by Jeffrey Bernstein Ph.D: Empathy can infuse hope and postive energy back into your love…
When it comes to the survival of intimate relationships, no matter how much love there is between you and your partner, there’s no guarantee that you both will be able to make your love last—even if you think you’re “soulmates.” In fact, without empathy, the love in your relationship will end up like “love” in tennis—one big zero.
A woman I was recently seeing for counseling—”Mary,” age 43—described to me how empathy saved her marriage to her husband, Juan: “All I kept doing was constantly ripping on Juan because I only looked at our relationship from my perspective. I kept forcing myself to act nicer but it didn’t work. But once I really took the time to understand what his thoughts and feelings were, then I felt this love for him come over me.”
If you are questioning whether or not to throw in the relationship towel and call things quits, I am asking you to carefully pay attention to what I am about to share about how crucial empathy is for struggling relationships to heal and thrive.
Love Alone Isn’t Enough
Relationships, and the love that supports them, don’t run on autopilot. As discussed by DeNetto, et. al (2021), the way an individual interprets and responds during conflict plays a huge role in the satisfaction and success of their relationship.
One of the best ways to respond internally when facing conflict with a partner is to set your own ego aside and try to see things from their perspective. This means leading with empathy, which is the gift that keeps on giving in loving relationships.
How Do You Fall Back In Love?
To fall back in love, you and your partner need to learn (or relearn) how to truly know and understand each other. When we show empathy to our intimate partners, we say and demonstrate three powerful words: “I understand you.”
Empathy is not a sacrifice or something that drains or depletes us or our partners. Sympathy can be draining, but not empathy. Sympathy leads us to feel we have to do something. Empathy empowers us by a special sense of togetherness and connection that is formed by powerful mutual shared identification for the one we love.
I have never had someone come into my office and say, “My problem is that my partner understands me too much.” Developing empathy for a partner means really understanding what life has been and is like for them. Empathy is not some mystical power. It is not magic, intuition, or just the “warm fuzzies.” And make no mistake, empathy is not mind-reading, but it may be the next best thing to mind reading in relationships.
Bridging the Gaps of Understanding
We’ve all been on the receiving end of empathy. It feels good. Think of the teachers and bosses you’ve worked hardest for. Chances are, you felt that they connected with you and powerfully understood you. We feel motivated when we feel understood.
Our intimate partners feel motivated when they perceive that they are understood as well. Empathy—the ability to powerfully understand another person—is invaluable in every human relationship. I have seen incredible positive changes occur between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, siblings, and, of course, intimate partners, who learn and apply this critical skill.
Empathy as Relationship Glue
I describe in my book, Why Can’t You Read My Mind? that empathy is the “emotional glue” for couples. Being able to put yourself in a partner’s shoes will more likely help him or her see your point of view much more than arguing your point.
Empathy as a Bridge
I also think of empathy as a bridge that connects one partner to the other. Each of you grew up with your own unique experiences and expectations. Being empathetic is the best way to bridge the gap between your differences. This bridge, when strong, can withstand the inevitable pounding forces of stress on the relationship, including the demands of children, time, work, and finances. In a truly mutual intimate relationship—which means a partnership of shared understanding—partners are stimulated and energized by genuinely empathizing with one another.
Empathy Restores Depleted Love
Maybe you are saying to yourself, “Why do I have to be empathetic when they are so dense and clueless?” Or you may be thinking, “He needs to be the one to show me empathy first!”
It is an individual decision as to what works and does not work for healing a broken relationship. That said, if you seek to give your intimate relationship another chance, empathy is the express train to board if you truly hope to take a journey back to being in love.