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Happy Couples Make Empathy the Norm

Empathy — the ability to walk in another person’s shoes — is the key to a happy relationship. An empathetic relationship is one in which each partner makes every effort to know what’s going on in the mind and heart of the other. Empathy makes all these other things — acceptance, appreciation, forbearance, forgiveness, tolerance, and understanding — possible.

Empathy sometimes means giving your partner a second chance. Empathy can open the door for alternative explanations as to why people in relationships behave the way they do — for example, “She’s not really mad — she’s probably just tired. After all, she works hard all day, just like I do.”

Nearly all people in intimate relationships have moments of empathy here and there, but for many people empathy is more the exception than the norm. With happy couples, empathy is the norm. It’s consistent, predictable, and expected.

Emotional empathy and happiness

Former president Bill Clinton scored some major political points when he spoke the now famous words: “I feel your pain.” Human beings love that type of emotional empathy — having someone able to relate to how they feel. It’s a form of emotional validation.

If you want to score some major marital points, listen to what your partner is saying. If your partner says, “I’m tired,” hear your partner’s voice. Instead of defending yourself against your partner’s feelings, by saying something like, “It’s not my fault you’re tired,” say something like, “Of course, you’re tired. Of course, you’re upset. Of course, you’re anxious.” And mean what you say.

Rational empathy and happiness

Avery D. Weisman, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in his wonderful and insightful book The Coping Capacity (Human Sciences Press), refers to another type of empathy, one that requires “a respect for another person’s irrationality.” He’s talking about rational empathy, which he suggests is a real, authentic desire to view the world through the other person’s eyes.

Rational empathy doesn’t mean that you necessarily adopt your partner’s way of seeing things — it just means that you try to understand and consider it. Rational empathy, in effect, keeps married couples from ending up strangers speaking a foreign language.

To master the art of rational empathy, you must:

  • Be open-minded

  • Be considerate when sharing your beliefs and ideas with your partner

  • Be an active listener

  • Place no demands on your partner

  • Be willing to take turns in a discussion, no matter how heated it gets

  • Let your partner finish his or her thoughts and sentences, without interrupting

  • Be courteous and civil at all times

  • Be accepting of the fact that there is more than one way to see things

  • Be respectful of the other person

  • Know that showing contempt is dangerous

Intimacy and empathy go hand in hand. The more you and your partner share with one another, and the more you know about one another — beyond just the superficial things in life — the easier and more natural it is to “walk in their shoes.”

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