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5 Ways To Increase Empathy Between Couples

By May 7, 2024Blog
empathy

Empathy Helps Romantic Relationships

Empathy matters in romantic relationships. It helps us to glide through life and towards our personal and shared goals much more easily. But whilst we expect our loved ones to ‘get what we mean’ and understand what we need, are our supporters really as good at empathy as we might hope? And are we? And what difference does it make to our romantic relationships, married and unmarried?

Well, in a review of 21 studies, researchers found a link between relationship satisfaction and empathic accuracy in married couples [1]. Empathic accuracy being the ability to correctly infer the thoughts and feelings of others.

Interestingly, the positive link between empathic accuracy and relationship satisfaction was significantly stronger when looking at responses to a partner’s negative emotions (as opposed to positive emotions) and was also stronger for those in moderate-length relationships than in couples with shorter- and longer-length relationships.

In a study of unmarried cohabiting couples, researchers found that when men and women were themselves higher in empathy, they also experienced a higher perception of relationship quality and when women were higher in empathy it also affected their male partner’s perception of relationship quality, though not the other way around [2].

 

How To Increase Empathy

So empathy helps you to fare the storms better and feel more satisfied within your relationship. But people aren’t always great at empathy. And whilst we may want to ourselves become more empathic or wish our partner would, what can we do to help ourselves and our partner do just that? Allow me to share some helpful methods.

Here are 5 Ways To Increase Empathy Between Couples:

 

1. Be Alert (Not Overly Stressed Not Overly Subdued)

Think moderation. Neither apathetic on the left hand of the spectrum nor overly-stressed on the right hand.

Researchers studying the effects of stress on empathic accuracy amongst romantic couples (married and non-married) found that although women were more empathically accurate then men, in general, women experience a much greater drop in empathic accuracy when under high stress than men do, and for both men and women, empathic accuracy is best during moderate levels of stress rather than ‘under conditions of very high and very low arousal’ [3].

So, for both men and women, being alert and engaged rather than, say, apathetic or overly stressed, could help you to both have a conversation where you’re both at your most empathic.

Pick your moments well. When you need your partner’s attention or you know you need to give them your attention, create the most conducive environment for it. If you have stressful work that needs completing, get it out of the way first. If you want to do something like go to the gym so that you can pay better attention afterwards, do it.

 

2. Be Present

You have in to be in the present moment. It’s where all the important information is.

To accurately infer what your loved one is saying, you need to be able absorb their story, and also their words, tone of voice, body language, all forms of verbal and non-verbal communication.

And you absorb a lot of that information subconsciously and so if you are present, you allow your brain to absorb all of those details so that you can be empathic there and then in that moment, but also later too. Because some things take time to process and something you noted then, albeit subconsciously, will come to your conscious awareness later on, hours, maybe days or weeks later.

In the end, whether in the next minute or in the next few hours or weeks, that information will help you to become more empathic overall as you better understand your partner and their needs and you only do that when you are present, not only in those moments, but also present in your relationship in general.

So for better empathy, and relationship satisfaction, remove distractions and remove major stress.

 

3. Appreciate Them

Researchers uncovered that humans do find being empathic effortful and so they would rather avoid empathy than engage in it but if they believe they are good at it, given the chance, they will more likely choose to be empathic than avoid it [4].

So, genuinely, let your partner know that they are good at being empathic and let them know you appreciate them for this. Not only is it the nice and right thing to do by your partner, it also helps them to understand that their empathic efforts are a worthwhile endeavour because you are grateful to them for it and because it helps.

This isn’t so much about positively reinforcing your beloved’s wonderful behaviour to encourage more of it (which it naturally will), as much as it is about showing them that you recognise the effort they put into you and into your relationship. It shows them that you notice them and the things they do and appreciate them for how they treat you and how they tend to your relationship.

That in-depth awareness, presence and appreciation will result in you both taking actions that nourish your relationship with good relationship habits such as compassion, intimacy, respect, and helpfulness.

 

4. Uncover Information

Whilst empathy is about demonstrating awareness, you can’t do that if you haven’t really grasped the situation in hand. If you’re not sure, be genuine. Sometimes what is concerning your partner isn’t obvious, sometimes the solution isn’t obvious, and sometimes your interest in helping them isn’t obvious. The solution to all of these is asking good questions.

Remember that asking questions rather than making statements demonstrates that you care to understand better and that you are open to learning rather than quick to judging.

Statements can suggest you’ve already made your mind up. But maybe you’re missing vital information that will help you to help your partner and thus, your romantic connection and relationship satisfaction, too.

So ask questions like, ‘How have they left you feeling?’; ‘What can I do to help you?’; ‘Is there anything you wish you had done differently?’. And as per tip 2 above, be fully present when they answer so that you know what they’re saying and what they’re not saying, verbally and non-verbally.

 

5. Use Meditation

We know that mindfulness meditation can change the physical structure of your brain by increasing the concentration of grey matter in brain regions associated with emotion regulation, learning and memory, self-referential processing, and perspective taking. It’s great for how you relate to yourself and how you feel within yourself day-to-day.

But mindfulness meditation also helps how you relate to others.

Mindfulness meditation-based interventions such as mindfulness based cognitive therapy and mindfulness based stress reduction therapy have been found to increase empathy [5] [6] [7].

Mindfulness meditation has also been found to increase compassion for others [6] [8] and as compassion for someone helps motivate us to be empathic towards them, increasing compassion for others can indirectly help you to be more empathic towards them too.

So try combining mindfulness meditation with other forms of self-care and stress-reduction and anxiety-symptom-soothing practices such as exercise, immersion in nature, compassionate self-talk and hot bathing.

 

Empathy Helps Your Relationship To Thrive

Empathy can make or break someone when they’re at their lowest and help them to thrive when they’re already flying high. And being a partner means being there for one another during the tough times and also enjoying the fruits of your loving labour, in the good times.

So remember to implement those 5 Ways To Increase Empathy:

  1. Be Alert
  2. Be Present
  3. Appreciate Them
  4. Uncover Information
  5. Use Meditation

Those 5 methods are simple, easy and effective.

They will make the tough times less challenging for both of you.

If you’re busy, taking a few minutes for attentive listening and being empathic will actually save you from potentially hours of disagreements and feeling down and deflated.

Remember that over time you should be getting to know each other better, evolving together, and feeling more at peace with one another, and empathy will pave a lot of that road for you.

 

Reference

1. Sened, H., Lavidor, M., Lazarus, G., Bar-Kalifa, E., Rafaeli, E., & Ickes, W. (2017). Empathic accuracy and relationship satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Family Psychology, 31, 742-752. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000320

2. Ulloa, E. C., Hammett, J. F., Meda, N. A., & Rubalcava, S. J. (2017). Empathy and Romantic Relationship Quality among Cohabitating Couples: An Actor-Partner Interdependence Model. Family Journal (Alexandria, Va.), 25(3), 208–214. https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480717710644

3. Crenshaw, A. O., Leo, K., & Baucom, B. R. W. (2019). The effect of stress on empathic accuracy in romantic couples. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(3), 327–337. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000508

4. Cameron, C. D., Hutcherson, C. A., Ferguson, A. M., Scheffer, J. A., Hadjiandreou, E., & Inzlicht, M. (2019). Empathy is hard work: People choose to avoid empathy because of its cognitive costs. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(6), 962–976. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000595

5. Centeno R. P. R. (2020). Effect of Mindfulness on Empathy and Self-Compassion: An Adapted MBCT Program on Filipino College Students. Behavioral Sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 10(3), 61. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs10030061

6. Luberto, C. M., Shinday, N., Song, R., Philpotts, L. L., Park, E. R., Fricchione, G. L., & Yeh, G. Y. (2018). A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of the Effects of Meditation on Empathy, Compassion, and Prosocial Behaviors. Mindfulness, 9(3), 708–724. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0841-8

7. Hu, Z., Wen, Y., Wang, Y., Lin, Y., Shi, J., Yu, Z., Lin, Y., & Wang, Y. (2022). Effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions on empathy: A meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 992575. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.992575

8. Condon, P. Desbordes, G., Miller, W. B., Desteno, D. (2013). Meditation Increases Compassionate Response to Suffering. Psychological Science 24 (10), 2125 –2127.