Empathy Improves Relationships

Couple huggingA successful, supportive intimate relationship can be one of the most rewarding relationships a person will ever have. But achieving this type of union can be challenging. For some couples, communication can seem one sided, and effective dialogue is rare. However, licensed psychotherapist Julie Hanks, LCSW, reveals that couples can start down the path of healthy communication by developing empathy. In a recent article, Hanks explains how empathy can help partners avoid frustration and improve relationships.

Hanks has worked with couples, individuals, and families for more than two decades. She specializes in relationship issues and believes that empathy may be the key that can unlock relationship happiness. Hanks says that findings from various studies suggest that relationship satisfaction comes from being able to accurately identify each other’s emotions. She says, “Findings suggest that effort, not just accuracy, positively impacts relationships.” Try to find out what lies beneath emotional pleas. For instance, when one partner is critical or negative toward the other for working too much, perhaps they just want to spend more time together. Rather than getting defensive and viewing the feelings as threatening, Hanks suggests that partners look beneath the words to discover the root of the discontent.

She also recommends that each partner learn how to think before reacting. Negativity and conflict can raise defenses and cause people to react impulsively, saying things that are destructive or hurtful. Instead, Hanks believes that individuals should pause and take time to digest the information fully before they respond. Mirroring is another effective tool. When a partners verbalize that they have heard their loved one’s statement and the underlying needs, it diffuses the tension and creates a feeling of validation and empathy. It may take hard work to develop these skills because they are contradictory to automatic and ingrained behaviors. But practice makes perfect. Hanks says, “Even if you read the emotional message inaccurately, your effort to understand your partner’s emotions will pay off!”

Hanks, J. (2012). Empathy: The secret sauce to a happy marriage. Retrieved from http://ca.shine.yahoo.com/blogs/love-sex/empathy-secret-sauce-happy-marriage-044200327.html

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  • kurt

    July 12th, 2012 at 9:33 AM

    almost all of us think only from our own POVs in a conflict or an argument.If we start to see things from our partner’s POV too,things can really make progress and there can be easy and non-hurtful solutions to such situations.

  • penelope q

    July 12th, 2012 at 11:15 AM

    This is so funny because it was just the other day that I saw an article online that the one thing that successful couples shared was a sense of empathy with one another. Being a strong couple can be a challenge, but when you have someone who will listen to you through the good and the bad and who does what they can to support you, then that’s one to hold on to! You have to have a partner who is willing to go that extra mile to try to help you find out what is going on beneath the surface and not jut taking everything at face value only. Many times ther is so much more going on that one partner is willing to say or even knows how to say aloud. A good partner knows that there is more there and gives you the time to figure that out and allows the two of you to work on that together.

  • Rochelle

    July 12th, 2012 at 12:52 PM

    There’s nothing quite like being heard! I like the skill of mirroring because it’s a practical display of one person shifting their perspective. It’s also a great way to show the person that they are worth the effort – which always feels good.

  • Dane

    July 12th, 2012 at 5:03 PM

    it only works if it is reciprocated by both parties

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    July 12th, 2012 at 5:19 PM

    I pressed “like” because the overall message is a helpful and necessary one.
    I am leaving a comment, at the risk of seeming a word nerd, because the semantics are important.
    “Empathy” and “sympathy” are words in the same genre of caring but very different in meaning.
    The article, suggesting individuals develop more empathy for one another, raises a topic about which I clarify frequently in my Private Practice.
    In couples work, a partner will often implore their partner to empathasize with he or she.
    For example, “I just wish he could empathasize with me (once and a while) about how hard it is to be a step Mother to his children when I don’t have children of my own and never wanted them. By definition, this is only possible if he has gone through something similar and, therefore, may
    extend caring with regard to her feelings of frustration. I will clarify the impossibility of this and substitute the word sympathy as a more realistic request. The win-win is immediate. He is absolved of criticism for not understanding (something he has not experienced because he has children, has no step children and is not a woman). She is relieved because it clarifies why Their is no empathy from her partner. It also creates a new place from which to be more sympathetic, caring about the things that upset (or interest) the other.
    Hope this is helpful and read in the spirit for which I intended, clarity and support for meaningful ways to improve

  • rochelle

    July 12th, 2012 at 7:32 PM

    @Dane – And that’s why therapy can provide the structure and at first maybe an ‘artificial’ reciprocation, until the couple can practice on their own.

  • Dane

    July 13th, 2012 at 4:32 AM

    @Rochelle- I want a little more from my spouse than artificial reciprocation. I want a spouse who believes in me the way I believe in her, there should be nothing artificial about that. Agreed?

  • martin naylor

    July 13th, 2012 at 4:41 AM

    a person with empathy will succeed in any relationship and will be an asset in whatever role you can find that person in,no doubt.

  • Rochelle

    July 13th, 2012 at 9:12 AM

    @Dane – Totally agreed. Yet, can you imagine being highly defensive and in the heat of conflict and thinking ‘Hm… I want to believe in my (husband/wife/partner) right now…let me reciprocate’. I guess what I’m saying is, at times, practicing reciprocating, even when you don’t believe it or feel it, can be the first step on the road to believing in the other person even when there’s a discrepancy or conflict.

  • MartinF

    July 13th, 2012 at 3:26 PM

    But don’t you think that most successful couples will naturally have this empathy toward one another, that it isn’t something that they would have to learn?

  • Rochelle

    July 13th, 2012 at 4:46 PM

    There’s a part of me that thinks very few things come naturally – meaning, without work. I wonder what the experts would say about successful couples and the things that have come naturally or the things they’ve had to work at. Chanelling Gottman here…

    I guess, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, because it’s easy to be empathetic in the beginning of a relationship and as time goes on, that interaction needs maintainance – a little oil and grease to keep it running!

  • axel

    July 16th, 2012 at 4:11 AM

    What I have hard time with is actually thinking before I say something out loud. It is rare (sadly) that I think about how my words will affect someone before I say them. It is my own oops moments that have tended to hurt most of my own relationships.

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