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Does my spouse really "get" me? Does he (or she) understand how I feel — at least some of the time?

November 01, 2010

Few things are more comforting than the experience of being understood by our primary partner.

A study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (May, 2010) recently reported that men and women who believed that their partners understood them had higher relationship satisfaction when compared to other couples.

What best promotes this understanding? Empathy. It's the capacity to convey to someone an accurate sense of what they're feeling, and it can sound like this:

  • "I sense your frustration with ..."
  • "Are you saddened by ...?"
  • "I feel your excitement about ..."
  • "I know it's hard for you when ..."
  • "I can understand you're feeling angry at ..."

Many relationships suffer from too little empathy. How come? Busy work schedules, a habit of slipping into conflict and disagreement, and never having learned the skill of expressing empathy all get in the way of our transmitting understanding.

How can you increase the empathy in your relationship?

  1. Set aside time to talk — just the two of you with no distractions. Turn off all electronics so you send the message, "I'm focusing on you now."
  2. Listen for significant feelings behind the stories your partner shares. If the feelings aren't obvious to you, put yourself in his or her shoes and imagine what it might be like. Or simply ask, "What do/did you feel ...?" And then mirror back those feelings (as in the examples above).
  3. Avoid offering your own perspective, advice, or solutions when you're goal is to convey understanding. Even your best ideas tend to shift the focus onto you and away from your spouse.
  4. Before the conversation ends, ask, "Are you feeling understood by me?" If so, enjoy your success. If not, keep talking, keep listening for the feelings, and try again. (If you keep hitting a wall, a few sessions with a couples counselor can help.)