Looking back over twenty years of working as a couples therapist, and considering the many couples I’ve encountered in my personal life, 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, understand their experience and point of view so you can gain an appreciation of how they feel, and then step out again. Of course, you also have to be able to covey your insights to that person accurately for them to benefit from your efforts to understand their perspective.
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 belief as we’re simply not good ‘mind-readers’. Our assumptions are almost always biased and 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 situation into the scene and imagine how they perceive the situation at hand, and how they might feel.
Empathy is a crucial relationship skill in and of itself, but it is also related to the next essential relationship skill—emotional validation.
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 (at you) and fueling their fire, your message of emotional validation will actually douse the flame.
Why does this paradoxical result occur?
Emotional validation is something we all seek and crave, often 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 and understanding. When they do so accurately (which requires using 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 built up. Taking a leap of faith and conveying emotional validation to your partner, especially in the midst of an argument, will 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—consideration.
3. Consideration and Civility
One of the things couples constantly and consistently underestimate is 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 and 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 will not undo every hurt. But when things get tense between a couple, civility, good will, and consideration often disappear and are replaced by tension, impatience, and negativity. One person treats the other poorly which makes the other less considerate as well, and on the vicious cycle goes.
But like all cycles, breaking a negative dynamic requires only two or three gestures of good will and consideration, and your partner is likely to begin to respond in kind—provided your also practice empathy and emotional validation (read, How to Test Your Marital Civility here).
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 three skills, they should make efforts to practice them, get better at them, and integrate them into their thinking and communication.
For more detailed instructions for practicing empathy and emotional validation, check out my book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).
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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch
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