Empathize!

Posted on July 23, 2012

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“Do you feel what I feel? Can we make that so it’s part of the deal?” Robbie Robertson, Broken Arrow

“I want to be secure.  I want to wake up after the night before.  But do you ever get me? Do you ever get me?” Ben Watt, Get Me

A young woman told me she was studying to become a therapist because she liked giving advice and telling people what to do.  That is actually pretty far removed from how therapy works.  If you want advice, write to Dear Abby or call Dr. Laura.  I can help clients come to a decision, but it is their decision and not mine.  About as close as I get to advice is “I wonder what would happen if…”  Having said that, if I did offer one piece of advice to married couples (and particularly husbands), it would be one word.  Empathize.

In my practice, I see many married couples who have not experienced any great betrayal in the relationship.  No affairs, no abuse, no addiction, just the difficulties that come with living.  Yet they find themselves disconnected from each other.  When conflict arises, it is often (though not always) the wife who protests the disconnection she feels.  Husbands frequently hear this as criticism and become defensive.  From there the negative cycle sets in and a conflict that started out small becomes a threat to the relationship.

In research on the factors that lead to a positive outcome in therapy, the quality of the therapeutic relationship between the therapist and the client always tops the list.  For marital therapy, after the therapeutic relationship, the next two factors that correlate with a positive outcome in therapy are 1) the wife’s belief that her husband still loves her; and 2) the husband’s ability to handle his wife’s negative affect.[1]  If a husband can learn to empathize and not defend, it goes a long way toward accomplishing both of these.   Husbands will say, “We need to learn to communicate better.”  This often comes from couples who communicate for a living and are very successful at it.  It is not just about communication; it is about connection and empathy.

Much of the adult population has been familiarized with active listening skills, which are quite useful in almost any situation to avoid misunderstandings.  Essentially this is paraphrasing what you heard to check for understanding.  The speaker gets confirmation that the message has been received and understood.  The hearer receives confirmation that he or she has understood the content of the communication.  Empathy involves going a step deeper.  It is not just responding to the content of the communication, but to the feelings and experience of the speaker.  It is not just listening to the lyrics, but to the music as well.  This is the process of entering into and understanding the experience of one’s partner, and communicating that understanding in such a way that the partner feels understood.

Since for about two thirds of couples with a pursue-withdraw negative cycle it is the wife who pursues and the husband who withdraws, let us assume those gender tendencies for this discussion (duly noting that this is not always the case).  A husband may lament that his wife tells him the same thing repeatedly and identifies this as the reason for his withdrawal.  His wife may still assert that she has not been heard.   Typically, the husband got the facts, but he missed the feeling and what the incident (whatever it might have been) meant to his wife.  The wife wants her experience to be understood.

So here is an experiment husbands can try at home (it doesn’t even need one of those “professional driver, closed course, do not attempt” disclaimers).  When your wife tells you a story (it could be something between you or it could just be something that she experienced), try reflecting the feeling that you think she experienced.  She might be sad, hurt, lonely, fearful, angry, frustrated, happy, or delighted.  Doing this is pretty simple.  You might say something along the lines of, “It sounds like you were feeling hurt.”  If you pick the wrong emotion, she will correct you.  If you have no idea how she might have felt, there is always the therapist’s favorite, “What was that like for you?”  After you ask the question (and this is important), listen to the answer and reflect what you heard.

Here is the disclaimer.  This will not necessarily immediately diffuse the situation.  Your wife may still need to process verbally that hurt or sadness or loneliness or fear.  This may sound like anger at you (and may really include anger at you).  As the research about success in therapy indicated, this is where your ability to hold her negative emotional experience and not defend yourself can be transformative in your relationship.  As I have discussed in early posts, part of making your marriage a “secure base” and a “safe haven” is developing secure attachment in which you can turn to your partner in times of distress and receive comfort and support.  Offering that comfort and support to your partner is a great way to work on that bond.

“I work with individuals, couples, and families to help develop secure connections
and craft manageable solutions.”

More information is available on my website www.scottwoodtherapy.com.  I am also available for speaking engagements, seminars, and retreats http://scottwoodtherapy.com/Page5.html.

Scott Wood is a registered marriage and family therapist intern (IMF67385) and is supervised by Dr. Melinda Reinicke, Psychologist (Psy11011).


[1] I am feeling too lazy today to look up the reference and cite the specific research.

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