Let's say your partner had a crappy day at work. As soon as he walks through the door, he's ready to vent. You listen, and comfort him and tell him you understand. But guess what? That's not enough.
You'd think understanding would be key to every successful relationship. But in fact, it's empathy, which is far more important.
According to recent research from the University of California Santa Barbara, if you want to truly help your SO through whatever stressful situation they're dealing with, you've got to care that they're suffering in the first place.
When you're empathetic, you're not only more compassionate but also more motivated to tend to your partner's needs.
Empathy, in case you haven't opened your emotional playbook in a while, is imagining how another person feels. You don't just listen to their POV. You genuinely try to step into their shoes.
"Understanding means to listen carefully and be tolerant of what someone is saying," explains Tina B. Tessina, PhD (aka "Dr. Romance"), a psychotherapist and author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction.
Instead of judging, you let the speaker know you get what they're saying by paraphrasing in their own words. For instance, "I get it. Your boss is a jerk and you hate your job."
Being empathetic, though, means "feeling similar emotions to what the speaker is feeling as he or she talks," Tessina says.
So when your partner's letting loose about how his boss always stands over him with his bad breath and insists everyone stays late even when he leaves at five o'clock on the dot -- you want to tap into how frustrated and trapped and resentful that would make you feel.
Because then you become more than a sounding board, right? You're an ally. And you two, damn straight, are in this together.
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So what can you do to go from being 'understanding' to 'empathetic'?
"Attempt to set aside the idea of who's right and who's wrong, and focus on the experience your partner is having," suggests Jeanette Raymond, PhD, a licensed psychologist and author of Now You Want Me, Now You Don't! Fear of Intimacy: Ten Ways to Recognize It and Ten Ways to Manage It In Your Relationship.
So in the above scenario, now is not the time to say, "Didn't I tell you six months ago, you shouldn't have taken that job and your boss is a whack job?"
You also want to "be open to the possibility that your partner's reality is different, but nonetheless real for them," Raymond adds. "You don't have to give up your experience or your reality, but make room for both."
So what if you're like, I know, I know. Because you're the world's most empathetic person. And it's your partner who could use some schooling?
(We're not stereotyping here, BTW. "People who are comfortable with feelings are more empathetic and women are more often comfortable with feelings," Tessina notes.)
"Point out similarities in your experiences of being let down, disappointed, etc.," says Raymond. "[Then] stress the importance of being available, rather than distant, in making your relationship closer."
And if they balk? Don't nag. Just, you know, imagine where they're coming from.
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