Empathy is one of the most powerful ways to break through a relationship impasse. Literally, it is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. More than sympathy, which is to acknowledge the other’s pain, empathy allows you to truly feel it.
Why you need Empathy not Sympathy
Empathy is important in marriage counseling because to truly understand the other, you need to enter their world. Oftentimes, we get caught up in the content of the discussion. We look to see who is right or wrong and we don’t allow ourselves to understand the underlying nature at hand. When we get curious about our partner, and really listen to their story, we can get to a place where we can hear the feelings at play. These feelings, our partner’s experience, is truly the crux of the issue. We may even have a different perspective, and that is totally valid. We can hold onto our feelings and simultaneously feel what it’s like on the other side. When we can truly empathize with what our spouse is going through, all of our reactivity melts away. Suddenly, our story no longer matters in the moment as we are entirely present for our spouse. This magic moment of empathy forges a bond, diffuses conflict, and allows a fresh new beginning for our relationship.
How to use Empathy
How do we do it? We find that the best form of empathy marriage counseling is Imago Therapy and the Imago Dialogue process. The Dialogue allows us to be fully present in our spouse’s world by listening in a non-judgmental way, mirroring, or repeating back almost verbatim what our spouse says and not interjecting our own two cents or interpretation. Once our spouse is finished we validate their experiencing by letting them know what they are saying makes sense and empathize by guessing what emotions they are feeling. This process truly allows a partner to cross the bridge into the world of the other and really feel what it’s like in the other’s shoes. It is a true eye opener and while the goal is not to problem solve, it has a more powerful effect than any solution based approach.
That’s because most issues are not about the actual issues. The deepest desire we have is to connect and the greatest pain is loss of that connection. By reconnecting through empathy, the couple become naturally equipped with what they need to address the challenge at hand. They find a way together to address the situation and they do it, not amidst friction; rather from a place of love and mutual understanding.