Learning empathy in the relationship or: How can I understand my partner better?

Imagine your partner can empathize with your emotions, you feel deeply understood by your partner. Also, imagine that you have a very special connection with the one you love, because the other person accepts you without judgment. You feel deeply acknowledged.

Does this sound too good to be true for you? But it doesn't have to be! Because empathy is a skill that can be trained and learned in a relationship.

Maybe you're reading this article because you don't yet understand your partner the way you want to. Or maybe you want your partner to learn to be empathetic. No matter what your motivation is: I want to take you on a journey in this article to learn more about empathy in relationships. We'll start with basics on empathy, the development of empathy, to what empathy means for your relationship. You'll also learn how to specifically train your empathy skills. In this article, you will get a clearer picture of empathy and take away for yourself how you can practically apply empathy in your relationship.

What is empathy anyway?

You can think of empathy as relating to others without judgment. It means a genuine understanding of other people regardless of background or opinion (1). Being empathic also means that we empathize with the feelings of others, as if they were reflected in us (2). So, for example, if our partner is sad, and we turn to him or her with empathy, we suddenly feel sad, too, because we tune into the other person's experience through empathy. Empathy is important because through it we develop understanding of other people's feelings and behavior. It is an essential skill for maintaining relationships (3).

Biological basis of empathy: mirror neurons

You may have heard the term "mirror neurons." In recent years, people have been talking about them more and more in connection with empathy. Through scientific studies, researchers have been able to show that so-called mirror neurons are active when empathic behaviors such as emotion re-sensing take place (4). This connection occurs because the same parts in our brain are active, for example, when one is angry oneself or sees an angry facial expression (5).

Emotional and cognitive empathy: what are the components of empathy?

Empathy can be divided into three types, namely emotional, cognitive, and social empathy. You will learn what exactly is meant by each empathy type in the following part:

Emotional empathy

Emotional empathy refers to the ability to empathize and share the emotions of the other person. (6) In emotional empathy, you mirror the emotions of others and empathize with them when you have put yourself in their shoes and established an empathic connection. That is, we feel emotions such as sadness, anger, pain, or joy by the fact that our counterpart is experiencing them. In emotional empathy, these emotions are felt regardless of what is currently happening in one's own emotional world or life (7).

Cognitive empathy

Cognitive empathy is understood to mean putting oneself in the other person's shoes and mentally taking on a perspective (8). Cognitive empathy can also be translated as "perspective taking," by which is meant that you mentally put yourself in the position of a fellow human being. You can think of it as staying more with yourself and being emotionally detached, so to speak. That is, you imagine what other people are experiencing at the moment and understand it rationally, without it having any effect on your own emotional world (9).

Social empathy

In everyday life, when someone says about you that you are empathic, they usually mean social empathy. That is, you can put yourself in others' shoes and understand the situation other people are in. You then sense and know what your counterpart is feeling at that moment and share the person's emotions to some extent. The difference with emotional empathy is that you can separate yourself and your own emotional world is not completely taken over by your counterpart (10).

Development of empathy in childhood

This, of course, brings up the question of how empathy develops in the first place and how we learn it? We develop empathy shortly after birth, which can be observed in the fact that babies begin to cry themselves upon hearing another crying baby.

However, even when we are adults, we are moved by the emotional expressions of others. The difference with the emotional contagion of babies, however, is that in empathy we are aware that our own state of mind has arisen because of the state of another person. So you don't just feel like the other person, you empathize with them. Therefore, developing the ability to separate one's own needs, desires, and emotions from others is also important (13).

Learning empathy as a child

Basically, we can consider empathy as a behavior that can be learned, and we can learn it especially through empathic people. Thus, the development of empathy is particularly enhanced when a child has empathetic parents. In this regard, it is best if the child experiences a lot of care and love. In addition, parents should respond to their needs with tenderness and love (14). This is because children who have a particularly empathic mother have higher self-worth (15). Conversely, self-worth also helps children respond more empathically (16).

learning empathy in relationships

The difference between empathy, pity, and compassion

It is important to distinguish between empathy, pity, and compassion. For instance, empathy occurs spontaneously and is a feeling that is also based on one's own experiences with these emotions. Pity, on the other hand, is not so much based on one's own experiences, but rather the sight of a person or animal in need makes us feel the need to help without actually feeling their pain.

With empathy, on the other hand, we suffer along with them ourselves. Therefore, there is a danger of making another person's suffering too much our own and therefore losing our distance. Compassion, on the other hand, involves concern for others, can be described as a positive emotion, and involves motivation to act (17).

Empathy and benefits to yourself

Although empathy also has downsides, which are especially evident in helping professions, here we are primarily interested in the positive powers of empathy. After all, empathy makes you happy and, above all, it has been proven to make you healthy. It has a positive effect on many organs and systems in the body when we are more empathetic. This is why, for example, inflammatory reactions, which often occur during stress, are milder when we are capable of compassion and constructive concern. So it's not surprising that life expectancy increases among those who are content and empathetic and feel close to others. And it has been proven that living closely with, empathizing with, and responding to others extends our lifespan (18).

What are the effects of empathy in relationships?

Empathy in relationships

However, empathy not only has remarkable effects on our own health, but it also benefits our relationships with our partners. When we are understood when communicating with the other person, it is an experience that makes us strong, relaxed and also strengthens our affection for that person who understands us. On the one hand, empathy deepens the relationship and, on the other hand, empathy helps us to respond to the partner when, in conflicts, the behavior or feelings of the other person may sometimes seem strange to us. Empathy is therefore especially important in couples who feel they do not understand each other, who talk past each other, or whose attempts to solve a problem fail (19).

Empathy and relationship satisfaction

For those of you wondering how much empathy actually affects our relationships, here are some interesting study results. In one study, empathy was shown to have a strong positive impact on relationship satisfaction, especially in long-term relationships. It was also important how the partner's behavior was perceived (20). Furthermore, in another study, empathic partners were shown to lead to higher relationship satisfaction (21). These study findings give us more than one reason to bring more empathy into our lives and relationships! So let's get started on it today.

learning empathy in relationships

Empathy sounds nice, but I want to solve my partner's problems!

Often there are misunderstandings between couples when one would like to be heard, but the other wants to "solve a problem". Both are important and legitimate forms of support in relationships. Both helping to solve problems and being empathically there for and supporting each other are important.

It is important to know what form of support your partner needs right now. Does he/she want you to listen and understand? Or would he/she like suggestions on how to solve the problem?

Problem solving or empathy?

So to find out, the best thing you can do is just ask when your partner tells you something: What do you need from me right now? Would you like some advice or my full attention and understanding?

It can also be helpful to talk with your partner about which of the two behaviors you tend to exhibit when the other person tells you about a problem. Also, it can be very helpful to talk about which form you would like the other to adopt most of the time.

Why problem solving can be problematic in the long run

As mentioned earlier, I am convinced that both empathy and problem solving have their place in relationships. However, if one partner is only in "problem-solving mode," then that can lead to difficulties in the relationship.

Avoiding your own uncomfortable feelings

It is very important to respond to the need of the person who is talking about a difficult experience. Indeed, there are many situations in which the person who is recounting a stressful situation needs empathy, but the other person is very uncomfortable facing feelings such as sadness or anger without a "solution." This requires you and the other person to endure such feelings instead of quickly pushing them away. So when you recognize in yourself or your partner the impulse to resolve things quickly, you can ask yourself:

  • How do I feel about just holding on to feelings like sadness, frustration, or anger? Does it make me uncomfortable?
  • Am I afraid of something?
  • Do I maybe even feel powerless or helpless to my partner's feelings?
  • What do I usually do when confronted with such feelings?

Power dynamics

In addition, when you present a solution to your partner, you also create a power dynamic. After all, you are presenting your personal solution to a problem to the other person without knowing if the suggestions fit the other person's ideas. Perhaps the other person can also get the feeling that you think you know everything or can solve everything. In this way, you do not give space to individual solutions of the person with difficulties.

Not feeling heard and seen

Skipping empathy and going straight to solving difficulties can also lead to the speaker not really feeling seen. Especially when empathy and understanding is important to the other person, solutions can lead to a feeling of "you're not really listening to me." This can then lead even more to the fact that actually well-intentioned proposals for solutions are rejected.

Learning empathy in relationships 

You may be asking yourself, "How can I learn to understand my partner better?" Here you'll learn what you can do to focus on learning empathy in relationships. The good news is: there are methods to do this!

1. Talk about empathy in your relationship

The first step can be for you to have a conversation with your partner about what you have learned about empathy. You can both talk about the extent to which you feel understood by each other. Is there still an area of learning for both of you? What exactly does the other person want?

2. Practice being aware of your own feelings

If you regularly "practice" or reflect on what makes you feel and how, this will also help you when it comes to perceiving feelings in others. One approach to empathy training is to start with yourself and regularly ask yourself: What do I perceive in my body? What emotion am I feeling? What happened to make me feel this way? What do I need? If you want to learn more about emotion awareness, you can find an article about it here.

3. Training during the conversation: put your own agenda aside and listen attentively

It will also help your empathy skills to practice your skills in conversation. Try to fully focus on the other person and put your own agenda on hold. You can practice this with your partner, but also in any conversation you have. Listen as carefully as you can, listening for expressions of feelings and needs.

4. Reflect back what you have understood, ask questions

In addition to listening to your counterpart, it is also useful to repeat in your own words what you have understood. This will help you avoid misunderstandings and also give your counterpart the feeling that he or she has been understood. If something is unclear to you, ask what you did not understand. You can also reflect back the feelings and needs you have heard.

5. Put yourself in your partner's perspective and think about how you would feel.

Pick a situation where you can understand your partner's position quite well (for a start). Then imagine exactly what happened for your partner. Close your eyes and let the situation play out in your mind's eye as if you were your partner. You may also remember specific conversations or content that your partner mentioned. What do you feel? What emotions can you perceive? Focus on what you can sense in your body, and then try to see if you can associate any feeling words with it. It might look something like this:

"If you tell me that you were ignored by your colleague at work, then I can well understand that you were disappointed and surprised. Putting myself in the situation, I can also imagine that you might have been angry too, is that right?"

Conclusion on learning empathy in relationships

After this article, I'm sure you'll have a better idea of how to better understand your partner and why empathy is important in relationships. If you want to continue practicing empathy with your partner, counseling can also help support you in this process.

Want to work on learning empathy skills alone or with your partner?


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