You can become more empathetic in a relationship by practicing active listening, expressing yourself, and resolving past hurts. In some cases, though, you may need professional help.
It may be difficult to be empathetic with your partner in every situation or every time. But practicing empathy in relationships may be the glue that holds them together.
“Empathy is the capacity to understand and truly get someone’s feelings and the situations associated with those feelings,” explains Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD, a clinical psychologist, speaker, and professor at Pepperdine University in Irvine, California.
“[Empathy] is not feeling what the other person feels at the moment. That would be sympathy,” he adds. “‘I understand you feel upset because…,’ communicates empathy. ‘I feel so upset that this is happening to you,’ communicates sympathy.”
Can love survive without empathy?
“Romantic lust certainly can,” says Sultanoff. “I think sustained ‘romantic love’ requires an understanding of your partner, and to have such understanding requires some amount of empathy.”
“With a lack of empathy, and therefore lack of understanding, most people are left feeling empty and unloved,” he adds. “While a couple may stay together for all sorts of reasons, without empathy, the bond, the glue, and the fusion that accompanies a romantic relationship will not develop or will not sustain.”
If you feel there’s room for more empathy in your partnership, these tips to become more empathetic may help:
Sometimes, you may be “too busy” to notice some of your partner’s needs. You may not be aware you’re missing something, and taking a pause may provide you with that chance.
“One tip to be more empathetic with your partner on a daily basis is actually to slow down and be aware of yourself,” says May Han, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Oregon, Washington, and Illinois. “When we are in task mode, our brain shuts down the part in charge of social connection.”
To remedy this, says Han, it may be important to step back and relax. This may help you engage with your partner and become more attuned to their current needs.
A good first step toward switching from task mode to intentional attention to your partner may include:
- leaving work at work
- saving chores for specific times
- running errands together
- putting devices aside when lying together in bed
Active listening is more than paying attention to what your partner says. It also involves:
- processing what they say
- reflecting it back to them
- finding a bridge of validation that makes you both feel connected and supported
Active listening can help you and your partner become more empathetic in the relationship.
If you’d like to practice it, Han recommends an activity called “speaker-listener:”
“The couple can sit on the couch and pick one object as the speaker’s object,” Han explains. This object can be anything in the room, like a remote control or a tissue box.
You and your partner may then take turns holding the object, says Han, and whoever has it at the time will share something about their day that may have been challenging.
“During the practice, after the speaker expresses the difficult moment or incident, the listener’s role isto reflect back to the speaker what they hear them saying, with no insight, opinion, or problem solving.”
To do that, you’d paraphrase what you heard and acknowledge their experience with affirmations like, “I can understand why you could feel stressed after what happened…”
Han says that after the acknowledgment, the listener will express how they felt hearing their partner talk about the challenging experience.
“It is good to start practicing with challenging issues outside of the relationship (work, friendship, school),” Han recommends.
After some time, you may want to introduce topics related to how you feel in your relationship.
Expressing, listening, and acknowledging how each person feels about common challenges can help you feel more empathetic toward one another.
Sultanoff, who also recommends this exercise for couples, says that “for most individuals, it takes months if not years to be proficient in the ability to be empathic and demonstrate understanding to the other.”
“Saying, ‘I get it,’ or ‘I know what you mean,’ doesn’t demonstrate that you truly get it,” he adds. “One must reflect accurately to show [one] really understands.”
Practicing empathy in a relationship may require each person to work on themselves first.
“You can’t pour out if it’s not within,” says Renetta Weaver, a licensed clinical social worker and certified neuroscience coach. “It’s important to holistically address your own needs first.”
“[If you are] stressed about something in your own life or grieving a loss, your mental energy to care about someone [else] might be limited,” she adds.
Working on yourself may involve:
Mindfulness refers to being present in the moment and focusing your conscious attention on where you are, what you’re feeling, and what’s happening around you.
“[Mindfulness] is being aware of your own and your partner’s emotions, in the present, without judgment,” explains Dan Blair, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Crystal Lake, Illinois.
According to Blair, being mindful involves:
- recognition of emotion
- acceptance of emotion
- understanding of emotion
- communicating emotion
“Mindfulness practice includes taking a deep breath and asking yourself, ‘What is happening inside of me?’” explains Blair, who also suggests exploring how you can respond kindly (without judgment) to whatever you notice.
“When you can do this for yourself, you can go deeper with others,” he says. “Judgement and stress push us past needed social connection and into fight, flight, and shut down modes.”
Resentment and emotional pain may get in the way of empathy in a relationship.
“Sometimes couples stop feeling empathy toward their romantic partner not because they don’t love them anymore, but because they are overwhelmed and hurt,” explains Han.
Even if you feel you’ve gotten over a difficult situation, you may still carry some pain with you.
“In a romantic relationship where one party is feeling wronged or hurt, it might be difficult to feel or maintain empathy toward their partner,” explains Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “I would encourage those who are struggling to empathize with their partners to work to be curious about what is driving their inability to extend empathy in their relationship.”
Not receiving empathy from your partner may also hinder your ability to be more empathetic in a relationship.
“One of the most common reasons someone will start to feel less empathy is if they feel a deficit in receiving it,” explains David Helfand, PsyD, a psychologist specializing in couples therapy, neurofeedback, and brain mapping. “Many spouses start to shut down emotionally when they feel like their partner is withdrawing.”
If your relationship has faced significant challenges that have gone unresolved, it may be a good idea to reach out to a mental health professional specializing in couples therapy. They can guide and support your healing process.
“In some cases, you might try to address the issue, [but] your partner still distances themselves. People can only attempt so much before a form of learned helplessness sets in, and they just decide it isn’t worth it anymore,” says Helfand.
Personal past hurts
Sometimes, emotional pain isn’t directly related to the partnership but to other experiences you’ve had in your life, even during childhood.
According to Sultanoff, other reasons for lack of empathy in a relationship may include:
- personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)
- disdain caused by perceived differences that one partner evaluates as negative
- fear of intimacy and avoidance
You may also live with insecure attachment styles that make it challenging to be confident and empathetic in a relationship.
Addressing these root causes of poor empathy may help you in your partnership and in general. A mental health professional may help you in this process.