Part of the fun of being in a couple is difference. Empathy for a partner and their differences allows couples to create a bond that carries them past the early sparky part of their relationship and even through conflict. Our Director Heather Mayone recently discussed how couples can develop and maintain empathy in their relationships in Brides Magazine.
In “5 Ways to Practice Empathy in Your Relationship,” Heather defines empathy as understanding another person’s experience and perspective so deeply that it is almost as if it is your own. “Empathy is when you care for someone and you can see through their lens and have a sense of what it would be like to walk in their shoes,” she explains. No two people’s experiences are the same, even if partners have shared interests and values. Each partner is made up of a unique mixture of nature and nurture—their natural orientations and accumulation of experiences in the world. In order to really get your partner—what excites them, what presses their buttons, what turns them on, what sets them off, and what scares them—as well as continue to build intimacy, you need empathy.
Though not in the article, Heather observes that love is key for empathy. You have to really care for the other person in order to both come to know their perspective and for it to matter. Especially when there is conflict, you need to come from a loving place to want to see a partner’s side of things rather than just feeling wronged. There is a distinction to be made here between sympathy and empathy. It can be easy to feel sympathy when a partner is upset, but that’s more a response to their feelings. To truly get to why they are upset, the root cause of it, and all the nuances, it takes an additional layer of understanding.
Particularly for couples in long-term relationships, partners can lose curiosity and assume they already know their partner’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Heather recommends when you ask a question of your partner, closely and genuinely listen to their answer. Ask one more open-ended question than you are comfortable with and challenge yourself to really see something you normally wouldn’t.
Granted, this desire to empathize can be difficult when partners feel hurt, angry, or resentful. “When empathy and curiosity shut down and one or both partners are hurt,” Heather tells Brides Magazine, “it can cause a cycle and a bit of a ping-pong effect, where more hurt is caused and the partners are feeling at odds with each other.” This can spark a “snowball effect that moves two partners in a couple farther apart.”
However difficult, it’s important that couples try to maintain a type of neutral curiosity, meaning attempting to see someone else’s perspective without your own bias, while also not abandoning your own hurt, feelings, or perspectives. Partners can hold both if a couple has built up enough safety and trust that their partner is coming from a good place. Ideally, partners will be able to have enough goodwill to try and stay curious, as well as look for what each may be missing in the way their partner acted.