When considering the relational options couples can take to improve how they communicate, there are few that help them develop needed levels of understanding like empathy. It serves as the underlying foundation for concepts such as curiosity, listening and validation, which are all important in their own right, and enables them to be effective. If you strip these concepts of empathy, you are left with a conversation where each member can easily fall into patterns of self-referencing (paying attention to oneself only), thereby running the risk of alienating the stated thoughts, needs and emotions of their partner.
Empathy and Being Other-Focused
I've often addressed notions of self-referencing when discussing the importance of being other-focused (remaining aware the needs and feelings of our significant other) in our dating or marital communication. Empathy directly correlates with being other-focused, since it involves couples taking the time needed to get outside of their own mind and consider what their loved one is experiencing.
My experience with in providing counseling for couples continues to affirm there is a pressing need in our culture for communication training at all developmental levels. However, for purposes of this article, I think it is important to say that such training and practice is needed related to the application of empathy in romantic partnerships, for through such practice we become more aware of how the concept of being other-focused, which does not imply a negation of one's own needs and desires in a relationship, brings us closer together with those we love.
How to Apply Empathy in Communication
You may be wondering what the application of empathy looks like in human communication. I think one of the most effective ways to define empathy is the following:
Empathy is putting yourself into the place of your romantic partner and allowing yourself to experience what they are thinking and feeling, by asking the following questions: "If I was my loved one, what would I likely feel in this situation, what would I be thinking about, and how would I respond if I was them?"
I am always pleasantly surprised, even awed, by how quickly couples develop accurate insights and new levels of understanding about each other when they ask these questions in session (i.e., in an exercise lasting approximately 60 seconds). Developing these unique insights in such a short time frame speaks to our human capacity for being other-focused, in addition to our ability to largely "get it" in terms of what our significant other is going through if we are willing to develop a greater understanding about them.
My encouragement to you would be to practice the following:
- Take a brief amount of time each day ask your self the following question: "If I was my loved one..."
- What would I likely feel in this situation (e.g., argument, pattern of emotional distancing, current state of our relationship, etc.)?
- What would I be thinking about?
- How would I respond if I was them?
- Reflect on your answers to these questions (from the framework of what it is like to be that person) for approximately 60 seconds.
- Later that day, let your love one know you were thinking about them and wanted to know if they might be feeling a certain way or thinking certain thoughts based on a recent event or conversation between you.
This exercise is important because it provides you with opportunities to practice being other-focused in your relationship. It also provides you with a means of letting your loved one know that you were genuinely thinking about them, which further conveys how important they are to you.
Willingness, Action, and Being Known
Willingness and action are the keys to human understanding in many respects, for if our partner can tell that we are willing to understand them, and our actions clearly verify it (e.g., through our application of empathy), we begin to build the necessary relational components of safety and trust between us. These components are vital, for without them the emotional bonds in any relationship fray, leading to negative emotional-communication cycles that can be very difficult to resolve. Yet, when present, we can seemingly work through anything together.
I would also go as far as to say that the more we apply empathy, the more we will have a greater willingness to continue doing so in the future, for to know and be known in our marital and dating relationships is a beautiful, pleasant and irreplaceable thing indeed.
For more information on the use and application of empathy, or for more information on Fulfilled Christian Counseling, please contact us by clicking on the button below.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Eric Gomez, MS LMFT MHP
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Fulfilled Christian Counseling