We are all unique individuals, built from myriad experiences and challenges that have shaped us into the people we are today. As much as you can know your spouse, you will never know exactly what it feels like to be inside his or her brain. You’ll never know how he felt when he overheard his teacher call him an “underachiever” to his mother in second grade. Because even if you overheard your teacher tell your mother the exact same thing, you were already such different people based on your life to that point that you didn’t experience the shame or anger or dismay the same way he did.
Listening with empathy is important in your relationship, because you simply can’t know how the other person experiences their feelings about something. All you can know is that they are feeling their truth.
If they feel their boss was a creep who belittles women, that’s their truth. You might think he’s a stand-up guy, but to your spouse, he’s a creep. They are frustrated by him, and to feel with empathy means feeling that feeling with your spouse and seeking to understand the depth of it.
Doing so can help build trust and respect, reduce tension, and create a safe environment where your relationship can flourish. It means you will create a space between the two of you where there is no judgment, only love. It means you recognize that the emotions they feel are real, even if you disagree with their perspective. It means you communicate the real-ness of their feelings to them.
Did you know that “sympathy” and “empathy” aren’t the same thing? Where sympathy is “feeling for someone,” empathy is “feeling with someone.” The latter is what we’ll strive for this week.
Imagine your spouse is in a hole.
Let’s say she is down at the bottom of an old well. There’s no water down there anymore, but it’s dark and dirty, and she’s not sure how to get out.
Listening with empathy means jumping down to the bottom of the hole with her. It isn’t looking down from above and saying, “Hey! That looks really nasty! What a bummer!” It doesn’t mean you shout, “Just climb up the ladder! It’s right there!”
It means jumping down and listening patiently, seeking to understand why they feel what they feel, and how they feel it.
Your spouse is smart. They don’t need your solutions (unless, of course, they ask). They don’t need you to tell them to climb up the ladder. They need the connection between the two of you that makes everything better. That connection comes from listening with empathy.
This week, listen with empathy whenever your spouse talks.