When working on our interpersonal relationships, especially our relationship with our spouse, it’s important to understand how the synapses in our brain help us feel heard, seen, and held. Empathy is a critical piece of the puzzle here. And it’s key to understanding your partner — and vice versa.
According to the National Institutes of Health, empathy “plays a critical role in understanding the nuances of others’ experiences. Empathy is a complex capability enabling individuals to understand and feel the emotional states of others, resulting in compassionate behavior. Empathy requires cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and moral capacities to understand and respond to the suffering of others.”
Empathy is an essential human need. And it’s (almost) universal.
Paul Eckert studied different tribes around the world, and in his research, he found that there are eight emotions that are expressed identically around the world, regardless of culture. One of them was empathy.
It’s a human need to have someone empathize with you. That’s why, in counseling, we teach couples to reflect the content and the emotion they see and hear from their partner during sessions — and outside counseling in their daily life!
Listening, reflecting, and responding with empathy and compassion is especially helpful when one or both partners have grown up in a family where emotional intelligence wasn’t a big priority. Maybe your partner’s family didn’t know how to be empathetic. Your partner may not have had strong models of gentleness and compassion. Maybe their emotions were not accepted, encouraged, or validated — especially if they were “bad” ones!
Good news: You can help heal that in your partner’s world. Hold space for their emotions. Help them to feel safe in expressing them. Reassure them that their emotions are neither good nor bad, they simply are.
Tempting as it may be, it’s important — for yourself and for your partner — not to assign a negative attribution to any emotion.
For instance, don’t be threatened by anger. Recognize when you see your partner getting angry. Or notice when you are getting angry.
Name your emotions; it’s scientifically proven to help manage them. In fact, a brain imaging study by UCLA psychologists revealed that verbalizing our feelings makes our sadness, anger, and pain less intense.
HuffPost reports that “According to [UCLA professor of psychology Matthew D. Lieberman], when we feel angry we have increased activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for detecting fear and setting off a series of biological alarms and responses to protect the body from danger. When the angry feeling is labeled, Lieberman and researchers noted a decreased response in the amygdala and an increased activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is involved with inhibiting behavior and processing emotions.”
Pretty amazing, right?
And here’s the icing on the cake: when you verbalize your feelings, you give your partner another opportunity to connect with you. Chances are, they’ll be able to relate to what you’re feeling, and you won’t feel so alone in your emotions!
So whether you feel anxious or elated or resentful or afraid today, name what you’re feeling, share it with your partner, and be the present, tuned-in support they need. Your emotional intelligence will be stronger for it, and so will your relationship.