Successful couples are empathic towards each other. Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s emotions from their perspective – what people often call “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” It’s different than sympathy, because empathy is more about understanding the experience of another human being than it is feeling bad for them.
I’ve been doing couples therapy for 10 years, and I’ve noticed that successful couples have the ability to put themselves in their partner’s shoes. Lots of people want to increase their empathy, and I’m going to share how you can do this.
The next time you become upset or angry with your partner, remember to breathe. Take a deep breathe in for a count of three and out for three, and relax your shoulders. Release any tension and feel your feet on the ground.
Bringing awareness back to the physical body will help you get outside your head. You will be more present in the current moment instead of getting carried away with your thoughts. You will also be calm enough to genuinely listen.
Stop and listen
During an argument, we often don’t listen to what the other person is saying. This is typically because we want to be heard, and we want the person we love to see the situation from our perspective and empathize with us.
The next time you get into an argument, make eye contact with your partner when they speak and really listen. Hear what they’re saying first. Let them fully express what they have to say before you interject.
Listening will also give your nervous system a chance to calm. Research shows that when you are agitated, your heart rate beats over 100 beats per minute. As a result, blood flows to your limbs rather than your brain. This physiological affect means that you’re more impulsive and less rational. Deep breathing and listening will give your nervous system a chance to calm before you speak. Forgetting to do this often causes cyclical arguments, because when your nervous system is heightened you’re less likely to resolve anything.
Visualize their perspective
Imagine you get home exhausted after a long day of work and you become irritated because you notice your partner is in a bad mood. You might be frustrated because you want to enjoy a nice dinner together after a stressful day or you want to speak to them about something that happened at work. Rather than becoming upset at their bad mood, what if you were to try to understand it? If you know your partner has a lot going on at work, lost sleep last night or hasn’t eaten yet, you can understand your partner’s mood and let it go – even if you don’t agree with how they are handling it.
Being empathic doesn’t mean you have to agree with your partner, but that you understand how they see a particular situation, why they see it that way and how it influences their behaviour. Remember that every person you have a relationship with in your life – whether a romantic partner, friend or co-worker – has their own set of life experiences, worries, fears, values and beliefs. These things don’t just shape the bigger picture; they shape how we see our daily life experiences and the things that happen in our lives. Understanding how perception comes to be and how it differs from person to person is a big part of empathy.
Learning to be empathic will improve your relationship, help you let things go, and be calmer overall. It might seem simple, but empathy takes practice.
To practice empathy, visualize yourself in your partner’s situation and then tell them you understand how they’re feeling (even though you still may not agree with how they are feeling, remember: you can understand something without agreeing with it.) Practice imagining yourself in your partner’s situation for a moment and allow yourself to see the situation from their perspective.
The next time you become upset, breathe, focus on listening, visualize being in your partner’s situation, and you will be able to let go of the argument and build a stronger relationship.