Looking back over my 20 years as a couples therapist, and considering the many other couples I’ve encountered in my personal life, I realize that the happiest and most satisfied of them exhibited three specific relationship skills. Don’t be disheartened if you and/or your partner are not great at these skills. They rarely come pre-installed; they need to be learned and practiced:
Empathy refers to being able to step into another person’s shoes and understand their experience and point of view so that you can gain an appreciation of how they feel, and then step out again. Of course, you also have to be able to convey your insights to that person accurately for them to benefit from your efforts at understanding.
Most couples struggle with empathy for a simple and, well, stupid reason: They believe that because they’ve been in the relationship for a long time they "just know" what the other person is thinking or feeling. Of course, countless studies demonstrate the faultiness of that assumption—we’re simply not very good mind-readers, even of our spouses. Our assumptions are almost always biased or just off the mark.
Empathy requires a Jedi mind trick of sorts: You have to close your eyes and literally imagine being the other person. You have to get a sense of their perspective, their reality, their priorities, their expectations, their assumptions, and their concerns. Only then should you introduce the current pressing situation into the scene and imagine how the other person perceives the situation and how they might feel about it.
Empathy is a crucial relationship skill in and of itself, but it is also related to the next essential relationship skill. . .
2. Emotional Validation
When your spouse or partner is angry or upset with you, the last thing you might think to do is fan the flames by telling them they have every right to feel the way they do. But when you convey that exact message—from a place of sympathy and understanding—something magical happens. Rather than inciting their sadness or fury or fueling their fire, your message of emotional validation can actually douse the flame.
Why does this paradoxical result occur?
Emotional validation is something we all seek and crave, typically far more than we realize. When we are upset, angry, frustrated, disappointed or hurt, the thing we want most is for our partner to "get it," to understand why we feel the way we do. We want them to validate our feelings by conveying their understanding to us with a generous dollop of sympathy. When they do so accurately—which requires employing empathy—the relief and catharsis we experience is tremendous. We can then attain an authentic visceral "release" and begin to let go some of the feelings we've built up. Taking a leap of faith and conveying emotional validation to your partner, especially in the midst of an argument, can actually calm things down and allow warmer feelings to return.
Emotional validation and empathy are hugely important relationship skills in and of themselves. They are augmented by the third essential relationship skill on our list. . .
3. Consideration and Civility
Couples consistently underestimate the impact small gestures of consideration can have on the tone and dynamics of their relationship. I’ve seen time and again how leaving a nice card, bringing flowers, allowing the other person to sleep in, preparing a favorite meal, offering a kind word or an affectionate hug, or introducing a soft and loving tone, can quickly put a stop to a tense and negative dynamic and return the relationship to a positive communication track.
Obviously, flowers or a hug cannot undo every hurt. But when things get tense, civility, good will, and consideration are too often replaced by tension, impatience, and negativity. One person treats the other poorly, which makes that partner feel less considerate as well—and on and on the vicious cycle goes.
But breaking out of this negative cycle requires only two or three gestures of good will and consideration, and your partner is likely to begin to respond in kind—provided you also practice empathy and emotional validation. (Read How to Test Your Marital Civility.)
These three relationship skills go hand in hand. Together they form a foundation of caring, trust, and connection to which couples can more easily return when they find themselves in times of stress, tension, or emotional distance. Of course, for couples to benefit from these skills, they should make an effort to practice them, get better at them, and integrate them into their daily thinking and communication.
For more detailed instructions for practicing empathy and emotional validation, check out my book, Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch
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