How to Develop Greater Empathy for Your Mate

This column’s topic was spurred by a reader’s question about how to develop empathy after having been told by several dates that his non-empathic responses rendered him an unsuitable mate. It is likely that a less than empathic responsiveness may be a frequent disqualifying trait in relationships than many other trait discrepancies.

Empathy is defined as “The appreciative understanding of the feeling of another.” The terms Empathy and Compassion are often used interchangeably. Though they are similar, compassion also includes the desire to aid the person one feels empathy for. The capacity for empathy appears to be innate as it is viewed in young children’s spontaneous caring responses to their younger siblings, pets or even their stuffed animals.

In “The Power of Empathy” the authors, D. Arthur P. Ciaramicoli and Katherine Ketcham state, “Being empathic is much more important than having empathy.” The capacity to understand and provide the mate with support, validation and bonding is essential. The absence of empathic reactions leaves the mate feeling emotionally unsafe, unsupported, misunderstood and even lonely.

When one member of a couple responds to the other’s woes with factual, logical or informational data without exhibiting empathic congruence, the speaker is left feeling emotionally unheard, misunderstood and even rejected. The mismatch between seeking emotional validation, help, reassurance and affirmation and receiving intellectual or practical responses often leaves the speaker feeling unheard, lonely and abandoned. Subsequent conclusions may be drawn as to the listener’s poor social skills, lack of attentiveness or even a deep character flaw of insensitivity.

Those who are advised that their reactions are not empathic may be stunned by this harsh characterization and may also be at a loss about how to provide the desired responses. They may feel discounted in being viewed as insensitive, disinterested or emotionally flawed. There are also no easy avenues for accessing guidance about how to become more empathic with their partner.

When Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence was asked, “How strong is the genetic neural connection related to empathy? “ He responded, “Emotional intelligence abilities are largely learned and learnable, though there is certainly a generic component. I would assume that this core talent for rapport and cooperation has been favored in evolution- far more for its power in strengthening bonds in families and groups than in warfare over the several hundred thousand years of human evolution. We also know that practicing loving kindness enhances the functioning of the underlying brain circuits, though I have yet to see data on empathy itself.”

Probably, the most effective way for pairs to improve their reciprocal empathy is through couple therapy. The therapist can teach the couple a form of dialogue that can enhance their capacity to empathize and support each other for their personal growth and couple bonding.

For greater empathy:

  • Seek a skilled couple therapist to help you develop greater empathy for your mate.
  • Become more empathic for your benefit, your mate’s satisfaction and your healthier union.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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