The Marriage Podcast for Smart People

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How Empathy Deepens Intimacy

There are few things more discouraging than coming to your spouse with something exciting to share and being met with a blank stare. Or saying what a disappointing day you’ve had and being told to be more positive. In relationships, you want to be understood. You want your spouse to feel what you feel, to validate the experiences that you’re having. It can be devastating when that doesn’t happen. But if you’re able to cultivate empathy, you will be able to find more stability and intimacy in your marriage. What is Empathy? More than simply hearing someone else, empathy is about being able to take on their perspective almost as if it were your own.[1],[2] You can stand in their shoes and see the world through their lens. It’s about being able to fully understand what a situation is like for someone else.[3] It’s not enough to feel sorry for the other person. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Experiencing empathy is telling them that you can feel their pain and understand why they feel it, not merely feeling sorry that they are in pain. Showing empathy in this way validates their experience, telling them that it’s understandable to feel this way. Empathy doesn’t necessarily require you to agree with the other’s perspective. If your spouse is furious with how a friend treated them, showing empathy doesn’t mean you have to be angry at their friend. But it does mean being willing to listen and understand the reasons for their anger. It means acknowledging that it makes sense they would be upset. It can be challenging to feel the ups and downs of another your spouse’s experience. But if you take the time to hear them out and put yourself in their shoes, you can offer them something valuable: being seen and understood. Why Should You Empathize? In marriage, empathy brings a broad range of benefits to the table.[4] Being able to show empathy to your spouse is a big part of being able to have a well-adjusted and stable relationship. When you can understand their perspective, you will be able to better adjust to married life, reducing the possibility of divorce. Empathy is a skill that you develop, and some marriage counselors even suggest empathy training for newlywed couples. For some, it comes naturally, but training can help individuals be more understanding despite not learning this skill as children or even as adults. And everyone can benefit from further developing empathy, as it provides new and more profound ways to communicate and interact. Research shows that becoming better at expressing empathetic understanding often leads to improved relationship satisfaction. After all, feeling understood meets a deep need that can’t be found anywhere else. How Can You Build Empathy? There are three primary building blocks to help expand in your capacity for empathy:[5] 1. Honesty To see things from your spouse’s perspective, they first have to be able to share it with you. If you want your spouse to understand you, you need to be open and willing to share your perspective with them. Looking for your spouse to feel what you feel? You have to be honest about how you’re feeling. So dishonesty gets in the way of allowing yourself or your spouse to extend empathy. Sometimes it creeps in for genuine reasons. You might want to protect your spouse from the stress of your work life, so you choose to say that you’re okay after you come home. But you need the courage and willingness to expose even the most carefully hidden parts of you to your spouse. If you want to have a deeper relationship, you need to be honest and vulnerable enough to share everything with your spouse, not just the easy stuff. 2. Compassion While similar to sympathy, which was defined above, compassion goes beyond just feeling bad for someone. It’s about genuinely seeking to understand for the sake of helping the other. Compassion helps to develop your empathy because it provides a caring motivation for doing ...