Everyone has an innate desire to be understood, to be heard, and to be validated. This is why close relationships can be so powerful. They give us the opportunity to connect with others in ways that allow both individuals to be seen, respected, loved, and really feel known by the other person. But as many of us have experienced, even burning love can cool down, and even couples who once had a deep emotional engagement with one another may find themselves feeling disconnected and dissatisfied.
As a clinical therapist of more than 20 years, I’ve sat with many disheartened couples who are confused about where their love has gone and why they don’t feel the same way about each other that they once did. There are a great number of reasons why a marriage or romantic relationship could be in distress, and I won’t attempt to solve or remedy all of them in a single article.
I will say that one thing I have seen work wonders in improving relationships and alleviating marital and personal hardship is empathy. I call it the “secret sauce” of a happy marriage. In fact, a Harvard research study from a few years ago showed that marriages were more successful when the man tried to demonstrate empathy in his interactions with his wife. Clearly, there’s something important and noteworthy about it.
So what is empathy exactly? It’s a willingness and ability to sit with another person, really listen, and reflect back your partner’s experience. Some individuals are naturally empathetic, whereas others need to work to develop it a bit more. Either way, it can be an invaluable trait to bring to a marriage. Here are some ways that you can use empathy to improve your relationships.
One of the first things to do is to listen to the emotional message in your partner’s pleas. This can be difficult because the words and the emotional message might not be the same thing. For example, if your spouse says things like, “you always come home late,” or “you never text me when you’re on your way,” it may be tempting to get defensive at the criticism.
However, I encourage you to listen for the deeper meaning in the words. It’s likely that what your partner is actually trying to communicate is “I miss you when you’re away and want to spend more time with you,” or “I’m scared that I’m not important to you.” Practice this communication skill of deciphering the underlying message, then figure out how best to respond to it.
Another good strategy for employing empathy in your relationships is to step out of your own emotional experience sometimes to fully listen to and seek to understand the other person’s. This is not easy. When a spouse is giving critical feedback, your gut reaction is likely one of trying to explain, defend, or rationalize, but these uncomfortable situations are when empathy is needed the most. Press the pause button on your own feelings, and as painful as it might be, try to see things from the opposite perspective.
And finally, show empathy by reflecting back your partner’s experience in your words. This is an aspect of active listening that can help to clarify any inadvertent miscommunication. Using phrases like “what I’m hearing you say is ____” or “you must be feeling _____” can help make sure you two are on the same page. The Harvard study showed that women were happier when their husbands were making their best effort to respond empathetically to their negative experiences. So if you’re not perfect, don’t stress! This is a skill to learn and to develop, and a marriage or close relationship is the perfect opportunity to practice.
Empathy is not necessarily a cure-all, but it is a crucial component of a healthy relationship (especially a long-lasting one like a marriage). In times of distress, practice these methods to strengthen your connections to the ones you love.