Empower Yourself

Empathy Keeps Couples On Track

Communicating with kindness sets the tone of your relationship. And it’s the feeling of being understood by your partner – empathy – that keeps you together as a couple when difficulties arise in your relationship.

It’s not hard to imagine the many difficult scenes between husband and wife, partners, families in lock down together 24/7 during the Covid-19 pandemic. Even as we are slowly getting back to work, many are working from home and having to find their physical and emotional space very different to what they’ve experienced before. No place to hide and no ‘me time’ can cause tension over small things that never seemed to worry us before.

Difficult conversations can lead to conflict and unnecessary argument. Not surprising, considering the complex nature of our relationships. We each have our own style of communicating, personality, values, energy levels, hopes and aspirations. But we also know how important it is to keep our stress levels from rising through the roof. So how do we steer the conversation in an upward spiral and change the negative intonation to avoid the fallout from conflict.

Emotions are contagious

Sensing what others feel without their saying so captures the essence of empathy. Others rarely tell us in words what they feel; instead, they tell us in their tone of voice, facial expression and other non-verbal ways. As Freud observed, “Mortals can keep no secret. If their lips are silent, they gossip with their fingertips; betrayal forces its way through every pore.”

The internal state of others, from joy and happiness to sadness and fear, directly affects our own state of mind. Scientists call this emotional contagion. Our awareness of another person’s state of mind depends on how well we know our own. In order to understand what is ‘ours’ and what is ‘yours’ requires being mindful, curious, open to feedback and the desire to create understanding.

Brain science and interaction

Our interaction with parents, siblings, bosses, spouses, children and friends shape our brains, probably far more than we are consciously aware. Many of our ‘feelings’ are sensed below the radar so to speak. Brenda Lasersohn, therapist and therapist supervisor in Johannesburg agrees that this is “in sync with what brain science is now telling us about relationships. Brains are interactive and social. We get to become who we are through being seen, heard and felt by each other. Through brain imaging we are now able to see how brains connect with each other.”

This is relevant because we now know that our mindsets are influenced continually through interaction with people we are close to in our lives. So by changing our patterns of interaction, by simply being kind to one other, or through therapy, we can get to understand each other and influence each other’s mindsets more positively. The good news is that whatever our past experience, transformation is possible.

To accomplish this understanding, Lasersohn suggests, “we must become aware of how we deliver our message as much as what the message is. We should ensure our tone of voice does not become combative and argumentative. What we think we are saying and what we are perceived as saying are often at odds, especially by our partners who are super sensitive to our responses.” So being mindful of displaying kindness and compassion in our tone of voice is the starting point.

How will empathy prevent the fallout from conflict and keep couples on track?

By allowing each other to be heard and understood, an upward spiral will begin. The relationship will assume a unique ‘we’ flavour. Each one will be in a better position to think about the other’s accusations, without feeling defensive, using the opportunity to reflect on why the accusation is made and how the response can be improved upon, without incurring unnecessary hurt and misunderstanding. The ability to interpret highly charged emotional reactions accurately and shift them accordingly will keep couples on track.

TRY AND ASSESS:

What’s your couple empathy score?

High
• You’re in touch with what you’re feeling – you can label it and understand it.
• You let off steam to the appropriate target – the best target is exercise, talking to a trusted friend or simply to count to ten.
• You think before you speak – words matter as they have lasting effects in the minds of your partner.
• You care how your partner may react because you do not want to hurt him/her unnecessarily.
• You apologise sincerely (your tone of voice congruent with what you say) if you believe you have upset your partner unintentionally or intentionally.

Low
• You do not believe it necessary to know what your partner is feeling – your concern is what you are feeling.
• You let off steam to your partner because you believe he/she is the appropriate target.
• You say whatever is on your mind because you believe your partner must accept you for whatever you say.
• You wait for your partner to apologise because you find it difficult to do that.
• You remember every thing your partner does wrong and never acknowledge the good things.

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