Has your spouse/partner ever reacted in a way that confuses you?
If so, you’re definitely not alone. Most of us have moments where we just don’t understand why a particular situation is so upsetting to our mate and sends him/her into an emotional tailspin.
Even couples who typically communicate effectively and are clear about their emotional needs struggle with moments of misunderstanding and a breakdown of intimacy.
It’s probably safe to say that we can chalk up these moments to the simple fact that you’re different people with different ways of experiencing the world, so there will be times when you just don’t “get each other.”
This exact issue is what brought Jeremy and Cathryn to marriage counseling. Jeremy sought my relationship help because he wanted to better understand his wife. And part of completing this puzzle-of-understanding was for Jeremy to understand how Cathryn’s childhood shaped her.
Marriage Advice: Look at the “big picture” of your spouse/partner’s life.
This is something you can do when you’re having a difficult time comprehending your spouse’s/partner’s reactions and to learn how to give her/him the support that is needed or as a general approach to deepen empathy and intimacy.
This is what therapists and counselors do all the time.
Usually therapists take a thorough history, asking questions about a person’s childhood and life circumstances, looking at the quality of parental and family relationships, the impact of painful and positive experiences, and the like.
This helps a therapist build a bigger picture in which to better understand the particular way a client experiences the world and deals with stress.
You already have important information that can increase empathy
You know a great deal about your spouse’s/partner’s life. Unlike a therapist conducting a formal history, the unfolding of information couples share occurs naturally over the course of their marriage/relationship. You probably know more details about your partner than anyone else. That knowledge can be helpful in improving your empathic skills.
I am not suggesting you play counselor with your partner. Don’t interpret each other’s reactions by saying something like, “I don’t think you’re only upset about your boss. It goes much deeper than that—you’re reacting to your boss like you did to your father…” That’s not an empathic approach, that’s an analytic approach; your partner needs to be understood, not analyzed.
The goal is for you to use the knowledge about your partner’s past to achieve greater understanding of his/her present day reactions—reactions that may not initially make sense to you. And your partner should do the same for you.
There is no standard formula in how to accomplish this. However, as a guide to help increase your understanding, ask yourself: “Does my partner’s reaction make sense considering what s/he’s been through in her/his life?”
Asking yourself this question (and similar questions) from time to time is a good way to prime the empathy pump.
Wishing you and your relationship all the best,
Rich Nicastro, Ph.D.