The Art of Empathy in Marriage
“Understanding is a fountain of life to those who have it” (Proverbs 16:22a).
As a Clinical Psychologist for the past 24 years, I have learned to never underestimate the value of empathy. Time and time again clients have told me that the most beneficial aspect of their counseling experience has been the feeling of being fully known and truly valued.
Empathy allows love to be felt in the deep places of one’s heart. It comforts and transforms those whom it touches. More importantly empathy binds couples together. It frees spouses to vulnerably share their deepest fears and longings so that intimacy can grow.
What is empathy?
I define empathy as the ability to understand the internal experience of another and to communicate that understanding in a way in which the other person feels genuinely known and valued.
Practical Principles for Expressing Empathy
The following are practical principles for gaining a better understanding of your spouse and communicating that understanding in an effective manner.
Listen with genuine interest
The Bible teaches that it is better to listen than to speak. Proverbs 18:13 says, “He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame.” Good listeners encourage further disclosure by making comments such as; “Is there anything else you would like to say?” Furthermore, good listeners take a sincere interest in what their spouse is saying. They do not feign interest. Rather, they find something interesting in what they are hearing. Good listeners summarize in their mind what they are hearing rather than mentally preparing a response. They drop what they are doing to listen. This means turning away from the television or putting down the phone. It means looking at our partner as we listen and not being distracted by less important matters.
Ask clarifying questions
In order to fully understand one’s spouse it is often necessary to ask clarifying questions that invite further elaboration. Some examples include: “What happened?” “What do you mean by that?” “Can you clarify what you just said?” “What prompted you to say that?” or “Why did you respond that way?”
Sensitivity can be shown by communicating to one’s spouse the understanding that has been gained. Make comments such as: “That must have been exciting” “I’ll bet that hurt your feelings” “I can see how you could be frustrated by that” or “I’m sure that was hard to take.” These comments show spouses that their internal experiences matter. Remember that sensitivity to positive experiences can be just as important as sensitivity to negative experiences.
Validate the experience of your spouse
Two simple statements can show spouses the importance of their thoughts and feelings. They are: “I can understand why you think/feel this way” and “That makes sense to me.” Note that these statements convey understanding and acceptance but not necessarily agreement.
Find the meanings associated with the thoughts and feelings
Each perception, thought and feeling will inevitably have an associated meaning that is idiosyncratic to each spouse. The empathic spouse persistently seeks out these personalized meanings by asking specific questions designed to elicit meaning. One effective question is simply, “What does it mean to you?” Another question might be, “What was your interpretation/impression of what that meant?” Here is an example of a conversation where meaning is sought:
Husband: My boss is leaving town tomorrow
Wife: What happened? (Getting the story)
Husband: He has to attend a conference in Arizona for a week
Wife: So, What does this mean? (Question to elicit meaning)
Husband: It means that I’ve got twice as much work next week
Wife: Sounds like you’ve got a long week ahead of you (sensitivity).
Husband: Yeah, and I probably won’t make John’s hockey game on Tuesday which really bums me out.
Wife: That makes sense to me. I know how much you love to watch his games and I know how much he enjoys having you there (sensitivity and validation).
Husband: yeah (shrugs his shoulders and sighs deeply).
Wife: Missing John’s game seems to really upset you (sensitivity). What does it mean to you when you miss a game? (Question to elicit meaning)
Husband: It really bothers me because my parents came to all my games when I was a kid and I know how much that meant to me. I told myself I would be the same with my children and I feel like I’m not only letting John down, but I feel like I’m letting myself down to.
Wife: I can understand that and I know it isn’t easy for you to miss even a single game, but I really think John will understand. Maybe when your boss comes back you can get off early one day and take John to the hockey rink. I’m sure he would enjoy that (validation).
Husband: That sounds like a great idea
Summarize what you have learned about your spouse
After you have listened carefully, shown sensitivity, validated experiences and explored deeper meanings, it can be very helpful to summarize what you have learned. For example, you could say, “It sounds to me like you’ve had a long day at work and that means you would love to go to bed early tonight. I can really understand that. It also sounds like it means a lot for you to go to David’s recital tonight so the sleep is just going to have to wait.” When this kind of summary is given with a gentle tone of voice and warm facial expressions a feeling of relaxation can usually be noticed by the spouse on the receiving end. Receiving that kind of empathy is like drinking ice cold lemonade on a balmy summer day.
Check for accuracy
The final step in the process of empathy is to check for understanding. This can be as simple as asking, “Am I getting it?” or “Does it seem to you that I understand?” If the answer is no try again. If the answer is yes reward yourself for a job well done.
Buddy Mendez is the author of Ready, Set, Married and is also a Professor of Psychology at Concordia University, Irvine. He is also a Clinical Psychologist with a private practice in Newport Beach, California specializing in the integration of Christianity and psychology. He received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and his M.A. in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He has appeared as a guest on “Good Morning America” and is a regular guest on the “In Studio” radio program on station KFUO. Dr. Mendez speaks frequently at churches and retreats on various topics relating to marriage and family life.
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