How To Show Empathy to Your Partner

Whether dating or married, couples who show empathy report more satisfying relationships. Their partners are more open which leads to a greater sense of intimacy. Also, by showing empathy, they develop a richer understanding of their mate. In turn, this leads to fewer misunderstandings and arguments. What follows is based on the work of Dr. Robert Scuka, an empathy and relationship expert.

Signs you might be showing a lack of empathy

If your partner complains that you don’t validate or understand them, it’s possible that you are not being empathic. Another sign is when conversations in which one person is opening up suddenly ends abruptly with silence, sulks or an argument. And yet another indicator is when one partner offers a solution or advice which is either not well received or met with anger.

Most often, it occurs when you respond to your partner with either silence, a change of topic, an opinion, disagreement or a solution.

Why You Need to Show Empathy

There are three goals in showing empathy. These are to…

  • help your significant other to feel understood and accepted by you
  • encourage your partner to deepen their understanding on a topic
  • improve your understanding of your partner’s feelings, worries, and hopes

The Benefits of Being Empathetic

First of all, it encourages your partner to explore an issue more deeply and express their feelings in detail. Secondly, people are more receptive to hearing different opinions after feeling heard. They are also more likely to tackle a problem constructively too. Many problems in relationships stem from stalemates or deadlocks in which one or both partners are closed off to hearing the other’s point of view. Showing empathy can help bring this to an end. A third benefit is that being able to express negative feelings helps get them out, which has health benefits. And finally, it improves emotional bonding and closeness.

How to be Empathetic – The 10 Skills

Dr. Scuka, the author of Relationship Enhancement Therapy, recommends that when showing empathy, the empathizer remain firmly in that role until the speaker has finished. The speaker will improve their chances of receiving empathy if they know how to express feelings skillfully (described in the next blog).

  1. Place your own feelings and concerns on hold so that you can focus firmly on your partner’s. It is not about you. It is about your partner’s experience. Don’t jump in and correct what you disagree with.
  2. Show engaged body language. To improve you understanding of your partner, face them, maintain comfortable eye-contact and notice their body language.
  3. Put yourself in your partners shoes (or skin). This is not about what you would do in that situation. Think about how it would feel if you were your partner, with their personality, history, imperfections and struggles. If your partner is less assertive, imagine what it must feel like to have this situation unfold and feel unable to assert yourself. This is the moment to hold off on offering advice.
  4. Look closely for the significance of the topic to your partner. This involves reading between the lines and being curious about why this topic or dilemma is important to your partner.
  5. Share your insights. Since you know your partner, their history and typical struggles, you will often have accurate insights in to what they are struggling with. If you do, share these, as it might help your partner with their self-understanding. If you happen to be off-mark, graciously accept the correction and remain curious.
  6. Use direct statements. For example, if you’re partner is talking about their frustration at your long work hours, you could say “You are really frustrated at me being away until late every evening.” Being this blunt really communicates empathy.
  7. Avoid ‘qualifiers’ and ‘introductory’ statements. These are things like “What I hear you saying is…” and “It seems like you’re feeling…” as these weaken empathetic statements.
  8. Do not express your own feelings or opinions yet. This will shut down your partner, as discussed above. Your partner is expressing things in order to be known, not evaluated. When you express a different opinion, it shifts focus on to comparing both opinions and introduces conflict.
  9. Hold Off on offering advice. Advice is important, but it must come later. When your partner is talking and exploring their issue, they need to feel heard before a solution is offered. You wouldn’t be happy if a doctor handed you a prescription before you’d finished expressing your concerns.
  10. Seek clarification if you don’t understand. You cannot show empathy if you do not understand what your partner is talking about. If that is the case, you should gently interrupt and say something like “sorry to interrupt, but this sounds really important to you and I want to hear what you have to say. But I’m struggling to understand. Can you explain it a little differently for me?”

Taking Turns

Once one partner has expressed themselves, you can summarize what you heard to demonstrate your understanding. Most likely, you will then get a turn to speak and the roles will switch. The person who talked will then take on the role of empathizer and person who showed empathy will take on the role of speaker. It is important that the speaker follow important guidelines on how to express themselves (explained in the next blog).

Practice, Be Patient, and Seek Help if Necessary

The skills above are easy to implement and are especially useful if there is a lot of arguing in a relationship. But be patient with yourself and your partner. Learning how to be more empathetic can take longer if you are insecurely attached. That is, uncomfortable with closeness or always worried about close relationships failing.

If you or your partner are feeling distant, misunderstood, or have difficulty talking to each other, then consider seeking professional help. A marriage therapist can help you learn to improve your communication skills and build a stronger relationship.