How To Show Empathy Toward Your Partner
Empathy is an incredibly important component of all interpersonal relationships, especially the one you share with your significant other. It’s a conduit for strengthening a relationship, and its absence can be sorely felt. We’ve all shared our struggles with others, and have, at times, received casual or callous remarks that made us regret opening up.
There’s a huge difference between empathy and sympathy. It’s best to distinguish between the two by understanding that sympathy is having feelings for someone (usually pity for their misfortune), while empathy is feeling with someone.
The difference cannot be understated. What people desire when they are struggling isn’t pity. They desire connection. Empathy is how you achieve that. And here’s how you can show that…
Leading a Better Life
It’s not easy to be empathetic. In fact, it can be downright uncomfortable. No one likes to feel distressed or upset. Our natural instinct is to try to put things right and be at ease. It takes practice and active awareness of others in order to show empathy, but it’s important because empathy leads to compassion, and compassion leads to better living.
A Few Things to Stop
So how can you get better at showing empathy, especially toward the one you are closest to in the world? How can you grow and stretch your ability to connect with your partner so you can strengthen your relationship and be a strong support? Let’s start with a few things you should stop doing in order to show better empathy…
Don’t Say: “Everything Happens for a Reason”
Look, the instinct is understandable, sure. You want to be encouraging and believe that there’s purpose and meaning to whatever circumstance your partner is going through. And maybe that’s true. But when your significant other comes to you upset about something that has happened, the last thing you want to do is use this cliché as a response, because they will feel like you’re just blowing them off.
If your partner, or any loved one, comes to you needing to share something, it should be obvious that you shouldn’t try to ditch the conversation as soon as possible. Don’t dodge it because it’s uncomfortable or unexpected. If you do, imagine how you’ve made them feel: like they just did a trust fall and you weren’t there to catch them.
Don’t Say: “This Too Shall Pass”
Think about this one for a second. Again, this phrase is likely trying to come from a place of reminding someone that whatever they are going through is only temporary, it’s not forever. That’s a good thing, right? But the problem is, that doesn’t really change the fact that they are, in fact, going through something.
When your loved one comes to you upset about something, it is very real to them, even if it’s something that wouldn’t really bother you. The point of empathy is putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. In order to do that, you have to try to understand where they are coming from. If you make their problem seem “not so bad,” then you will only make them feel isolated and misunderstood.
Don’t Say: “It’s Going to Get Better”
Your desire for it to get better is not the same thing as saying that it will get better. There is no way for you to know that. And again, even if it’s true that it probably will get better at some point… it’s still not the empathetic thing to say. Because it doesn’t acknowledge what’s happening now.
Don’t Run Ahead of the Conversation
The temptation to “run ahead” with the conversation stems from a desire to move as quickly as possible away from discomfort. But what is running ahead? It’s when you jump to the end of the conversation without acknowledging your partner’s current emotional state. Remember to pace the conversation to how they are feeling.
Don’t Say: “Just Look on the Bright Side”
Believe it or not, your partner doesn’t want you to paint a silver lining on their pain. They just don’t want to be alone. The inclination to aim the conversation in a more positive direction is going to be strong because it’s hard dealing with the hard stuff in life. But starting your response with, “Well, at least…” just isn’t at all empathetic or compassionate.
When your partner or loved one comes to you about something they are struggling with, it doesn’t matter whether or not what they’re going through is something that would even remotely bother you. Everyone’s experience and preferences, tolerances and abilities, are different. Their personal struggle is valid and doesn’t require your judgement. It requires your compassion.
Don’t Say: “It Could Be Worse”
On the flip side, when your partner has opened up to you about their struggles, don’t follow up with an “it could be worse” scenario. There is always going to be someone how has/had it worse. In no way does that invalidate the very real pain that your partner is currently feeling.
Don’t Try to Fix the Problem
This one is especially tough when it comes to your significant other. It’s like a knee jerk response to want to come to the rescue of your loved one. How could solving the problem not be a good and kind thing to do? It’s not that you don’t offer to help at some point but let your first response be empathizing instead of fixing.
Don’t Prescribe Your Own Method for Handling Things
Everyone deals with things in their own way. While it’s possible that your advice is good and sound and born of solely good intentions, prescribing a regimen for your partner to move forward isn’t the best way to show you care. When you are wanting to show empathy, it’s better to simply be present with your partner and hear them out.
Things You Should Do: Listen
In fact, the number one thing you can do to show more empathy for your partner is to listen actively. Focus exclusively on the other person—removing any potential distractions from the mix—and try to understand the world from their point of view. Give them time to finish their thoughts and avoid interrupting them. Often, allowing room to process will help them to discover their own solutions.
There’s many an old saying, like “mourn with those who are mourning, rejoice with those who are rejoicing,” that succinctly depict empathy. And this, again, shows the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is feeling pity, but empathy is feeling with someone. It doesn’t have to be negative; you can be empathetic by celebrating with your partner, too! The main thing is to be there.
Connect with Their Feelings
When going through something intense, or even just frustrating or confusing, you can often wonder if you’re overreacting or responding reasonably. When someone shares with you, they may be doing something similar: checking your response to see if they are justified for feeling the way they do. Step into their shoes and connect with what they are feeling in their situation.
You can use your body language to communicate connection as well. There’s a technique called mirroring (something you probably already do without realizing it) that tells your partner that you are not only with them, but actively engaged, interested, and listening. Your posture, expressions, and tone with match theirs. It’s a way to reflect back that you understand what they are feeling and saying.
If you’re wanting to communicate love and support for your partner while they are being vulnerable and sharing, you definitely want to make sure you are being attentive and showing interest in what they are saying. You can refer to the following articles for more tips on Effective Communication and Body Language Signs. (*Note to Carrie: prior articles I’ve submit could be linked here for more clicks.)
Acknowledge Their Feelings
After listening and simply being there with your partner or loved one as they share, if you feel led to speak, make sure that whatever you say acknowledges how they are feeling rather than focusing on what they are doing or should do. They are sharing in order to be understood, so take that time to try and understand, then show that you do by vocalizing what you’ve understood.
“I Can See Why You Feel that Way.”
This phrase is extremely useful when empathizing. It demonstrates not only an understanding of what you partner is feeling, but also the fact that you understand why they are feeling that way. More than having the problem fixed or making it go away, what your significant other really wants is to be understood in the midst of what they are going through.
Acknowledge their Pain
Going beyond just understanding and acknowledging how your partner is feeling, whether it’s sorrow or anxiety or isolation or frustration, you can also acknowledge the consequences of wat they are going through: the difficulty or pain those feelings can inflict. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and it’s better if it’s not. A simple and sincere “Wow, that sucks,” will work.
“My Heart Hurts with Yours.”
This is another one that can communicate a solidarity of feeling with your partner. It’s better than saying, “My heart hurts for you,” which, while it may sound kind, is actually leaning back toward sympathy or pity for them rather than empathy with them. It’s incredible how a subtle change in language can make all the difference in what you’re saying.
“That Sounds Really Challenging.”
Showing empathy doesn’t have to be reserved for the cataclysmic moments in your partner’s life. You can empathize in the day-to-day as well, which shows solidarity and support for your partner. When they come to you with a problem, but aren’t asking for advice, you can express understanding of their situation and difficulty by using the phrase above. They might just want to know that you get it.
Envision What it Would Be Like
Empathy is all about trying to imagine yourself in another person’s position. If you’re having trouble understanding what your partner is going through or where they are coming from, you may just need a little more context. You didn’t experience their day. You don’t have the same personality. But try to imagine for a second if you did or connect their experience to one similar to your own to help you latch on to what they may be feeling.
Share Your Feelings
You can show how you relate to your partner by sharing your feelings but avoid making the conversation centered on you. The goal is to connect even more deeply with your partner, not compare and contrast experiences. Just make sure that, at the end of explaining a similar experience, you circle back with a question or comment that allows your partner to continue knowing you’re still listening and just want to know you get where they are coming from.
Ask Good Questions
The right questions can help clarify your partner’s meaning or give you more context for their situation, their feelings, or thoughts and perspective on what’s going on. Take your time. Don’t just assume their response would be the same as yours. Don’t be afraid to use phrases like, “So, what I’m hearing is that you feel ____, is that right?” Your partner wants to be understood and will appreciate your effort and desire to understand them correctly.
It’s Okay to be Speechless
But in the moments where your partner is feeling totally overwhelmed by what they are going through and they just need you with them before they even try and even begin to process and can talk about it, it’s okay for you to be speechless, too. The temptation to comfort with words and solutions will be very real, because no one likes to see someone they love suffering. But resist the temptation, because sometimes what they really need is just to be held and a shoulder to cry on.
Admit When You Don’t Know What to Say
It’s also perfectly acceptable, when given news that is hard to process from your partner, to admit that you simply don’t know what to say or how to respond. They are likely coming to you because they don’t know either. Having the answer isn’t what’s need. Connection with you is what your partner craves. Try something like, “I’ve no idea what to say, but I want you to know I’m here for you.”
Check in with Your Partner
You don’t have to (and can’t) always rely on your partner coming to you to share things unprompted. Sometimes things are too difficult or maybe even embarrassing to simply come and start talking about. They might not want to trouble your or be an inconvenience. So, it’s a good, and kind, idea to check in on your partner and ask how they are doing, even if things seem fine.
“How are You Feeling about Everything?”
We are so often asked in passing, “Hey, how are you?” that the phrase has almost lost all meaning. It’s a courtesy rather than a real question. Finding another way to phrase your question is really important for how it is received. If you wanting to check in on your partner and see how they are actually doing, try asking them “How are you feeling about everything?” instead.
This can be a little tricky when you’re trying to be empathetic. The trouble with this is not the desire to be encouraging to your partner (and obviously good thing), but the way that you’re trying to do that. Remember that it shouldn’t be your first response, although the inclination is understandable. You want to comfort. But if you jump to encouragement right from the start, it may look like you’re minimizing their situation and haven’t tried to relate and understand them first.
“I’m with You.”
Reemphasizing your continued presence with your partner in and through the midst of what they are going through can be one of the most encouraging things to tell them. It doesn’t jump to saying things will get better. It doesn’t ignore that there’s stuff to get through or that it may be difficult. It simply and effectively communicates that they are not alone in this.
“I’m Proud of You.”
This is also a profoundly encouraging statement that you can give to your significant other. While going through something tough, they may not be feeling so great about themselves simply because what they are dealing with doesn’t feel great. Reminding them of who they are and that you are proud of them is a great way to encourage.
Being encouraging and being supportive go hand-in-hand, but they look a little different from one another. Encouragement is often with words and affirmation. Support, while it can be accompanied with words, will take the form of action. It’s going to look more like holding your partner’s hand and giving it a loving squeeze, offering to give them a massage or preparing a relaxing bath for them, facilitating whatever it is that helps your partner to relax and unwind.
Show Them Some Love
There are so many ways you can be supportive that go beyond offering general comfort and encouragement. Maybe there’s a chore that your partner simply detests doing but you don’t mind so much, offer to take care of that for them. Send them a bouquet of flowers or a handwritten note… anything that will remind them that they are thought of and loved.
“What Do You Need Right Now?”
Asking how you can help your partner in the moment is a lot better than trying to proffer readymade solutions. And the answer to what they need right now is likely no what you expect. They may simply say that they need someone to just listen. They may say that they need to go blow off some steam or take a weekend with you to get away from it all for a little while. You won’t know until you ask, and there’s no harm in asking!
Don’t Wait, Just Do Something Kind
But you don’t have to wait for an answer in order to do something kind for your partner (they may need a little time to figure out what they need, anyway). Go ahead and do something. Make them dinner. Wash their car. Watch their favorite movie or show with a big bowl of ice cream. It doesn’t “make everything better” and that’s not why you’re doing it. But they can certainly always enjoy a little kindness.
It takes a lot out of someone to open up and be vulnerable with where they are and what they are dealing with, especially when what they are going through is already exhausting enough. Make sure that somewhere in the conversation with your partner, you show some gratitude for their willingness to open up to you.
“Thank You for Trusting Me with This.”
People process in different ways: some find it easier to process things verbally and externally, while others are more comfortable internally processing. Still, all of us need the comfort of community, so sharing can be varying shades of difficult, depending on how you process. Thanking your partner for trusting you with their feelings can give them a huge amount of relief when they may have had to work themselves up to doing so in the first place.
“I’m Glad You Told Me.”
This is another valuable statement to tuck away for later use. As mentioned before, it can take quite a lot for someone to be vulnerable, even if it’s the person closest to you. Your partner could be struggling with whether or not they should “burden” or “bother” you with their problems. Telling them that you are glad that they have shared with you can be very comforting.
“I’m Happy to Listen Anytime.”
Saying, at the end of a conversation, that you’d be glad to do so again whenever necessary will make it a lot easier for you partner to come to you again in the future. You have created a safe, supportive, non-judgmental space for them to share their thoughts and feelings. It doesn’t mean you have to carry those things with you or solve every problem. It simply means that when they need someone to be there with them while they work it out, they know they can come to you.
When in Doubt, Apply the Golden Rule
Each person is different, and their experience is unique to them. It can be hard, or maybe even overwhelming, to try and figure someone out and understand the way the tick and how they respond to different situations. Empathy happens when you try. When in doubt, apply the golden rule: “Treat others as you wish to be treated”: with kindness, respect, and understanding.
The Extra Effort is Worthwhile
It takes a little bit of extra effort and attention to your language, but empathy is not only invaluable to your relationships, it’s central to your personal growth as a human being. Being willing to go out of your comfort zone to empathize with and show compassion towards others who are different from you makes you a better person and the world a kinder place.