“Why does a woman work ten years to change a man, then complain he’s not the man she married?” ~Barbra Streisand
I see it all the time; couples stuck in a rut of marital conflict and stress where small issues become giant hurdles, and their love gets buried. Love sure can be inconvenient, but empathy can dramatically help. Empathy will strengthen your closeness and bond so you feel rich in love, and you’ll be able to handle nearly every challenge that comes your way.
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Why Empathy Is Important in Relationships
To be empathetic, you need to be able to see and mirror the world as others see it. Empathy requires you to be nonjudgmental, understand another person's feelings, and communicate your understanding of their feelings.
As you can see, this emotional intelligence skill is crucial for building healthy relationships and strengthening marriages. Without understanding, there can be no true closeness. To be known is to be loved.
Let’s take a look at some common challenges spouses experience and how to resolve them using empathy.
Challenge: “My partner isn’t who I thought he/she was.”
What Typically Happens:
You begin trying to change your partner into what you think they should be: Handy around the house. Family-focused. Strong and fit. However, who they believe they are or like about themselves or want to be may not match your expectations. Plus, people change. Daily life gets in the way. In this culture of instant gratification and Hollywood love stories, married life can seem tedious, and your image of your personalized Prince/Princess Charming slips away.
For instance, my friend had a stroke at 28 years old. She and her husband had one child at the time of the stroke, but now they have four children. While experiencing bouts of extreme exhaustion as a result of the stroke and running a large family, she assumed her husband would step up to help her. Yet, he didn’t seem to realize how stressful life had become for her.
How to Remedy with Empathy: Step into your spouse’s shoes.
Seek to understand life from their perspective.
- What’s going on at their job?
- Are they getting enough sleep?
- Are they doing the lion’s share of chores at home?
- Have the kids been sick, and that’s a major stressor for them?
- What are they making important that may conflict with what’s important to you?
When my friend finally spoke up to her husband, she discovered that he was overwhelmed, too, and was worried about her. After a frank discussion, the understanding helped them figure out what they both really wanted and needed to feel supported.
Challenge: “I’ve fallen out of love.”
What Typically Happens:
Life never slows down! And sometimes, you can blame your partner for your stress or uncomfortable feelings. They’re not working out enough (they’ve put on a few pounds and seem lazier than usual). Or you feel unappreciated because they’re not complimenting you enough (your inner critic is brutal, and you need that extra encouragement). Or you haven’t been on a date for months and miss that quality time together (they’re a “workaholic”).
You stop feeling the flow and connection of love. Life dulls; the relationship seems flat—more like roommates than lovers; work dominates your life. And you say to yourself, “I’ve fallen out of love.” However, like most things, love needs nurturing—from both of you.
How to Remedy with Empathy: Be nonjudgmental and mindful.
You are responsible for your actions and reactions in a relationship. The real power lies in the only thing you can control and change: your own attitudes and actions.
Work to reduce your habits that detract from love, like unfair expectations or harsh criticisms. Become cognizant of your feelings and actions and the role you play in the quality of your relationship.
Avoid passing judgment, work to understand your partner’s point of view, and communicate your perspective, too.
Reignite love through your actions. The more your partner feels understood and appreciated, the more closeness will begin to unfold.
Challenge: “If we’re not bickering, we’re hardly communicating at all.”
What Typically Happens:
Simple miscommunications snowball into an unrelenting cycle of arguments, cold shoulders, and hurt feelings. Then fighting can become the only way we connect, but this dynamic degrades relationships.
I often tell couples I’m working with about a client years ago who said to me, “If my wife doesn’t even like me, why would I stay married to her?” When I asked him how he had reached his conclusions, he said it was the comments she made and how she treated him. In reality, his wife adored him! To cope with stress around her job and finances, she criticized many of his behaviors and decisions. His interpretations of her treatment of him were skewed and she was unaware of how her criticisms impacted him or how he felt.
Related reading: Turn Complaints into Closeness
How to Remedy with Empathy: Use the Stop, Drop, and Roll Method.
Stop trying to get your point across. Drop your defenses (don’t minimize feelings, argue, use sarcasm, or interrupt). Roll into a safer experience of each other by getting curious and asking open-ended questions.
Encourage your spouse to explain how they feel and show interest in what they say. Sometimes a minor insight into your partner’s experience can transform misunderstandings into compassion.
Real Empathy, Real Solutions
According to Leon Seltzer, Ph.D., few of us naturally have the awareness or emotional intelligence and resilience needed to automatically respond to challenges with empathy. In any committed relationship, we often bring with us the limited tools we learned growing up. Luckily, empathy is a skill that can be learned, and when practiced regularly, can strengthen your bond and your marriage.
If you’re ready to hone your skills and take the next step to improve your marriage, learn empathy. At Heartmanity, we view empathy as vital to relationships as food and water are to our physical bodies. And if you're serious about up-leveling your abilities that will help you in every relationship, try out our self-coaching workbook: Real Empathy, Real Solutions.