Think back to a time when you were listened to and really felt heard. How did it feel to be seen as you were?
One of our deepest needs as humans is to feel understood, and true understanding is not possible without empathy. As psychologist Carl Rogers put it, “When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good!”
Empathy is the willingness to feel with your partner, to understand his/her inner world. Empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of the person you love. Empathy is so deeply connecting that it’s physical.
By contrast, sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity without experiencing their feelings with them. Brené Brown describes sympathy as trying to paint a silver-lining around pain:
- “Well, it could be worse…”
- “I think you should…”
- “This could turn into a positive experience for you if you just…”
The problem with this kind of response is that it invalidates the other person. I know when others have tried to “fix” my feelings, I’ve ended up resenting them because it made me feel foolish for feeling that way in the first place.
Empathy is easy when our partner is happy, but it’s more difficult to empathize when our partner is feeling angry, hurt, or sad because of something we said or did. In those situations, it’s much more instinctive to defend yourself than show empathy for your partner. But like any other skill that you’ve mastered, you can strengthen your empathy muscle with deliberate practice.
Here are 4 tips for improving your ability and willingness to empathize when you’re at odds with your partner:
- Listen without judgment.
Empathy is only possible when you’ve removed all preconceived ideas and judgments about your partner’s feelings and needs. When you assume responsibility for your partner’s feelings or take messages personally, you’re blaming and judging. Judgment of your partner’s experience is an attempt to protect yourself.
To empathize with your partner at a level that creates healing and brings you closer demands your full focus on your partner’s message. To do this, practice the art of non-defensive listening and focus on being curious about your partner’s feelings.
- Look for feelings.
It’s easy to get swept away in the facts of what happened during the heat of an argument. This is where a lot of couples get stuck. They argue over who’s “right” (we’ve ALL done this, right?), and yet both views are valid. Being “rational” about the facts inhibits empathy because it invalidates emotions. Instead, concentrate on what your partner is feeling. Listen to what they need.
3. Climb into the hole.
When you listen for your partner’s feelings with your whole being, it becomes a lot easier to understand their perspective. Brené Brown paints a visual of a hurt partner being down in a dark hole, feeling like they’re alone in a pit of pain. For me, what I really crave in these moments is not for my partner to throw a rope down, but to climb into the hole with me. To feel what I feel.
If you’re having trouble climbing into the hole with your partner, start by being curious about what they’re feeling. Ask questions to help you understand why they’re feeling that way. This will make it easier for you to empathize with their experience.
4. Summarize and validate.
When you summarize what your partner said, express that you respect your partner’s perspectives and feelings as natural and valid, even if they’re different from your own. Instead of saying, “You want me to be at home more during the week because if I’m not, it makes you feel like I don’t value you” you can say, “It makes sense to me that you want me home more nights of the week.” Other empathizing statements include “Of course you feel…” and “How could you not feel…” Validating your partner’s perspective doesn’t require you to abandon your own. Empathizing shows that you understand why they have those feelings and needs.
Behind every complaint is a deep personal longing. When you realize this, it becomes a lot easier to make the choice to be empathetic instead of taking your partner’s feelings personally and defending yourself or trying to change or fix those feelings.