Showing Empathy in Your Marriage

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By: Amy Morin, LCSW

A great way to work on your relationship with your spouse is to practice empathizing. Showing empathy can improve your communication as well as your emotional intimacy. It takes some practice at first to show empathy if it is not something you are used to, but the benefits can pay off.

Many people don’t recognize a difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is when you feel bad for someone. It can include pity and the message is often, “I am sorry you are having a rough time.” Empathy requires you to try and develop a deeper level of understanding of what the person is feeling. The message given to someone else is, “I’m with you.”

In any relationship, empathy helps communicate to your spouse, “we’re in this together.” It shows you want to understand how your spouse feels. It also shows that you care.

The first step in empathizing means that you try and identify how your spouse is feeling. This requires you to be familiar with a variety of feeling words. Most people can name a short list of feelings such as happy, sad, and mad. But there are countless more. Take a few minutes to try and make a list of feeling words and see how many you can come up with.

If you find that your list of feeling words is a little on the light side, do some research. A quick internet search is likely to bring up a great list of feeling words that includes a variety of feelings. Remember that feelings can range in intensity and finding the right way to describe the feeling is important.

For example, Sally told her husband about how her boss keeps giving her more work today and less time to complete it. Her husband responds by saying, “Sounds like you feel really frustrated with your work.” He listens to what she says and identifies how she feels to show empathy.

Once you are able to identify the feeling, you need to show that you understand what you’ve heard your spouse say. This requires some reflective listening. Reflective listening requires that you pay careful attention to what your partner says and then sum up what you heard.
Reflective listening means that you don’t offer your opinion. This can be difficult for some people as they immediately want to put in their two cents. Instead, it requires you to reflect your spouse’s opinion and feelings.

It also requires you to refrain from trying to solve the problem. Often, when one spouse shares a problem, the other person wants to jump in and offer a solution. Reflective listening helps to clarify that you heard the problem correctly.

If you reflect back something that isn’t what your spouse meant, it offers an opportunity for clarification. Your spouse can tell you if you didn’t hear quite right. Your spouse can then clarify what he means.

Sherry practiced empathizing with her husband James. James came home from visiting his mother and said, “She wants me to put in a floor in her kitchen and wants me to have it down by next weekend. I tried telling her I can’t do it until the end of the month but she says that I’m selfish for not helping her out. Then she said that she’d just hire someone to do it if I can’t help her out.” Sherry responded by saying, “Sounds like you feel really frustrated that your mother puts pressure on you to get jobs done around her home when you have trouble finding the time.” James agreed and continued talking.

Sherry was tempted to jump in and say, “I hope she does hire someone! Then she’ll have to pay a lot of money and she’ll realize not everyone is going to jump when she tells them to. Your mother always demands people wait on her.” This likely would have ended the conversation or lead to James starting to defend his mother.

Sherry’s empathetic response allowed James to see that he was heard and also to keep talking openly.

Reflective listening can help encourage your partner to share more feelings and concerns. It can greatly improve a couple’s communication. Listening requires a lot more attention than people recognize and reflecting back what you’ve heard really helps to ensure that you understand what your partner says.

Empathy requires some patience and practice. It requires you to refrain from jumping to conclusions. It can also require you to bite your tongue when you want to share your own thoughts and feelings immediately.  Although it may feel a little uncomfortable at first, showing empathy is an important skill that becomes easier with practice.

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