Empathy and relationships

Empathy is well worth developing. Empathy fuels connection. Empathy hs the power to put our minds at rest and help us to feel happy and peaceful. It has also been described as the ability to understand another from their own frame of reference. Empathy may also be thought of as vicariously experiencing another person's feelings, perceptions, or thoughts.

Empathy can be known as the heart of any relationship as it allows for the development of a powerful connection to oneself and others.

In close relationships, empathy is easier when things are going well. It can be more difficult to feel empathy when your partner is angry, hurt, or sad. This can be especially difficult when we think we are the cause of our partner's distress. Believing that we are the cause of the problem can create a situation where we feel the need to defend ourselves and push back against the other's expression. This stops the process of attuning to the other and truncates the development of empathy. When we become defensive, our brains are unable to empathize with how the other might be experiencing their world.

Exploring empathy and compassion

There is more than one way to experience empathy. On the experiencing scale, cognition allows us to think we understand someone else's feelings without actually feeling or experiencing them. Even though we don't feel what the other feels, we may be able to appreciate where they are coming from and validate their feelings. When you cannot comprehend what another person might be experiencing, it is helpful to imagine how vulnerable they probably are feeling. It could help to think of a time when you felt misunderstood and sad. A simple response like, “I am so glad you told me” can be powerful and connecting.

Empathy can manifest as being aligned or “in tune” with the other person’s feelings. This level of experience is a bit deeper on the Experiencing Scale. For example, when your partner is expressing pain, you are able to more deeply take in the depth of their pain and respond accordingly. Your attention is focused on your partner. This can be expressed as present and aware compassion.

Compassionate empathy is a balance of both cognitive and emotional empathy. Compassionate empathy encourages us to take action. For example, Susan worries when her husband does not come home on time at night. Jonathan, her partner, understands that Susan worries when he does not come home and seeks to soothe her. He chooses to co-regulate her anxiety about his whereabouts even though he does not have the same experience when Susan does not come home when he expects her home. Jonathan chooses to help Susan feel less anxious and in Jonathan's compassionate response, the couple feels more deeply connected.

Compassionate empathy involves the whole person. Emotionally Focused Therapy facilitates a quantum shift in heart, mind, and behavior.

Empathy and romantic relationships

In relationships, our deepest need is to feel connected and understood. Without empathy, the relationship will struggle to survive.

In relationships, empathy is a willingness to feel with your partner and to understand their inner world.

Empathy and conflict

Couples who do well with empathy explain that once their empathy improved, it was like a light had been turned on in the dark room of their relationship. They explain that the nature of their conflicts changed. This is because each partner stops trying to defend their personal position and instead, seeks to fully embrace the other.

Sometimes when we want to help our partner, we try to fix whatever is wrong when they are upset. For example, we may inadvertently minimize their feelings by "painting a silver lining around them". Examples include comments like

  • It's not as bad as it could be
  • I think what you should do is ...
  • You could turn this situation around if you just...

This does not result in our partner feeling understood. Brené Brown, an empathy expert, explains that although this is a common response it is not helpful as it invalidates what the other person is feeling. When other people try to "fix" your feelings, we are apt to feel dismissed and misunderstood. This can lead to anger, resentment, sadness, and loneliness. We can also feel embarrassed, shameful, and foolish.

Everyone can increase empathy

We have natural tendencies toward empathy; we are wired to connect to others. But empathy is about learning as well. Below are several practices that will help you develop empathy.

Suspend judgment while listening

Empathy is not possible unless you can suspend your own judgment and all preconceived ideas about your partner’s feelings, reactions, and needs. When you feel offended over your partner's feelings, you may become blameful or critical. This reaction is an attempt to protect yourself. It is a defensive move and it fuels disconnection.

To empathize with your partner in a way 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.

Rather than facts, look at feelings

There are two sides to every conflict and both are valid. It can be easy to get caught up in the facts of what happened rather than the experience of connection. In fact, getting caught up in the facts sometimes misses the point. It can also increase the heat of the conflict.

It’s easy to get swept away in the facts of what happened during the heat of a conflicted discussion. This is where a couple can get stuck. They can argue over who is “right”. Taking this approach leads to blockages in feeling connected, happy, and peaceful.

Give everything to understanding their perspective

When you quiet your own thoughts, and you listen to your partner with your whole being, it can become possible to attune to your partner and their experience. This technique is done with all your effort, and the intention can connect you with your partner on a profound level. This experience can bring profound insight and growth for yourself and your relationship.

Put your relationship first, put yourself first

For couples therapy in Sebastopol for Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Sebastopol, and the West County, contact Toby Ellen French. She is a specialist in Emotionally Focused Therapy and provides therapy for individuals, couples, and groups. Take the first step towards a more fulfilling and happy relationship by picking up the phone or filling out the contact form.

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