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Why Your Partner Needs Your Empathy but not Your Sympathy

Empathy is the nontoxic glue that holds relationships together.

Sympathy is when you feel badly for your partner or when you're sad for your partner if something bad happened to him or her. Empathy, on the other hand, is being able to actually understand your partner's perspective or situation to the degree that you can identify with what they are feeling and why. If you sympathize, you feel for someone because of his or her pain. If you empathize, you feel his or her pain with them. For example, Kate doesn't just sympathize with Brian because he had a difficult childhood. She is able to imagine what it must've been like to have a chronically ill mother and a depressed and withdrawn father. She understands that Brian, given his family problems, lived with considerable uncertainty. Brian's way of coping was to become extremely self-reliant – to the point where it was, and is, difficult for him to ask for help from others, including Kate. Kate's empathy for Brian and his childhood problems and powers her to look into avoid over personalizing Brian's need to work a problem out for himself. Empathy is the cushion of understanding that helps to avoid any bumps in the road for Kate as she relates to Brian.

Empathy, again, is the power way to understand and imagine another person's feelings. Sympathy can be draining, but empathy cannot. Sympathy leads us to feel that we have to do something. Empathy empowers us by providing a special sense of togetherness and connection that is formed by powerful, mutual identification for the one you love.

So loving someone automatically means being empathetic with them, right? Not necessarily. According to Webster's New World Dictionary the word "love" means 1) strong affection or liking someone or something, 2) passionate affection of one person for another, 3) the object of such affection, a sweetheart or lover, and, last but not least, 4) tennis, a score of zero.

Based on these definitions and my own experience working with couples, love does not completely include empathy. 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 automatically empathize with each other – even if you think you're "soul mates."

Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist with over 23 years of experience specializing in child, adolescent, couples, and family therapy. He holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the State University of New York at Albany and completed his post-doctoral internship at the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center. He has appeared on the Today Show, Court TV as an expert advisor, CBS Eyewitness News Philadelphia, 10! Philadelphia—NBC, and public radio. Dr. Bernstein has authored four books, including the highly popular 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (Perseus Books, 2006), 10 Days to a Less Distracted Child (Perseus Books 2007), Why Can't You Read My Mind? , and Liking the Child You Love, Perseus Books 2009).

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