Empathy is a big topic in the world of counseling and in pursuing thriving relationships. Even we, as counselors, trained to be empathic, have trouble expressing empathy. In couples counseling, I love sharing Brene Brown’s Empathy video on YouTube as a practical way of teaching empathy. Brene starts her video explaining that Empathy is different from Sympathy. Empathy creates connection while Sympathy drives disconnection. Empathy is the ability to understand and share emotions with another person, to feel with them, and requires slowing down to listen well. Sympathy, on the other hand, is feeling pity for someone and in some ways looks down on them. Sympathy offers a quick fix or an answer to the one who is hurting, leaving them feeling more alone and discouraged.
Empathy in Communication
When helping couples try a different method of communication, it’s typical that one partner is not understanding what the other is saying, or that neither partner is getting the other. Oftentimes, we try to fix the problem by going to solution finding, asking ‘What can I do?’ or stating ‘I don’t know what to do!’. I challenge couples instead to consider their partner may be asking ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Can you understand what it’s like to be in my shoes?’. I am coaching couples to ‘feel with’ each other, to empathically connect, to tune in to one another, to remove doubt and judgment and instead offer a gentle listening ear. When we ‘feel with’ our spouse this communicates that they are not alone and brings down the walls of defense. ‘Feeling with’ creates connection and develops a team spirit. It gives a sense that we are in this together, caring, listening, understanding and becoming intimate with each other.
The Empathy Challenge
Why is this empathy thing so challenging? We are not accustomed to giving our emotions the attention they deserve. Unfortunately in our society, schools, churches, workplaces and families, there’s not a lot of space or time for us to feel and express our emotions. We are much more focused on getting good grades, looking like we have it all together, succeeding professionally, and driving for the next accomplishment. Frankly, men get a double dose of “shut it down” when it comes to sharing emotions. A constant message to men is to provide, perform and problem solve. When a man marries and is invited into intimacy and oneness with his wife, it is often a difficult adjustment and can create much conflict and frustration. He is not practiced in feeling or noticing his emotions. This then creates a big problem when he tries to connect with his wife emotionally and intimately.
Incorporating Empathy in Daily Life
I challenge men, and women as well, to begin this process of empathy and connecting with their spouse as they go through their daily routines. Here’s an example of how to allow time each day to process emotions. When driving in the car, turn off the radio and begin to notice how you are feeling. Name the emotion you are feeling- beyond happy, sad or mad. It’s easy to identify those emotions, but there’s a whole lot underneath these basic emotions. To help, you can Google ‘feelings chart’ or ‘feelings wheel’ to explore and identify the emotion that you are feeling. Accurately pinpointing the emotion will not only help you understand yourself better and what’s driving your behaviors, but will also help you identify and connect with your partner. When both partners are in the practice of noticing and naming their emotions, and clearly communicating these discoveries, the negative cycle of confusion and repeat arguments will be traded for clarity and understanding. As an end result of pinpointing and sharing your emotions, natural solutions will emerge for you as a couple.
Empathy is key for connecting in marriage as well as with our children, friends and loved ones. At Married Life Counseling, we help you navigate and practice the process of empathizing with your significant other to help you find the connection and intimacy you’re both longing for.
Want to put empathy into practice in your relationship? We can help. Schedule an appointment with a Married Life counselor today.
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