When we show empathy to our intimate partners, we are saying (and demonstrating) three powerful words: "I Understand You." Empathy is not something that drains or depletes us or our partners. Sympathy can be draining, but not empathy. Sympathy leads us to feel we have to do something. Empathy empowers us by a special sense of togetherness and connection that is formed by powerful mutual shared identification for the one you love.
So loving someone automatically means being empathetic with them, right?
Not necessarily. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term, "love" can mean: 1) strong affection, 2) warm attachment, 3) attraction based on sexual desire, 4) a beloved person, 5) unselfish benevolent concern for others, and, last but not least, 6) a score of zero in tennis.
Based on these definitions and my own experience working with couples, love does not necessarily include empathy. Think about how some divorced people may still love one another, but never could understand each other!
When it comes to intimate relationships, no matter how much love there is between you and your partner, there’s no guarantee that you both will be able to empathize—even if you think you’re "soulmates." So unless you want to end up in your intimate relationship, with "love" as in tennis—one big zero—I am asking you to carefully pay attention to what I share about how crucial empathy is for relationships to thrive.
I have never had someone come into my office and say, "My problem is that my partner understands me too much." Developing empathy for your partner means really understanding what life has been and is like for him or her. Empathy is not some mystical power. It is not magic, intuition, or just the "warm fuzzies." And make no mistake, empathy is not mind-reading. But, it may just be the next best thing to mind reading in relationships.
Bridge the Gaps of Understanding in Your Relationship
We've all been on the receiving end of empathy. It feels really good, doesn't it? Think of the teachers and bosses you worked hardest for. Chances are, you felt that they connected with you and powerfully understood you. We feel motivated when we feel understood. Our intimate partners, especially, since these are our most powerful emotional bonds, feel motivated when they perceive that they are understood, as well. Empathy, the ability to powerfully understand another person, is invaluable, for that matter, in every human relationship. I have seen incredible positive changes occur between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, siblings, and, of course, intimate partners who learn and apply this critical skill.
I describe in my book, Why Can't You Read My Mind?, how empathy as “emotional glue” for couples. I also think of empathy as a bridge that connects one partner to the other. Each of you as partners grew up with their own unique experiences and expectations. Being empathetic is the best way to bridge the gap of your differences. This bridge, when strong, can withstand the inevitable pounding forces of stresses on the relationship, including the demands of children, time, work, financial, and other pressures. In a truly mutual intimate relationship, which means a partnership of shared understanding, partners are stimulated and energized by genuinely empathizing with one another.