I just finished reading a fantastic article from Phil Carson at Connectedmarriage.org on the importance of empathy in marriage. Empathy isn’t just important to the health and success of a marriage, it’s critical. Seeing things from your spouse’s point of view helps to grow a level of compassion, trust, and intimacy that you might not have together otherwise.
Scripture tells us to:
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Romans 12:15 (NIV)
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Ephesians 4:2-3
So, what’s the best way to keep the “bond of peace”? Empathy.
In the article Phil outlines 4 key ways we can increase empathy in our marriage. I would encourage you to read the entire article, but here they are, in a nutshell:
1/Effective Validation: Phil says the point of validation is to be able to understand and to feel your partner’s thoughts and feelings.
Everett Worthington explains that there are three levels of empathy**
Level 1: Understanding – You understand the point of view of the other person.
Level 2: Emotional Identification – You feel with and think with the other person.
Level 3: Compassionate Empathy – You feel compassion for the other person as well as emotional identification.
2/Understand Your Partner’s Past: Phill says it’s so important for couples to identify their emotional triggers and how they came about. For instance, I suffered a good bit of emotional abuse growing up, and as such I tend to be overly sensitive to personal criticism. That’s probably the reason my LOVE LANGUAGE is “Words of Affirmation”. My wife, Leanne, understands this and she’s quick to praise me when I do well, and affirm any accomplishment of mine. As well, she understands when her words may hurt me without her intending them to.
Phil says that when we understand our partners emotional triggers, it helps us both to manage how we respond and how we react. It produces compassion.
3/Use a Journal: When couples have built up a great deal of resentment and anger, Phil says, forgiveness is always a step in the healing process. When you are hurt deeply, write it in a journal. Writing down thoughts and feelings can help you to process your hurt. Processing your hurt can lead you to compassionate empathy. Compassionate empathy, in turn, helps with the deeper hurts to move the person towards forgiveness.
4/Switch Sides: The goal of empathy, Phil says, is to experience the world from the other person’s feelings and thoughts. It doesn’t mean that you agree with their actions, but it can help to increase compassion. So, how do you put yourself in their shoes? You can switch sides in your expression of thoughts and feelings. For example, pick out a specific incident and write a letter to yourself from the perspective of your partner. I could write a letter from the perspective of my wife. I could include in it my wife’s thoughts, feelings and motivations. Putting yourself into their perspective can be very healing. It’s true even if you don’t get actually get it right. It can help to see a specific incident through their eyes.
That perspective will build empathy.
**as cited in Levenson and Ruef, 1992