EURSR (The Essence of Empathy and Intimacy)

Posted on April 13, 2018

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Many of my colleagues are good at coming up with clever acronyms (that spell out words) to help clients remember key coping strategies.  I might have to really think about it if I want to figure out how to make this spell something.

This one is Engage, Understand, Reflect, Share, Repeat.  It involves both the essence of empathy and of intimacy.  Empathy is one of the most powerful relationship tools we have at our disposal.  For empathy to be effective it requires three components.  First, I get what it is like to be you.  Second, I care what it is like to be you.  Third, you have an experience of the first two being true.  If I don’t get what it is like to be you, there is no empathy.  If I don’t care, the fact that I understand has no power.  Then I could both understand and care, but if you don’t have a felt sense that this is the case, we are missing each other.  You would not have an experience of receiving empathy.

1 Corinthians 13 is the great love chapter from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church.  If you are married, somebody probably read verses 4-6 at your wedding.  If you continue on as far as verse 12, Paul compares our present experience to our future experience in heaven.  “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  Fully knowing and being fully known is a description of intimacy.  Heaven is a place of knowing and being fully known.  In a marriage relationship, there is the opportunity to experience a foretaste of heaven by experiencing intimacy.

Couples often get stuck in pain cycles or negative cycles that leave both feeling hurt and alone.  Couples don’t really have 100 arguments, they have the same argument about 100 different topics.  You may find that you argue with your partner more than in any other relationship you have.  This is precisely because this relationship is so important that the emotional experience is so intense.

If you were both in the room, we would try to understand what is happening for each of you, recognized that the problem is the cycle and not your partner, and have you work together to defeat the cycle and become connected again.  Since, you are the only one reading this post, you are the only lever I have to pull to change the dance.  Let me give you a strategy you can try.

Engage.  For many, when your partner is upset, mad, triggered, or distressed, everything in you screams, “Run away.”  Something happens and your partner reacts.  You now have that deer in the headlights feeling.  Your little amygdala in the more primitive part of your brain says, “Danger, Will Robinson,” hijacks the system, and starts pumping your body full of adrenaline and cortisol.  It is difficult to problem solve when in this state.

The problem is that if your strategy is to escape, you are emotionally abandoning your partner in his or her moment of deepest need.  When we are distressed we need our partner to come close and soothe us.  However, this is the time when we are most prickly and our partner feels the most unsafe coming close.  The truth is that we all need love the most when we are at our least lovely.

I am not suggesting here that you need to commit yourself to being on the receiving end of verbal abuse.  However, if you can self-soothe enough to make the choice to stay engaged, this is the first step in soothing your partner.

Understand.  We all do and say the things we do and say for a reason.  Even our patterns that are really not constructive, healthy, or helpful have a logic to them.  Human beings may be emotional, but we are not irrational.  If your partner’s distress seems nonsensical to you, your mission is to figure out the way in which it actually does make sense.

If what your partner says sounds like “2+2=7” you need to understand that.  Assuming your partner is not having psychotic symptoms, there is a way in which this will make perfect sense.  You want to ask sincere questions until you understand both how 2+2=7 and what it is like for your partner to have 2+2=7.  The chances are that your partner is reacting to something that made him or her either feel unloved (rejected, unwanted, unappreciated, alone, etc.) or unsafe (vulnerable, not measuring up, powerless, insecure, etc.).  This is how ostensibly small things result in big arguments.  Further, this reaction may be about your current relationship, and/or the feeling may be grounded in childhood experience.

Reflect.  Remember that we said that a critical element of effective empathy is that your partner has a sense that you both get it and care.  The way you convey understanding is not by using the words, “I understand.”  In fact, I would suggest you strike “I understand” from your repertoire.  The way you convey understanding is by reflecting back what you have learned about your partner’s experience.  E.g. “when I came home late, that was really upsetting for you because it made you feel not important to me.”  If you get it wrong, it is not a problem.  Your partner will correct you and you can have another go at it.

Share.  Those first three steps were about making your partner feel known.  You also need to allow yourself to be known.  When your partner is distress, if you lead with sharing your feelings, it is likely to land on your partner as defensiveness.  After your partner is feeling understood (i.e. experiencing empathy from you), you will have created the space to share what was happening for you.  After your partner confirms that your reflection was spot on, that you got it, then you segue to “can I tell you where I was coming from?”

Repeat.  If your partner is particularly reactive, your attempt to share may result in your partner becoming distressed all over again.  This does not mean that you should give up (“well that’s one more thing that didn’t work”), but rather repeat the process.  Choose to engage and work to understand what it was about what you shared that was so distressing.  When your partner is feeling understood, you could say something along the lines of, “Let me try again.  Can I share what I was trying to say?”

One final word here, marriages are systems.  Even dysfunctional systems try to maintain homeostasis.  When you try to make a change to the steps in this dance, the system is going to try to push you back into line.  It takes commitment and perseverance to make a change.  You can only control you.  You cannot control your partner.  You are only accountable to be the best husband or wife you can be.  Whatever is happening, you want to respond in the most constructive way possible.

Good luck.

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