To have a healthy, strong relationship, it's important for you and your partner to feel deeply connected with each other. While it may be easier to maintain this during the honeymoon phase, being vulnerable with your partner and finding ways to be more empathetic in your relationship can help with strengthening that emotional bond.
Being empathetic means you're aware of someone's emotions from their perspective; you feel what they feel. Although it's important to be empathetic in every personal connection you have, it's vital to maintaining a long-lasting romantic relationship with your partner. No matter how long you've been with your S.O., feeling understood and heard is a great way to feel like you and your partner are a team. But to completely understand what it means to be empathetic, it's good to know the difference between that... and just being sympathetic. "Empathy drives connection where sympathy can disempower,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Barbara Cunningham. “Empathy is 'I'm so glad you told me that.' You respect your partner's adulthood without judgment.”
Whether you use cognitive, emotional, or compassionate empathy, your relationship can grow and become stronger. Need some help in this department? Here are 10 expert-backed ways you can become more empathic with your partner.
1. Put Yourself In Their Shoes
Showing empathy in a relationship can tighten your and your partner's bond. That's why one of the best ways to be more empathetic is by simply imagining yourself in their position. "People who lack empathy tend to also lack an understanding of how they themselves feel in varying situations,” says Laurel Steinberg, Ph.D., a New York-based therapist, relationship expert, and adjunct professor of psychology at Columbia University. Her tip? As a starting point, remind the other person to consider how they feel as they endure life’s mixed bag of experiences — both the good, the bad, and the neutral. “This exercise will put down neural pathways, which will be strengthened over time, that allow for a person to understand experience – first his/her own, then that of someone else,” says Steinberg.
2. Communicate About Their Emotions
The golden rule of a healthy relationship no matter what? Good communication — and that applies when you're being more empathetic. "Happy couples often show their empathy by communicating verbally that they are taking the time to imagine what their partners are experiencing," says Steinberg. In addition to listening, expressing to your partner that you understand what they're going through can show them that you're being more empathetic to their emotions instead of just dismissing them.
3. Be Active By Asking Questions
Being more attuned to your partner's emotions can allow you to notice when they're down before they even mention anything. When you start to ask questions about their emotional state, it can show that you're invested in their happiness and in the relationship. "They can preemptively ask their partners questions about how things are going, without waiting to be told," says Steinberg.
4. Learn To Withhold Judgement
A true partnership entails growing and learning together. That means helping each other out when they need it most, without judging the other person and making them feel small. "They can withhold judgment of their partner’s choices and assume that those choices were made after careful consideration, regardless of whether or not they ultimately led to success,” says Steinberg. “Believing that their partners are considerate and savvy individuals sets the stage for all good things.”
5. Take Some Of Your Partner's Responsibilities
For long-term relationships, a great way to be more empathetic is by simply absorbing some of your partner's chores and daily responsibilities. It can help you understand what they go through on the daily and can help you stop judging. "A fun way to show empathy in a long-term relationship is to take on some of your partner’s responsibilities for a period of time, to really get a good feel for what it’s like to be him/her," says Steinberg.
6. Consider Your Partner's Wants & Needs
"Having empathy, or the ability to look past your own perspective, to that of a partner, helps to optimize decision-making because it allows for meaningful consideration of a partner’s needs and wants prior to acting," says Steinberg. Whether you buy milk before they ask or you offer them a massage when they're feeling down, being ahead of the curve when it comes to your partner can allow them to feel closer to you, which in return, can make you happier.
7. Learn How To Be More Empathetic On Your Own Time
Whether you're in school or not, it's always a good idea to learn new things, especially if it's going to benefit your relationship. "Some couples struggle with being empathetic toward one another because having empathy is a high-order relationship skill that not everyone has been taught, or has taken the time to learn and master," says Steinberg. Turn to resources online or at the library to take a deeper dive into ways you can strengthen your partnership.
8. Be Present When Your Partner Needs You
"Gaining an understanding of the significant value of demonstrating empathy towards a partner can encourage couples to prioritize this relationship skill,” says Steinberg. “Even though one partner is going through a hard time, which might skew his/her objectivity, they should try to become completely attuned to their partners’ feelings in light of the circumstances.” Since one partner’s hard time often has a significant effect on the other, it’ll become a continual two-way street. “While it's never easy to see your partner struggle, which can sometimes cause strife in a relationship, it's important to be there for them even during the toughest times,” she adds. “Imagine yourself in their position instead of telling them to get over it.”
9. Strive For Compassion
The thing about being empathic all the time is that it can become mentally exhausting — your partner's emotions might become your emotions, too. In the same realm, try to show more compassion in your relationship to help alleviate that. “Being empathetic with your partner requires a willingness to listen fully without reaction or interruption,” says licensed mental health counselor Andrew Carroll. “This is an essential skill to cultivate in any relationship because of its effectiveness to understand your partner’s perceptions, necessities, and emotions.”
10. Give Grace
Above all, in order to become more empathetic, it’s important to show patience and understanding with your partner — even when things get tough. “I often ask couples to give one another grace when they are at an impasse and negative emotions are high and negativity fills the air,” says psychotherapist and relationship coach Toni Coleman, LCSW. “I recommend they try a restart, which essentially means to push the anger aside, make a decision to let go of those hurts and resentments, and remember what it was they loved and appreciated about one another when they decided to be a couple.” According to Coleman, this small choice to give grace can lead to an increase in goodwill and positive feelings on the part of both people. “It facilitates listening, and a desire to hear and better understand what the other is saying.”
Barbara Cunningham, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist
Laurel Steinberg, Ph.D, relationship expert and adjunct professor of psychology at Columbia University
Andrew Carroll, licensed mental health counselor
Toni Coleman, LCSW, psychotherapist and relationship coach
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