Empathy is the foundation of interpersonal connection
Empathy, the ability to identify with or vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another person, is the foundation of interpersonal connection. Humans excel at empathy, though the social mammals (dogs, elephants, dolphins, horses and other herd animals) appear to also have this ability. Cooperation, emotional intimacy, teamwork, and group formation among humans depend on the participants utilizing empathy to facilitate coming together to make common cause.
We are “wired” for empathy, though that ability varies in intensity from person to person. At one end of the continuum are sociopaths, persons who almost completely lack empathy and don’t play by the rules of communal respect the rest of us value highly. At the opposite end of the spectrum are empaths, people who have great capacity for perception, intuition, and understanding of others. This group may include persons who utilize this capacity in their work, like therapists, teachers, psychic healers, and other intuitive savants.
Sadly, empathy can be utilized for commercial or manipulative purposes. When a TV news show focuses on hunger and malnutrition, it tells the story of a particular child. We look into that child’s eyes and imagine his suffering and confusion. We cannot help but feel more connection to the story than if the reporter said, “5314 children in Country X are receiving less than half the calories needed for good health.” When an advertisement shows a handsome couple relaxing at an exotic location the viewer easily imagines himself in their place, feeling the warm sun and tropical breezes.
The power of empathy in intimate relationships
Empathy is most important in intimate relationships. The experience of closeness or intimate connection usually expresses the experience of being “gotten” by one’s partner: feeling understood, appreciated, and known. Experiencing empathy is sweetest when it is non-judging and welcoming. This loving, accepting empathy can be profoundly welcome.
How you can increase the empathy in your intimate relationship
How can couples work to increase the empathy in their relationship? Increased empathy amplifies the feelings of connection and partnership. Increased empathy can facilitate teamwork and cooperation. Here are some tips that are worth employing in your intimate relationship.
Assume the best rather than the worst of your partner
You may feel as if your buttons are being pushed intentionally, but most likely your partner is trying to get through the day, just as you are.
Let go of magic assumptions
“If she really loved me, she would…” Or: “If he cared, he would know what I need.” Sorry! No matter how long you’ve been together, or how much you love each other, neither of you can read minds. This leads to the next point:
Practice clear communication
Learn to ask for what you want and need. Inquire of your lover what he or she wants and needs. Listen carefully to the answer.
Lower the stress and tension in your relationship
A high stress level pushes you close to the Stress Response, where in a flash you feel your survival is at stake. Fight or flight feelings make your prefrontal cortex go dark. You’re in survival mode and your capacity for empathy goes out the window. Practice relaxation or stress reduction. Learn to meditate. Pick calm times for talking about challenging topics.
Strengthen your “empathy muscle” through conscious practice
Using the Mirroring practice from Imago Therapy, sit with your partner and take turns speaking briefly about a feeling that is true for you right now. The listening partner repeats what he has heard, asking questions if clarification is needed. The speaking partner confirms if the feedback is accurate, or restates the parts that have been missed. When the listening partner has given an accurate rendition of the speaking partner’s feeling, he adds, “I see how you could feel that way.” Switch roles and continue for several rounds. Take your time, speaking plainly and listening carefully. The goal is for the communication about emotions to be precise and the reception accurate.
Listen. Really LISTEN to your partner. Focus on the accurate reception and interpretation of what you are hearing and seeing. Ask for clarification if necessary. It’s not about fixing anything! You don’t have to DO anything other than carefully receive your partner’s expression of feeling. Let go of your personal stake in the matter. If this is too difficult, pause. Take a couple of slow deep breaths. Focus on the sensation in your body of the air flowing into and out of your lungs. Then try again. If it’s not possible to let go of your reactivity, acknowledge that. Ask to reopen the discussion later.
You can develop your empathy by practicing it
It helps to practice in low-stress situations when the stakes are not high. It can be a fascinating exercise to truly understand how the world looks through your partner’s eyes. This kind of understanding can be a wonderful gift to your partner and to your relationship.
Footnote: An interesting article on empathy in the New York Times surveyed recent psychological research. The conclusion? When people learned empathy was a skill that could learned and developed they engaged in more effort to experience empathy.