A short definition of empathy is a person’s ability to sense others’ emotions, and to imagine what they are thinking and feeling. Another important part of effectively expressing empathy is being able to use words to show and tell the other person that you are thinking about how they are feeling — even if, or especially if, you are feeling differently than they are.
For many people, that is no easy task.
Empathy is an important component of couple satisfaction that warrants close inspection. In my model of the Milestones of Sexual Development, having experienced empathy in your family of origin is important to being easily able feel safe, attached, and willing to be both emotionally and sexually close to a beloved other.
For people who came from difficult families, empathy can be learned in adult relationships, as well as in group and individual psychotherapy. Research on (mostly heterosexual) couples has found a potent relationship between a person’s perception that their partner is being empathic and paying attention to their feelings, and relationship satisfaction. Having an empathic partner is experienced as being supported, accepted, and validated.
Take the example of a loving couple where there is a desire discrepancy. Let’s call them Emily and Johanna.
Emily grew up in a very warm family, with lots of hugs and kisses and words of acknowledgement and acceptance. Emily loves sex. She can’t get enough of it. She thinks about sex all the time. If she’s happy she wants to celebrate with sex, and if she is sad, she would like to be sexual to soothe her feelings.
Johanna grew up in a more conservative family, where parents were not very affectionate, and a lot of emphasis was put on achievement. Johanna’s self-worth and sense of wholeness and pleasure were based more on success in school and in sports.
For Emily, being sexual is her love language. But that’s really not Johanna’s love language.
Johanna likes to talk, share ideas, read the same things and discuss them, go to interesting places and do interesting things. Johanna likes sex, but not as much as Emily does, and she doesn’t really like to spend a lot of time in bed cuddling and having slow, elaborate foreplay. She wants to have sex, but she wants it to have a beginning and an end and not go meandering all over the place for a long time.
One Friday, Johanna comes home after an especially tense day at the medical office where she works. She realizes that she and Emily have not spent a lot of time together that last week. They had a visitor in the house, and the two of them have been insanely busy. What Johanna really wants to do is to take a long, hot shower and then to get in bed with a book she is really enjoying, and to read herself to sleep.
But she is able to imagine how Emily is feeling. She thinks Emily is probably feeling sad or forgotten, and she knows that Emily probably would like to reconnect with sex. But Johanna does not.
And here is a truly masterful expression of empathy:
Johanna goes up to Emily, who was in bed, kisses her tenderly, and says, “I know you probably would like to be sexual right now. It’s been a long week, and I haven’t had any time to spend with you. I really love you, but I am totally beat. Trust me, I did not forget you. I love you. But what I really need to do it to take a shower, get into bed, and read myself to sleep. But I promise that I will wake up tomorrow refreshed and de-stressed, and then we can have sex.”
Despite the longing Emily felt for a sex right then, Johanna’s empathy for who is Emily was magical. Emily feels seen, understood, and loved. Crisis averted. Resentment averted. Guilt averted. Connection accomplished.
I hoping you can see yourself in this example, or imagine what empathy might look like in your relationship. Working on your empathic and communicative skills will pay off handsomely in couple happiness.
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