Why Empathy Is the Golden Rule of Couples Communication

Here’s why feedback, reassurance, and problem-solving work best after empathy.

Posted Dec 06, 2017

It would seem like common sense that you have to first emotionally connect with your partner if they’re to hear you the way you want to be heard. Yet if you’re like most people, you respond to them differently — especially if they’re voicing frustration — either by immediately offering them words of reassurance or consolation; or what you imagine is good practical advice or constructive criticism; or (especially if you're a male) initiating a process of problem-solving, endeavoring to help them fix what’s wrong. If so, you’re likely surprised and maybe irritated when your supposedly positive reaction doesn’t have the effect you intended.

Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock
Source: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

As I emphatically tell the individuals and couples I work with, “Empathy first!” It’s a maxim I suggest they commit to memory before verbally engaging with their partner. If there’s a single internal catchphrase that almost guarantees that a dialogue will begin favorably — regardless of the topic — I’ve learned from over 35,000 hours of hands-on clinical experience that this simple “self-talk” slogan works best. (It’s also optimal with children — as in, “connection before correction.”)

Not that starting out with heartfelt words of understanding and compassion will always work. There are times when nothing can. But particularly in troubling or thorny situations where the startup is likely to determine the outcome, there’s no safer way to open a discussion than seeking to genuinely “participate” in your partner’s state of mind. This is most effectively accomplished through accurately identifying with their feelings, whether they’ve been overtly stated or implied by language, facial expression, and tone of voice. However, the reason that vicariously entering into your partner’s subjective reality can sometimes be quite challenging is that in any individual instance, their reactions may be quite dissimilar from your own.

In an earlier post, I wrote that feeling understood was in some ways more important than feeling loved. So when your partner experiences that you’re sincerely making an effort to grasp where they’re coming from, the odds that they'll be more receptive to where you’re coming from are greatly enhanced. And when you can’t discern their subjective reality, offering empathy needs to be done tentatively, as in, “The expression on your face right now makes me think that what I said struck you the wrong way. Did it make you feel hurt (or angry, sad, confused, misunderstood, etc.? What are you feeling now?”

It can hardly be overemphasized that this powerful prelude to talking about challenging subjects doesn’t relate just to altering the course of a conflict. It’s also ideal in situations where your sole objective is to console your partner when they’re confiding in you a deeply felt inadequacy or failure that’s distressing them.

Let’s say in interviewing for a position your partner coveted, they accidentally put their foot in their mouth. And now, certain that they blew it, they can’t stop beating themselves up. If you start out by saying, “Well, don’t forget, there have been times when you did really well in an interview,” they’re probably not going to experience much comfort. They’re more likely to feel you’re not in sync with them, and are maybe even invalidating them. For you’re doing nothing to emotionally identify the nature, or extent, of their disturbance, and by doing so, "joining" them. What they need is for you to recognize their discouraged, disconcerted feelings.

Imagine if instead you were to have said something like, “I can only imagine how terrible you must feel right now. It has to be awful to have all these second thoughts about how you could have presented yourself better or said something differently. I know how much getting that position meant to you.” Only then might you add, “All I can say is that in the past, you’ve shared times when you did really well in an interview. Maybe, when you’re ready, we can look at what went wrong this time, so we can get a better sense of how you might prepare in the future. I know I’ve messed up while being interviewed when I got so nervous I couldn’t think straight, or didn’t get myself properly 'psyched' for it.”

Note how much more thoughtful and “involved” this alternative, more elaborate response sounds, and how it communicates more connection, caring, and concern. If you immediately responded by taking a stance of glib reassurance, or made problem-solving suggestions, or — worst of all — critically sat in judgment on your partner’ performance, these admittedly more common responses would have done little, if anything, to help heal the psychological wound your partner may still be experiencing.

Here’s another example:

Say your partner confesses, “It really makes me disgusted with myself that I’m so bad at saying what I mean. So many times, my words just don’t come out the way I want them to.” And in return, you respond, “Well, yeah, but look at how good you are at fixing problems on the computer that make me crazy!” Is that really the best thing you could say to help them feel caringly understood?

What if you said, “Yeah, that ‘s got to be really frustrating — when you know what you want to say, but what comes out just doesn’t fit what was in your head. And then I can’t help but reply to you as though you said something else. And you end up feeling really frustrated with yourself, ’cause it hits you that what you said wasn’t what you meant...Is that how it feels to you?”

Is it not obvious that first “meeting” your partner where they are lays the emotional groundwork for any comforting message you might wish to convey? And that anything reassuring you might say will register more deeply once you’ve vicariously reflected their upset back to them — effectively “uniting” yourself with them?

In a sense, this is what a loving companionship is all about, what’s absolutely essential to creating the relationship you desire. And it’s largely absent any criticism or evaluation. Sure, if you’re skilled at it, there may be all kinds of constructive comments or feedback you can provide that your partner will appreciate. But in most instances, it’s not that productive, and may even be harmful, to start out with them. Unquestionably, there’s a time for suggestions and solutions. But in general, what needs to come first is making your mate feel heard, making them feel you truly “get” where they’re coming from — both what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling.

All the same, as effectively as an initial empathic response to your partner usually works, it’s not easy to do — especially when your buttons have been pushed. Then, either you’re not at all inclined to respond this way, or you simply haven’t developed the communication expertise to do so. If what I’ve described was easy to do, a lot more people would do it. But few of us truly have the awareness or the emotional strength and resilience to respond this way. Given human nature, it just doesn’t come naturally.

So, if you’re to develop this invaluable communication skill, and attitude, expect it to take substantial practice and self-discipline, until it becomes a habit. For a while, you may have to pause and take a deep breath to free yourself of what you’re “programmed” to do. But if you’re willing to make the effort, you may be amazed at how your relationship can transform, how much closer you can feel toward each other, and how much more intimate your union can become.

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.