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empathy in marriage

Empathy: The Secret Ingredient for a Thriving Marriage

All of us, without exception, share the same fundamental human need to be heard and understood – particularly by the people we hold dear. We share a need for empathy.

Empathy is what makes a difference in a married couple’s life, as it constitutes the foundation for lasting connection and emotional intimacy. Even as conflicts ebb and flow, empathy will ensure that your bedrock remains solid.

Explore the benefits of empathy in marriage, and its ability to improve your marriage and other relationships.

Why Empathy (Not Sympathy!) Is the Key to Lasting Relationships

Not all couples realize how empathy can solve a lot of differences between them and their partner. One possible reason: people often mistake “empathy” for “sympathy.”

The words may sound alike, but here’s the glaring difference between the two:

Sympathy is an honest, yet superficial feeling of honest concern for someone who’s experiencing difficult emotions. It comes from the sympathetic person’s perspective.

“Sympathy is, ‘Wow, that must be hard for you.’ Disconnect. Distance. Void,” Certified Gottman Therapist and The Relationship Place founder Dr. Dana McNeil, PsyD, LMFT, shares in her podcast, The D Spot.

Empathy, on the other hand, is all about putting yourself into the other person’s shoes. Empathy allows you to share the other person’s emotions by suppressing judgment and letting go of your own preconceptions.

“Empathy is ‘here is what I imagine your experience is like.’ ‘Here’s what it felt like to go to your husband’s funeral.’ ‘Here’s what it felt like to lose your job today. Let me talk about that with you’,” explains Dr. McNeil.

empathy in marriage, empathy vs sympathy
Empathy is ‘here is what I imagine your experience is like.’

The Benefits of Being More Empathetic Toward Your Partner

Allows You to Accept Your Partner’s Feelings (While Feeling Your Own)

It’s a mistake to think that we have to feel exactly what the other person is feeling in order to understand them. It surely helps, but it isn’t necessary. That’s because humans can process empathy in both cognitive and emotional levels.

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand why a friend would be sad about failing a job interview, even if you’ve never failed one yourself.

In contrast, emotional empathy is the ability to feel similar emotions based on past experiences. Think of watching a tearjerker drama that hits too close to home.

Being empathetic can be as easy as openly listening to your partner. Knowing what hurts them. And asking what you can do to make them feel better.

Makes You More Resilient Through Hardship

Crises will arise. Naturally, you won’t always know how to address the situation.

That’s where empathy helps you realize that you don’t need to resolve everything with a single heated conversation. Instead, you can just accept that your partner will need to vent and need you to just listen. 

They might even ask for space – and if they do, give it to them.

You may not be able to solve the pressing problem right away, but you can understand and acknowledge their needs. The simple act of taking turns and actively listening to each other could be the solution you’re looking for.

“Just a kind look in the eye or using the person’s name more than once in a conversation will help people know they matter,” says Dr. Riess.

Keeps You Connected During Good Times

One study suggests that displaying empathy for a partner’s positive emotions was “five times more beneficial for relationship satisfaction than only empathizing with their negative emotions.”

To borrow from the title of the above study, your spouse likes that you feel their pain…but love that you feel their joy. Which is why part of being empathetic is celebrating their victories, no matter how small.

Did they do well on an important exam? Take them out on a celebratory dinner. Did they get their dream job? Pop open a bottle of champagne. Their wins are also your wins.

empathy in marriage good times
Your spouse love it when you feel their joy.

Helps You In Interpersonal Relationships

Of all the soft skills empathy is the one thing that stands out. In fact, is also the basis for being successful in communicating with others.

Since empathy allows you to better connect with people’s thoughts and feelings, you become a more pleasant person to be around. The lack of connection to the feelings of another can sabotage relationships. It can in fact, make a person less socially attractive.

When you’re able to display empathy, people are likely to see you as someone they can trust and bond with.

Increases Overall Happiness

Findings from a study suggest that individuals’ abilities to be understanding could be related to an “overall feeling of satisfaction and love in romantic relationships.” Therefore, a constant display of empathy is thought to contribute to a happier marriage.

Joys are relational. Empathy doesn’t always mean feeling the other person’s pain. It also makes you feel the other person’s happiness. If you have this social skill, you’ll be a much happier person.

While most people think of empathy as feeling someone else’s pain, feeling someone else’s happiness can bring vicarious joy into your own life.

5 Ways to Practice Empathy in Your Marriage

1. Let Go of the “Enemy” Mindset

Couples may often think of one another as the enemy. In Gottman’s principles, this would mean they are entrenched in patterns of argument, betrayal, contempt, criticism, and defensiveness. When this happens, they have a really hard time achieving or even seeking understanding.

The enemy mindset doesn’t help them get what they want. Everyone wants trust, respect, understanding, intimacy in a relationship. Thinking about each other as the enemy won’t help in seeing your partner in a good light. Empathy would tell you to take a pause and understand why your partner is acting this way. This would help you resolve your conflicts better.

As long as your mind is on how “wrong” your partner is during a conversation, you won’t be in the right mindset to discuss the real issue at hand. Conflict is sure to follow.

2. Don’t Try to Fix Their Feelings

Fixing feelings, that is, making your partner avoid what they feel, or controlling their mind to not feel the way they do, can only do more harm than good. Instead of trying to change or fix the feelings of the person you love, you should focus on connecting with them.

Simply reminding yourself that your partner is unable to select which feelings to have can help you become more empathetic towards them.

empathy in marriage fixing feelings
Fixing your partner’s feelings can do more harm than good.

“Their feelings come up unconsciously. If you can’t get beyond the belief that negative emotions are a waste of time and even dangerous, you will never be able to attune to your partner enough to have true intimacy,” says Benson.

3. Understand Before You Speak

In the Art & Science of Love Workshop, Drs. John and Julie Gottman always mention that understanding must precede advice.

Some people try to leapfrog through understanding why their partner is upset straight to “solving” their problem. This may cause the partner to be even more upset about having their feelings invalidated.

Instead, Benson suggests that you try saying something as simple as: “Please help me understand why you are so upset.”

“This approach provides an opportunity for your partner to process what they are feeling and for you to more deeply understand where your partner is coming from and who they are as a person,” Benson advises.

4. Practice “Turning Toward”

Dr. John Gottman coined the term “Emotional Bank Account” for couples. Just like a normal bank account, it grows when partners make more deposits than withdrawals.

When you make a deposit to this account, it means you’re turning toward your partner instead of turning away from them. Turning toward means building on empathetic moments such as:

  • Actively listening to them
  • Engaging in meaningful conversations
  • Asking open-ended questions
  • Putting your feelings into words

These simple actions tell your partner that you love them and accept them for who they are. Importantly, it tells them that you’d like to understand their point of view, even if you don’t agree with it.

5. Understand the Root of Conflict 

Distressed couples often have one thing in common: they want to know that, regardless of what happened, they’ll be okay.

Even if “being okay” means parting ways, they want to know that they’re not alone in a difficult journey.

Unfortunately, most partners don’t think about fear as a root of their conflicts. This creates friction when trying to express their needs, often resulting in miscommunication or arguments. This can be changed if understanding precedes advice.

How Couples Counseling Can Help You Be More Empathetic

Some people are naturally more empathetic. Others will need a bit of a nudge. For the latter type, couples therapy can be of help.

The right therapist can provide strategic ways to strengthen empathy in your marriage. They can give actionable tips that work for both of you, which you can practice as soon as you step out of their office. This is the approach offered by Dr. Dana McNeil’s therapy practice.

“We aim to break the stereotype of what therapy is supposed to be like, and what your relationship should look like,” she shares.

We will help you develop evidence-based skills based on John Gottman’s three decades of research. All you have to do is take the first step.


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