Whether you’ve been together for one year or 20 years, it’s safe to say that every couple wants a strong and healthy relationship. Wondering how you can take your partnership to the next level? Empathy is one of the best ways to create a deeper connection with your partner. By practicing empathy, you have the ability to put yourself in another person’s position, take on their feelings as if they were your own, and truly understand their emotional experiences. “Empathy is when you care for someone, and you can see through their lens and have a sense of what it would be like to walk in their shoes,” Heather Mayone of Tribeca Therapy says.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings, perspectives, and experiences. This skill allows you to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, to see the world from their own unique lens, and to feel what they feel.
Empathy is a crucial component of any successful relationship, but it’s especially important for romantic partnerships. Since we’re all different people with distinct perspectives, empathy reduces that barrier between us by facilitating connection, closeness, intimacy, and trust—the cornerstone of every long-lasting relationship. When you’re empathetic toward your partner, you make them feel seen, heard, and understood, so you provide a safe space for them to be open and vulnerable. “When I feel seen and understood by my partner using empathy toward me, especially when I am upset or worried or struggling with a problem, I feel connected and emotionally safe,” therapist Emily Racic, Ph.D., explains. By truly understanding your partner, you’ll build a bond that is strong enough to overcome any obstacle or manage any conflict.
If you’re yearning for a deeper and more enriching relationship, here are five expert-approved ways to practice being more empathetic toward your partner.
Meet the Expert
- Heather Mayone is the director of Tribeca Therapy in New York City with 17 years of experience in the counseling field.
- Emily Racic, Ph.D., is a marriage and family therapist at Emily Cook Therapy in Bethesda, Maryland. She’s been a counselor since 2010.
- Elizabeth Burke is the owner and president of Empowered Therapy Inc. based in Chicago. She’s been a clinician for almost 13 years.
One of the best ways to practice empathy is by actively listening to your partner. Since we live in a world that constantly vies for our attention, really focusing on what your significant other has to say has become quite the challenge. While another person is talking, so many of us get distracted by formulating our next response or interrupting the speaker with our own opinions and beliefs. But, these disruptive habits are a barrier to understanding your partner on a deeper level.
When your other half opens up about a tough meeting at work or an uncomfortable conversation with a friend, start by maintaining eye contact and adopting an open posture, which encourages your significant other to keep sharing. Try your best to embrace an open mind and let go of any judgments. Before you weigh in, make sure your partner is finished speaking. “This allows the person who is sharing to feel heard, and it fosters intimacy,” Elizabeth Burke of Empowered Therapy Inc. notes.
When your loved one is talking about an experience, asking questions is an excellent way to express interest, communicate that you care, and show support. If your partner is explaining an argument that happened with a family member, it might be tempting to give advice on what you’d do in the situation or make assumptions based on similar situations that happened in the past. Usually, what your partner actually needs is someone to listen and understand. Instead, challenge yourself to respond with a question, such as “How did you feel when your brother criticized your spending habits?”
If your partner doesn’t come to you first, but you notice their behavior is different, asking questions can help them feel comfortable opening up. Noting their emotional state shows that you’re invested in their happiness and well-being. According to Racic, some examples include “You looked nervous as we were getting ready for the party. Are you worried about seeing your boss there? I could tell you were extra frustrated with the dogs barking tonight. Is something on your mind? When I complimented you on your new jacket, you didn't respond. Are you feeling self-conscious?"
Validate Their Feelings
For an empathetic relationship to thrive, validating one another’s emotions is crucial. When your partner discloses how a situation makes them feel, ignoring, minimizing, judging, or trying to change their feelings communicates that their real emotions aren’t welcome and that they aren’t allowed to be their true selves. “When a person doesn’t feel heard and doesn’t feel validated, distance is inevitable,” Burke shares.
Emotional validation means that you learn, understand, and accept the person's emotional experiences. For example, if your partner mentions that work was stressful today, Burke advises acknowledging the feeling with a response like “I hear you saying you are feeling stressed about work. That must be hard on top of all of your other responsibilities.” That way, you’ll foster an atmosphere of safety, trust, and intimacy. To go one step further, you can even ask how to best support them in the situation.
Consider Their Perspective
If you’re yearning for a more empathetic relationship, imagine yourself in your partner’s position. This is an especially useful tool if you and your significant other are in the middle of an argument. Instead of looking at the disagreement from your own point of view or acting on personal feelings of anger, hurt, or resentment, put yourself in the other’s shoes. To resolve a conflict, Racic advises using empathy to your advantage by delivering an apology, such as “I’m sorry I said that when we were fighting. I understand why it hurts your feelings. I would feel sad too if the tables were turned.” Taking ownership will diffuse tension and encourage your other half to ask for forgiveness as well.
Whether your partner has gotten into the habit of leaving his used dishes in the sink or his dirty clothes on the floor, if a behavior is bothering you, having an open conversation with an empathetic approach is the most effective way to resolve the issue. Without empathy, these scenarios can quickly turn into a full-blown argument. Pointing out what your significant other is doing wrong or blaming them for how you feel will make them defensive and closed off. “When empathy and curiosity shut down and one or both partners are hurt, it can cause a cycle and a bit of a ping-pong effect, where more hurt is caused and the partners are feeling at odds with each other,” Mayone explains. “A misunderstanding can create a snowball effect that moves two partners in a couple farther and farther apart.”
To broach the topic in a more empathetic way, use “I” statements to express how the behavior makes you feel. For instance, instead of telling your partner, “You never do the dishes,” communicate, “I feel frustrated when you forget to put your dishes in the dishwasher. Next time you make yourself lunch, can you please clean up after yourself?” By conveying your own concerns and needs without accusations or threats, your partner will feel more open to listening. It’s a win-win because this approach also increases feelings of empathy in the listener.
Verywell Mind. "What Is Emotional Validation?" November 14, 2022.
PeerJ. "I Understand You Feel That Way, But I Feel This Way: The Benefits of I-Language and Communicating Perspective During Conflict." May 18, 2018.