Bend Relationship Counselor: ATTUNEment in Relationships Part 6—Empathy

August 13, 2014 by

“Empathy” is a word that I used a lot as a Bend marriage counselor because it’s one of the most essential components of a healthy marriage. It’s also the sixth part of ATTUNE, an acronym that psychologist Dr. John Gotmman uses to describe building trust in a relationship.

If you’ve read my posts about the first five letters of the acronym (Awareness, Turning Toward, Tolerance, Understanding, and Nondefensive Responding), you’ve probably noticed that empathy plays a role in every single one of those components. For the final post of this series, I’d like to discuss what it really means to empathize with your partner—and what you can do to nurture the growth of your own empathy.

Empathy: Learn to Understand Your Partner’s Perspective

Empathy is often misunderstood as an act of “feeling bad” for someone when they’re distraught or even the act of “treating others as you’d like to be treated” (everyone’s different, and your partner might not want to be treated the same way you want to be treated, after all). Empathy is really about taking on the perspective of another person, recognizing how that perspective shapes their behavior, and using that recognition to guide your interactions.

To illustrate this, let’s return to a story that Dr. Gottman tells, and that I referenced in the second part of this series. Dr. Gottman talks about a night when he really wanted to finish a good book, but he noticed that his wife was in the bedroom brushing her hair and looking sad. Observing that his wife looked sad was the first step towards empathy, but he wouldn’t have done a very good job of empathizing if he noticed his wife’s emotions but decided to read his book anyway. Instead, he recognized his wife’s emotions and asked her what was wrong in order to better understand her perspective.

We often think that if we’ve been with our partner for a long time, we can “read them like a book” and understand what they’re thinking and feeling. However, this in and of itself is not empathy—in order to truly empathize, you have to actively listen to your partner and also make yourself vulnerable to your partner by talking about how you feel. By doing this, you and your partner can reach a point of mutual empathy, which is essential for a healthy relationship.

The good news is that empathy is something you can work to improve, even if you think you’re bad at recognizing others’ feelings or making yourself emotionally vulnerable. To learn more about how you and your partner can “work on” empathy, contact a Bend relationship counselor.