The Power of Empathic Listening and Setting Boundaries in Marriage

The ability to be moved by another’s pain is one of the distinguishing features of our humanity. When we feel for a person, we are emotionally impacted by their particular struggle or circumstance. When this occurs, we may be more likely to react compassionately in some way (for instance, giving a loved one who is upset a hug; meeting with a recently-divorced friend to offer support; donating to a charity).

Clearly our capacity to be sympathetic is an important part of our relationships. It encourages us to reach out at times, bringing out the nurturer, caregiver and protector in us. A sympathetic response shifts our priorities, making what’s going on for someone else our immediate concern. How often have you put something you were doing on hold in order to be there for someone you’re concerned about?

Expressions like, “My heart goes out to him”; “I’m so sorry to hear about your loss”; “Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you” are just a few of the phrases that reflect our sympathetic experiences.

A sympathetic response cannot be forced. It’s an emotional reaction that either happens or doesn’t. Certain things will move you emotionally, some won’t.

Let’s turn our attention now to empathy. It’s easy to confuse sympathy with empathy, but there are important differences that matter to your marriage/relationship.

Why is empathic listening so important in intimate relationships?

Empathic listening allows us to reach past our sympathetic response in order to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. During a sympathetic reaction you are feeling  for another; through empathy you are feeling with another.

And empathy is something you can practice. While empathy may seem to come more naturally to some people, it’s important to underscore that empathic listening can be practiced. It’s a communication skill that you’ll want to have in your relationship communication toolbox, and it’s available to each and every one of us.

This capability is quite remarkable, and it’s highly beneficial for your marriage/relationship. Your empathic abilities and intentions help you tune into what it must be like to be your spouse/partner in a particular moment in time.

The importance of empathic listening was captured by a husband who shared the following:

“Empathy has always been a challenge for me, but when I was a teenager, a friend’s dad I looked up to told me that ‘sooner or later our sympathies run out, so you have to practice empathy.’ And it’s true. I can easily get frustrated if my wife is upset about the same thing and I’m ready to move on. But then I try to imagine it from her perspective, and when I do this I find that I can be there for her.” ~ Christopher, married seven years

As Christopher was told long ago, despite our loving intentions, our sympathies aren’t infinite. You may have experienced this with your partner or a friend. One of the things I frequently hear from people who are struggling emotionally is that they don’t want to “burden” their friends by repeatedly talking about their problems. Have you ever felt this way? You might reach out initially, but you’re concerned that if you keep at it, sooner or later the person you’re reaching out to may pull away from you. You may have seen firsthand that the compassion of others isn’t endless.

  • If we give too much of ourselves, don’t we all get emotionally taxed at some point?
  • Is there anything we can do to replenish our sympathy reservoir so that we can be there for each other?

How to become more emotionally available (and sympathetic) to your partner

Let’s turn our attention to how you and your partner can become more emotionally present and available to each other.

The first has to do with setting healthy boundaries in your marriage/relationship. Setting boundaries helps us deal with the issue of feeling emotionally overwhelmed or taxed. The second, practicing empathic listening, helps us pull out of the vortex of negativity and defensiveness by reestablishing emotional connection.

1) Setting healthy boundaries

If our loving compassion has its limits (even though we may wish it was limitless), then it might be best to set better boundaries for ourselves with others. When our psychological boundaries are too porous, we can end up giving so much of ourselves that it feels like there is nothing left. In these instances, you’ll be running on emotional empty, and if your partner reaches out for you, you may find yourself pulling away or become agitated/frustrated with him/her.

And yes, boundary-setting can also occur in marriage and intimate relationships. It might be as simple as saying, “I really do want to hear about the difficulties you’re having at work, but I just got home. I had a long day and I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed myself at the moment. I’d like to lie down for a while and maybe later we can talk?”

In this example, a boundary is gently established that accomplishes two things:

a) You’re telling your spouse/partner what you need in the moment (an act of self-care).

b) You are also sending the message that you still want to be there for him/her when you’re ready.

Boundary-setting in this way allows us to emotionally replenish ourselves while modeling that self-care also benefits the marriage or relationship. This isn’t a selfish act. You cannot give to others if you do not give to yourself.

2) Practicing Empathic Listening

There are times when patterns of negativity take hold of our relationship. Defensive responding starts to block our capacity to hear each other. The ideals of emotional openness and loving compassion get subsumed under the stresses of misunderstandings.

Reactions like, “You’re being unreasonable” or “I can’t believe you’re still talking about that!” reflect these struggles. In these moments, real listening is severed. It can feel like there is no room left inside of us to process what is going on for our partner/spouse. So we quickly slam the door shut and remain closed-off.

Haven’t we all been in this defensive, closed-off place?

The power of empathetic listening

Being exhausted or overwhelmed clearly has the capacity to negatively impact emotional connection. And, as stated above, so does defensiveness. You cannot be empathic and defensive at the same time. These are incompatible, mutually-exclusive experiences.

In the quote above, Christopher mentioned how trying to take his wife’s perspective helps him soften emotionally toward her. Something internally shifts for him, and therefore frustration (fed by defensiveness) is replaced with an openness and willingness to be there for her. In these moments, he is practicing empathy. Whenever we try to take the perspective of another, to understand (rather than judge) why they are feeling X or Y, we are walking the path of empathy.

Empathic listening requires practice. We must set the intention to imagine what the world might be like for our partner in a particular moment. This is a real challenge, especially during the occasions when empathy requires that we acknowledge and understand that we’ve had a negative impact on her/him.

Why go through all this trouble in becoming a more empathetic listener?

Listening in this way creates bridges, which means that it has the potential to feed and strengthen the emotional connection in your relationship.

Think about the last time you felt listened to by someone (whether it was your partner or someone else). Feeling listened to means feeling understood. And when you feel understood by your partner, relational magic happens. Emotional intimacy is nurtured and the closeness that is central to intimate relationship is allowed to flourish.

So, are you ready to start practicing healthy boundary-setting and empathic listening in your own marriage or relationship?

Dr. Rich Nicastro

(Featured image courtesy of Stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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