “cheer them up”?
To truly embrace empathy, both partners in a relationship should answer the above questions with “often” or “frequently.” If these actions rarely or never take place, empathy in the relationship is lacking and the partnership may suffer.
Integrating Empathy Into Your Partnership
So what can we do to use empathy more effectively in our relationships? Couples can try the following techniques to increase their empathetic communication and, thus, their bonding and relationship satisfaction.
- Give your partner loving attention every day: Spend treasured moments together, greet one another with happiness, and take the time to share openly about feelings.
- Pay attention to your partner’s feelings: Especially when couples are first starting out with building empathy, partners may not feel comfortable openly sharing their feelings. You can begin by paying attention to your partner’s moods and ask questions: “You seem to be feeling sad – am I correct or misinterpreting?”
- Validate your partner’s feelings when they are shared: One of the greatest keys to empathy is this – all feelings are okay. Feelings are simply feelings. While you may not have the same feeling in a similar circumstance, the fact your partner feels a certain way is a result of their own personhood, and nothing about that is wrong. When your partner shares how they are feeling, simply validate: “Thank you for sharing that you are feeling angry – I appreciate your trust in me to tell me that.” Do not try to dissuade, convince, or fix the feeling – be okay sitting with that emotion.
- Work together to overcome problems: Once a shared respect of feelings is established with empathy, continue to use this tool to come to mutually-derived solutions. “What can I do to help you experience this feeling less in our relationship?” “How can I bring more joy into your life?” “What solution to this issue would cause both of us the most joy?”
Empathy has the power to transform the feelings of togetherness, understanding, and love between partners when used effectively. It brings the friendship back into a partnership, where both partners know they have each others’ back.