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 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.”