By Michael Fernandez, MA, LMHC
The majority of couple’s conflict begins with poor or unhealthy communication. One learnable skill that will have a massive impact on your ability to communicate well is empathy. It is important to distinguish the difference between listening and hearing as it pertains to empathy.
Hearing can be illustrated by Jim sitting at the kitchen table. Sarah, Jim’s partner, is talking about what her plans for the day are as she prepares her packed lunch. Jim scrolls the mornings news on his phone while eating his bagel and gives a “okay, sounds good” every minute or two so Sarah knows he’s still there. Jim hears Sarah, he may even be able to repeat which store she’s planning to stop at before coming home from work. But he is not engaged. At best, his hearing is just barely maintaining their current level of closeness.
On the other hand, listening, is Jim meeting up with his old friend Will, who recently went through a tough breakup, to go on a hike. Leaving the trailhead, Jim sets his phone to do not disturb. He asks questions to understand how Will is holding up, delving into how Will is navigating maintaining connection with his kids, acknowledging the pain, loneliness, and anger that swells over Will like unexpected waves. Jim is present, selfless, and caring in his responses. He doesn’t try to fix Will. On the solo drive home, Jim contemplates how much he appreciates what he has in his relationship with Sarah. Empathic understanding of what Will is going through, creates a shift in how Jim understands, experiences, and lives his own life. It deepens his connection with Will and strengthens the trust they share.
Empathy can help shift the point of contention from a target between you and your partner, to a target set a distance away from you both, standing shoulder to shoulder to face together. It can turn criticism into understanding, defensiveness into connection. Learning this skill as a couple will develop your relational ‘toolbox’, increasing emotional intimacy with each other while also learning how to be empathetic to your own experience of the hardships of life.