By: Rachel Goldsmith, AMFT, MS

Most of us understand that empathy, or the ability to connect with someone through feeling with them, is an important part of a good romantic relationship. Even though we know this, time and time again we all fall short when it comes to being empathic with our partner. We get critical when we should be nonjudgmental or take something personally when we should simply be open and accepting. We turn away from our partner’s emotion rather than turn toward it and sit with them in whatever feeling they are experiencing, no matter how painful or difficult. Unfortunately, without empathy, a relationship can feel like it lacks intimacy and connection. A lack of empathy can pave the way for increased conflict and negativity between partners.

The great news is that there are some straight-forward steps that you can take to help you build empathy in your relationship with your partner. If you feel like you consistently miss out on moments to express empathy or just feel as though you fall short every now and again, read on for some ways to increase your ability to feel with your partner.

  • Listen. Stop talking and listen when your partner is speaking. Show that you are listening by nodding and looking into your partner’s eyes.
  • Do some perspective-taking. When your partner talks to you, is upset, distressed, or worried, try to step into his or her shoes. See the world from that perspective rather than your own. Doing this will help you understand your partner more and allow you to be empathic.
  • See and validate your partner’s emotions. Validation does not mean you agree or feel the same way. When your partner shows a feeling, empathy involves acknowledging his or her feeling and saying that it makes sense that he or she may be feeling that way. When you express empathy, you say something like, “I see how upset that makes you, and I can really understand how you might feel that way.”
  • Back away from judgment. Judgment is an empathy killer. If you feel yourself beginning to judge or become critical about how your partner is feeling, stop yourself. Try seeing things from your partner’s perspective again and go from there.
  • Do not move too quickly to problem-solving. For many couples, there is one person who is a master problem-solver and uses this technique whenever an issue arises. Unfortunately, the other partner almost always just wants empathy – to be heard, seen, and understood – and problem-solving feels invalidating and unloving. If problem-solving is your strong suit, be aware of whether or not you are jumping to that first rather than simply validating your partner’s feelings, staying with that emotion for a time, and then asking whether or not your partner wants help solving the problem.
  • Keep your partner in mind. Throughout your day, let your partner know that you are thinking of him or her. Send a sweet email or text message, get the dishes done before he or she gets home, make his or her favorite meal for dinner (just because!), and follow up on conversations that you know are important to your loved one.