Marital/relationship conflict is a given in any long-term union. Couples who resist this reality (by holding the unrealistic expectation that “true love” should result in eternal harmony) will sooner or later find themselves unprepared for the inevitable tides of misunderstandings that will require compromise, some creative problem-solving, and the need for mutual give and take.
But just because relationship conflict is to be expected doesn’t mean that you and your spouse/partner cannot learn the skills needed to effectively communicate in order to get your needs met, reduce unnecessary arguments, and build better understanding and emotional intimacy.
Empathy 101: Using your ability to imagine what it must be like for your partner.
Relationship Fact: At times (maybe even often) your spouse’s/partner’s response will differ from your own—e.g., you’re able to let something quickly roll off your back while your partner is ruminating for two days about the exact same event.
But this is where many couples get stuck—I see it all the time with the couples who seek my relationship help and marriage advice. When your partner’s reaction is very different from your own, the easy way out is to judge him/her for their reactions rather than putting in the time and effort to understand them.
This is where empathy is needed in order to create a bridge of understanding and emotional connection between you and your spouse/partner.
True empathy involves the ability to imagine what it is like for your partner, independent of how you would respond. If your partner is nervous about trying something new (something you don’t find intimidating), the goal should be for you to suspend your immediate reaction and imagine what it must be like for her/him.
Marriage/Relationship Help Action Step
While you might not understand why this particular situation is causing your spouse/partner to feel afraid, you do know about the experience of fear (or joy, excitement, anger, sadness, etc). Practice being empathic by remembering a time when your reaction was similar to your partner’s, even though the events that led up to your reaction differ. This can help you break down any resistance that may be blocking you from entering into your spouse’s/partner’s emotional world.
It isn’t necessary to share the details of the situation that led to your feelings at that moment; instead, use your emotional reaction (the one that parallels your partner’s) to give you a better appreciation of what it is like to be your partner in that moment.
And try to communicate from this place of greater appreciation and empathy.
Until next time,
Rich Nicastro, Ph.D.