Today I'm going to tackle the topic of empathy in marriage. Empathy by definition is when you really can see where your partner's coming from and view things from their lens. Most of us crave it when we're venting about stress in our life because we don't want to be fixed. We don't want to be told what to do. We want empathy. We want our partner to come alongside us and see things from our vantage point to feel like a unified front against the trials of life. Marriages who cultivate empathy are going to experience much closer emotional connection, which often leads to much closer physical connection. So providing empathy has a lot of benefits for your relationship.
There's normally two types of venting. The one type of venting is when you're talking about stress in your life. So maybe you had a fight with a friend or you're stressed about work, etc. The other type of venting is when you have something negative to say about your partner. That's when proper conflict resolution in marriage skills are needed, such as the Reunite Tool, to minimize them feeling attached. There are three steps to responding with empathy to your partner's venting, especially when they are expressing a complaint about you.
Empathy in Marriage Tips
First I'm going to start with two ways not to respond and then we're going to get into how to respond. The first way not to respond is getting defensive. When your partner is making a complaint about you, it's easy to get defensive by having all sorts of reasons why it's not your fault. Defensive people are quick to point to how they've improved, how they were innocent, or how their spouse was actually to blame. Defensiveness counter-blames. It dishes off the responsibility elsewhere and that can be very infuriating to your partner who's making the complaint because now you've just invalidated what they feel. You just dismissed their complaint and you haven't taken any responsibility. Maybe they're trying to put more of the blame on you than is warranted. However, when you are defensive and push off the blame somewhere else, you're not taking any responsibility for your part. So the first thing not to do is get defensive. Some people have a natural bent towards getting defensive from a variety of factors. A common one is if they feel inadequate or insecure already, they can have a very hard time receiving constructive feedback from their partner because they already feel so lousy. So the last thing they want is more negative feedback. They're quickly going to defend themselves because they have to protect their fragile ego that's already damaged. But regardless of the reason someone gets defensiveness, it's toxic because it quickly invalidates their partner's complaint.
The second step to avoid is don't get defeated. This is the other extreme of defensiveness when someone receives a complaint from their partner and they turn to self-loathing. A defeated person talks about how horrible they are, how much of a failure they are, and how they can't do anything right. Most people who get defeated also feel inadequate so the complaint taps into that negative core. Becoming defeated is a problem because your partner who's trying to make a complaint to you now must turn the focus to how you're not a terrible person instead of on what they were feeling. The partner making the complaint wants the attention to be on them, but instead they must turn the attention on you to make you feel better, which makes them even more upset. So watch out for the trap to get defensive and defeated. Those are the two toxic routes most people go.
The third step is the right way to do it and is called two birds on the same branch. This concept is by John Gottman and he is considered the godfather of marriage research. What this concept means is when your spouse is venting and making a complaint imagine they're on their branch looking at the topic from their vantage point. But when you hear it, you're on your branch looking at it from another angle and so the first thing out of your mouth is correction. We point out the flaws in their thinking and counter their perspective. We challenge their vantage point. We counter them because we are looking at it from our branch. Doing so ruffles their feathers because what they want is for us to get off our branch, flap our wings, and land on their branch and try to see the topic from their view. One time I did this very wrong. I was out to dinner with my wife and she was venting about a conflict she was having with a friend of hers. She was going on and on about the negative feedback she received from this friend and the whole time I'm listening to this I'm on my branch thinking her friend is right because I feel the same way towards my wife at times. I tried resisting it coming out of my mouth but before I knew it out it came, "I agree with your friend because you do do that." Understandably, my wife got upset because I was taking her friend's side rather than hers. I was not seeing the situation from her lens and trying to come over to her branch. I was defending her friend, which was the wrong thing to do. That's what we do when we're on our branch. We counter our spouse, we challenge them, we push back and invalidate their perspective. We tell them they're wrong. The ideal thing to do is flap your wings and get off your branch and come over and land on their branch. When you do this there's a couple of phrases I want you to master. One is, "I can see how you would feel....." and then repeat back what you heard them say. The second phrase is "that makes sense that you feel ......" and repeat back what you heard them say. Those are empathy statements. Those are the types of statements that will make your spouse feel like you get it, you understand, you care, and you can see where they're coming from.
Now, the challenge with those comments is a lot of times what they're saying will not make sense to you. A lot of times you won't be able to see where they're coming from. So how can you still make those empathy comments without feeling disingenuous? You have to redefine what empathy means. Empathy is not trying to see something from your perspective and only then resonating with your partner. That's not what empathy is. Empathy is when you literally kick off your shoes and walk over and put on their shoes and consider their upbringing, their insecurities, their strengths, their temperament, and their value system. When you consider all of those variables and then look at the situation from their perspective it will start to make sense why it made them feel what it did. That's how you can empathize regardless if you agree or not. If you think you only can empathize if you agree with your partner, you're rarely going to be able to empathize. And that's where a lot of people get stuck because they can't see their partner's perspective because they are looking at the situation from their lens not their partner's. Practicing true empathy by seeing the situation from your partner's vantage point is when you become most selfless because it requires you momentarily let go of your interests. It's a muscle that will strengthen with practice. The more you work it out, the stronger it will get. The results can be very powerful. The other thing to remember when you're responding with empathy is you are not allowed to give any advice unless asked. In marriage, we're very quick to give advice. Your spouse doesn't want advice unless they ask for it. If they ask for it, then you have a green light. You have a receptive audience. Most of the time we lead off with advice when they've never asked for it and that offends and frustrates them. You can never go wrong with empathy and only give advice if asked.
Leave a comment below on other ideas to improve empathy in marriage.