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The Secret to a Happy Relationship Is Empathy

Empathy makes the difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship.

Big Stock Images
Source: Big Stock Images

Everyone has met a couple like this: She loves sushi; the smell of raw fish makes him nauseous. He loves horror films; she finds even mildly scary movies unwatchable. She's Catholic and regularly attends mass; he's an atheist.

They are two people who don't make sense as a couple on paper, but when you see them together in the real world, it's clear their relationship is a happy one. "How do they do it?" you ask yourself. You imagine they must have some magic, secret relationship sauce only they've discovered. After all, you and your partner bicker even when you agree on 99% of things. If only you could have some of the magic that they have.

You can.

What is the secret to a happy relationship?

The secret sauce in a happy relationship isn't magic; it's empathy.

Feeling empathy for another person means putting yourself in their shoes. It is the ability to imagine what someone else is thinking and feeling. Unlike sympathy, which means feeling compassion or pity for another, empathy is putting yourself in the other person's place and seeing the world through their eyes. Sympathy is "I'm sorry that happened to you"; empathy is "I feel your pain."

Empathy means caring as much about your partner's well-being as you care about your own, and it can make the difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one.

How can you tell if your relationship lacks empathy?

One sign is that you assume your partner has the same needs and boundaries as you do and that they experience life the same way as well.

A relationship without empathy quickly hits a bump. A few weeks or months in, you discover your partner is not the person you thought they were when you started dating. Suddenly you're confronted with the fact that he or she doesn't always share your preferences or opinions, and you begin to have the same argument again and again: Your partner wants to go to brunch on Sunday mornings, but you want to eat at home. You want to curl up with the Sunday edition of the Times, but your partner wants to go on a hike. You thought your partner was a pancakes-at-home person, but suddenly they're not. What happened? The truth is, they never were that person. You just assumed they were because you are.

Relationships can fall apart because of these kinds of differences, but empathy can create a bridge and generate mutual respect. A long-term romantic relationship has to be based on more than shared likes and mutual dislikes. You and your partner may agree 99% of the time, but it's that 1% that can spell disaster if there's no empathy between you.

How do you develop empathy?

You develop empathy within a relationship by regularly listening to each other's thoughts and feelings. Seeing the world from your partner's point of view helps to build closeness as well as respect for your partner's individuality.

To get started brewing this healthy relationship secret sauce, spend some time with your partner doing this simple exercise. On separate pieces of paper, write your answers to the following questions. Don't help each other or share your responses until the end.

  1. What makes your partner happy? How do they act when happy? Are there words or gestures they use to indicate their mood?
  2. What makes your partner angry? How do they show their anger—or how can you tell that they're mad even if they don't show it?
  3. Describe your partner's favorite foods, music, books, movies, podcasts/radio programs, and TV shows.
  4. What activities does your partner enjoy? Are they good at what they do? Do they need to excel, or are they content just doing it?
  5. What does your partner like about you? What do you think they find irritating?
  6. What do you think you could say or do to enhance your partner's life?

After you've written your answers down, take some time to share your responses. See how close you were to getting it right.

Even if your answers were wildly off, it's possible to build empathy in a relationship currently lacking much, if any. What you need to create empathy is to listen—really listen—to your partner when they speak. Listening doesn't mean waiting for your turn to talk. It means asking questions if you're unclear about something they have said, repeating what they've told you in your own words to make sure you understand them and validating their emotions. Even if you don't agree with their opinions or feel the same way, you can acknowledge that your partner has a right to their feelings.

The secret to a successful relationship, whether you're the couple that agrees 99 percent of the time or the couple with seemingly nothing in common, is empathy. Now you have the skills to brew some up in your relationship.

More from Andrea Brandt Ph.D. M.F.T.
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