Empathy: The Key to a Healthy Marriage

Imagine for a minute you are working with a married couple who is struggling with their relationship. You sit down and ask them what the issues are. Each person proceeds to describe what they think the problem is. Their description is filled with all the things that their spouse is doing wrong with the occasional sprinkle of admission of the “small” things they may have done to contribute to the problem. After both parties have described their concerns you turn to one spouse and ask, “What do you think your spouse is feeling right now?” Or, “Put yourself in your spouses shoes and tell me what you might be feeling.” Silence. Then a fumbling attempt at an answer that usually is far off the mark. Why do we struggle so much with putting ourselves in another person’s shoes?

The ability to put yourself in your spouses’ shoes is called empathy. Empathy allows you to consider how things may be effecting your spouse, to see his/her perspective, and to be able to actually understand where he/she is coming from. This empathy skill can save you hours of conflict and can actually develop in you a deeper understanding of the other person and even an appreciation for his/her point of view. It is empathy that allows couples to overcome many obstacles and arguments. The beauty of empathy is even if you are wrong in what you think your spouse is feeling, just the act of trying to understand communicates love and connection. If more couples would work at this skill and take risks in asking one another questions instead of always trying to “convince” their partners that they are right or their perspective is the only logical one to have, we would see a huge reduction in the amount and level of intensity of the conflict many couples face.

So how do you begin to have empathy in the context of marriage? First, you have to commit to yourself that winning an argument or having your spouse understand to your satisfaction your perspective are not the goals of your relationship. As soon as you make it about you and your perspective, you fail to have any bandwidth to actually have empathy for your spouse. Second, your goal is to have your spouse say “you got it” either verbally or non verbally. That means you need to take a risk and say to your spouse, “It seems like you are feeling x.” Or, if you have no clue, “what are you feeling right now and how can I help?” These types of questions will help you become an expert on your spouse the more you practice them. Finally, instead of then going on to forcing your spouse to get your perspective try to move towards your spouse in a way that shows you understand how he/she is feeling. It may be a hug or allowing your spouse to vent. Whatever it is, as long as your emotion and response are appropriate to what he/she is feeling you are showing your spouse you understand and care.

Empathy is one of the major keys to making relationships work and to draw a couple closer together. In what ways have you experienced empathy from your spouse? What are some ideas you can share with others on how to show empathy to your spouse. Share your ideas on the comments section below.
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