“Empathy is truly the heart of the relationship,” said Carin Goldstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
“Without it, the relationship will struggle to survive.” That’s because empathy requires compassion. And, without compassion, couples can’t develop a bond.
“[A] bond is like glue: If there is no glue then everything falls apart.”
Psychotherapist Cindy Sigal, AMFT, also stressed the importance of empathy for relationships: “Empathy bridges the divide between being separate individuals with different backgrounds, feelings and perspectives.”
She cited John Welwood’s definition of love in his book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships: “a potent blend of openness and warmth, which allows us to make real contact, to take delight in and appreciate, to be at one with ourselves, others, and life itself.”
According to Sigal, without empathy, we can’t make this real contact.
What is Empathy?
There are various definitions of empathy, said Sigal, who practices at Urban Balance, which offers counseling services in the Chicago area. She likes psychologist Paul Ekman’s delineation, which separates empathy into three types: cognitive, emotional and compassionate.
“Cognitive empathy is sometimes also referred to as perspective taking,” Sigal said. This is when a person can imagine how someone is feeling, but they don’t feel their emotions.
She shared this example: A husband notices his wife looks upset and asks if she’s OK. The wife recounts her extra-long commute to work. He responds with “Wow, that sounds really frustrating.”
“Cognitive empathy allows us to appreciate someone else’s feelings without feeling them or losing sight of whose feelings are whose,” Sigal said.
Emotional empathy is when you do feel the same or similar feelings as the other person, she said. For instance, you feel happy when your partner is happy.
According to Sigal, both cognitive and emotional empathy can be used in negative ways (e.g. someone might use cognitive empathy to be manipulative; someone who takes on their partner’s emotions might become too burned out to support them).
Compassionate empathy “is a balance of positive cognitive and emotional empathy, which prompts us to take action, as needed.”
For instance, a messy partner, who has compassionate empathy, can imagine and feel how annoying or even distressing it is for their partner to deal with their mess, so they modify their behavior and pick up after themselves, she said.
In other words, “compassionate empathy is more of a whole person response: heart, mind and behavior.”
How to Enhance Empathy
To enhance empathy toward your partner, first, it’s important to explore “what’s getting in the way of its natural expression,” Sigal said. “What are the contexts in which one finds oneself acting in a less empathetic manner?”
1. Be mindful of your signals.
A big obstacle in feeling empathy toward our partners is getting entangled in our own perspective and the intensity of feelings, Sigal said.
When you’re unable to process your partner’s point of view, she suggested paying attention to what feels different in your body (to get you so upset).
“For example, does your heart start to race, does your face feel flushed, or does your chest feel tight?”
If you don’t experience any difference in your body, pay attention to your thoughts. “Do you start to have thoughts shooting off in rapid fire or do the same thoughts keep swirling through your head?”
Once you notice your unique signs, take a break. Take several deep, slow breaths and wait until you’ve calmed down to rejoin the conversation, she said.
2. Give your partner genuine attention.
“When you are listening with genuine attention you are taking action to understand your partner,” said Goldstein, creator of BetheSmartWife.com, which explores the trials and tribulations of marriage.
This also means not focusing on your own response or formulating a way to defend yourself, while they’re talking, she said.
3. Practice loving-kindness.
Loving-kindness is the foundation for mindfulness practice, Sigal said. It is free from judgment and invites calm and clarity, she said.
“The more in touch we are with our foundation of loving-kindness, the more easily we can access empathy and be mindful of our experience and behavior.”
She suggested saying this loving-kindness meditation:
“May I be happy, healthy and whole.
May I have love, warmth and affection.
May I be protected from harm, and free from fear.
May I be alive, engaged and joyful.
May I enjoy inner peace and ease.
May that peace expand into my world and throughout the entire universe.
May (partner’s name) be happy, healthy and whole.
May (partner’s name) have love, warmth and affection.
May (partner’s name) be protected from harm, and free from fear.
May (partner’s name) be alive, engaged and joyful.
May (partner’s name) enjoy inner peace and ease.
May that peace expand into his/her world and throughout the entire universe.”
She also suggested practicing the following loving-kindness meditation which is taught by meditation teacher and New York Times best-selling author Sharon Salzberg:
4. Seek out the positive.
Often partners get into the habit of focusing on what’s wrong with their partner (or their life in general), Sigal said. This can get in the way of empathy. Instead, she suggested “looking for one good quality in your partner every day.”
5. Be self-compassionate.
It’s hard to empathize with another person if we can’t empathize with ourselves. Sigal also stressed the importance of practicing self-compassion, which is “treating ourselves with kindness, care and understanding.”
Practice this by noticing and acknowledging when you’re having a difficult time — without minimizing or catastrophizing your experience, she said. Then check in with yourself to see what you need. It’s helpful, Sigal said, to have a list of healthy strategies you can turn to.
Remind yourself, too, that struggle and imperfection are part of being human, she said. “It isn’t a sign that [you are] less than human, but rather something that is part of our shared human experience.”