Empathy in Relationships: Do You Understand How Others Feel?
As a couples counselor and Denver marriage counselor, I often meet with couples who “struggle with communication.” But you know what? Most of the time, people are actually able to express themselves quite well. The problem is that when they try to communicate with their partner, they do not feel heard, understood, or cared for. What’s the disconnect? Empathy in relationships.
Allow me to tell you a little story to illustrate what I mean by empathy in relationships. One unfortunate day a number of years ago, I found myself standing at the check-in desk in the emergency room, waiting for the triage nurse to return. I was holding my four-year-old son who, thirty minutes before, had tripped and landed head first on the thin edge of a glass coffee table. The sickeningly large goose egg on his forehead was quickly turning purple. I was imagining skull fractures, blood clots. News stories of people lost to silent brain hemorrhages were replaying in my mind.
I pressed the side of my face against his sweet golden hair and looked up to see an older woman sitting in the waiting area, watching me. She looked at me with deep compassion. I knew that she knew exactly what it felt like to hold a beloved, injured child, and to be in the terrifying Time Before Knowing. Her just looking at me so compassionately broke through my adrenaline-fueled shock, and I came back into my body.
Just being understood by her allowed me to connect with my own emotions and unleashed hot tears of anguish and fear that overwhelmed me. Her look said, “I feel your pain, Mom,” and I just lost it for a moment, before messily attempting to pull it together so as not to further frighten my kid. At that moment, though I still felt so scared and in pain for my child, I also felt known… and not alone. I felt one with the terrified mothers everywhere, and that in itself was a comfort (I can still get a little teary even now, writing about it).
Her understanding of how I felt — and caring about it — was empathy in action.
Empathy is The First Step in Creating Connection
To intuit how another person is feeling is the foundation of building a relationship.
To have a sense of someone’s anxiety, hurt, or joy is a prerequisite of being able to understand them. Without the context of feelings, people are often mystifying. Understanding feelings is like being at the theater and seeing the stage, props, and costumes of a play—it provides the setting for the words and actions of others to make sense. Empathy is a fundamental skill of emotional intelligence, as well as the foundation of evidence-based marriage counseling approaches like Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy.
Empathy in Relationships is at The Core of Compassion.
To have a sense of another’s vulnerability, and how it’s similar to yours, generates kindness. Empathy helps us understand the great truth of relationships: we are the same (and need to stop comparing ourselves to others). Yes, we have different personalities, life experiences, values and core beliefs. Yet we are still more similar than different. We all want to love and be loved, to be safe, to have healthy children, to be happy.
Others are just as “real” as you are. The emotional experience of others is as true for them as yours is to you. Feelings are a fact that cannot be argued. Having empathy means accepting the emotional truth of another, and attempting to understand it. If you can do that, you can connect with people on a deep level and help them feel genuinely loved and cared for by you.
Cultivate Empathy in Relationships by Learning Self Empathy.
How do you cultivate this ability and connect emotionally with another person? Start with yourself.
Without that awareness, it is almost impossible to understand someone else. I bet the woman in the waiting room knew her own feelings—that was how she could understand mine. Like a bell that vibrates when held close to a singing voice, your emotional awareness resonates with the felt experience of others.
Practice noticing and naming the layers of emotion within you. Notice what hurts, scares, angers, or pleases you. Use your self-awareness to become more sensitive to how others may be feeling in similar situations. Then allow that knowledge to influence your words and deeds.
When you develop more empathy for others, you are able to treat them with the dignity, respect, and understanding that you yourself desire. When you can put yourself in someone else’s emotional shoes, you will become softer and kinder, you will be able to relate to others more easily, and your relationships will improve.
Is There A Lack Of Empathy In Your Relationship? Try This:
Do you feel like there’s a new fight always simmering under the surface with your partner lately? Or like they’re so quick to take offense, or shut down? Do you find yourself feeling that lately, whatever you say or do (or don’t do) is misunderstood and taken the wrong way?
I get it. (Yes, I have empathy for you because I have felt that way in my own marriage before, too.)
Reach For Empathy To Turn Things Around In Your Relationship.
The next time your partner responds badly to whatever they’ve interpreted you as having said or done, instead of reflexively getting upset back at them, try to use your power of empathy to understand how they feel. Take a guess, and say it out loud: “I’ve hurt your feelings, haven’t I?” Or, “What I said just now made you feel criticized by me, didn’t it?” Or, “I’m guessing that you just stopped talking right now and turned away because you’re worried that this is going to turn into another argument, or that I’m going to get upset.” Whatever you are guessing is true for your partner, just say it. (In a kind, genuinely curious, and non-judgemental way.)
If you just take your best guess and then stop talking, something interesting might happen. Your partner might say….”Yeah. That is how I feel.” And even more amazingly, your tiny little bit of empathy just might make them feel safe enough with you in that moment to tell you more about how they feel, giving YOU the opportunity to do more non-reactive reflecting about how they feel. Then, before you know it, you might be having a really honest, important, connecting conversation — instead of another fight. [Listen: How to Stop a Divorce and Save Your Marriage]
This is what happens when you’re in the room with a good marriage counselor or couples therapist: They hone into your AND your partner’s feelings to help you understand each other more compassionately and in an emotionally safe way. But you don’t necessarily need to have a marriage counselor in the room with you to foster empathy and understanding in your relationship.
Try it and see what happens. I’ll be interested to hear how it goes, if you’d like to share anything with me and your fellow readers in the comments below.
P.S. To deepen your understanding of empathy, how powerful it is, and how it works in real life, check out this super-cute video about Empathy by Brené Brown…
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.