by Jonathan Lenbuck
In order for a relationship to be successful, having empathy for your partner is important. Of course, your partner also has to have empathy for you. We all have to work at our relationships to ensure we get the most out of the experience, while taking into account the other person’s feelings, wishes and needs. Yet for some people, fostering empathy as part of a close relationship can be difficult to achieve.
What is Empathy?
The word ‘empathy’ has only been part of language use for just over a century. Empathic capabilities in humans are considered to be a part of our emotional intelligence. When we empathise with another person, we are able to see things from their point of view.
Some of you will be familiar with the phrase “Don’t judge a man until you have walked in his shoes,” which speaks of the importance of empathy and moral values. Empathic abilities enable us to form the basis of a moral code, based on how we believe other people would like to be treated.
When we know someone well, we can very often predict what they would do in certain situations, based on our knowledge of that person. This is referred in psychology as “Theory of Mind.” Due to our empathic capacities, we can respond appropriately in social situations, and take socially appropriate actions in a range of different situations.
Like so many problems in psychology, a good way to emphasise the importance of empathy in our relationships is to look at what happens when someone has very few empathic capabilities. A number of psychological conditions can inhibit an individual’s empathic ability. Some of these are:
- Social Psychopathy
- Borderline personality disorder
When a person lacks empathy, their behaviour is not always what we might expect. Often, the individual may seem thoughtless or arrogant at times. In extreme cases, this can lead to cruelty and distress. However, for someone living with a psychological condition, it is not their fault if they say the wrong thing, or sometimes seem cold before they see your reaction.
They are relying on your empathy to see things from their perspective. Those who have empathy learn to understand that no harm is meant by the occasional cutting remark. The individual was simply unable to foresee the impact their words would have, in the current situation.
Some individuals tend to see things in black and white. When a person has a different opinion to them, they react negatively. They enter a defensive state of mind where they are unable to see the point of what the other person is saying. This means that collaborative work and discussion can be extremely difficult.
Anger versus Empathy
No matter what our capacity for empathy, when we become angry, our ability to empathise becomes compromised. When we become: frustrated, stressed, or angry it becomes difficult to see things clearly. Many of us will admit that when we get carried away in an argument, we can say things we don’t really mean in the heat of the moment. Then afterwards, when we have had the chance to calm down, we regret saying them and feel compelled to apologise.
The Importance of Empathy in Close Relationships
Having empathy for others is important in all relationships. We demonstrate our empathic abilities for a partner by identifying what that person is feeling. To have empathy for other people, we must be in touch with our own feelings. Good listening skills are valuable to enable great communication between partners.
Someone with an empathetic nature is patient, kind and understanding. They accept that we all have flaws, but that we deserve to be loved in spite of them. Those wishing to learn how to become more empathetic should know that to have empathy for someone else, we must first love ourselves.
Empathy in the Spotlight
When couples come to a counselling session, they are asked how they feel about their relationship. Counsellors use empathic questioning, to encourage empathic thinking in other people. For example, a typical question frequently asked during a counselling session is: “How do you think your partner feels about your relationship?”
In situations where a person has very little empathy, therapy can nurture vital relationship skills. Increasing an individual’s awareness about problems which may occur in future, and finding ways to deal with them is the role of the counsellor. Issues affecting a couple’s relationship are identified, and strategies are discussed so the couple can deal with them as they arise.
Image Credit: Wirawat Lian-udom