Empathy a Key to Thriving Marriages

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Editor’s Note: Today we are happy to feature an excerpt from the wonderful book  Thriving Marriages: An Inspirational and Practical Guide to Lasting Happiness by John Yzaguirre, Ph.D., and Claire Frazier-Yzaguirre, M.Div., M.F.T.. At the USCCB “For Your Marriage” website, the Bishops called this book, “A realistic and compassionate guide to building unity in marriage that includes easy-to-use exercises and questionnaires. A useful resource for family life ministers and premarital programs.” Check out the ThrivingFamilies.com website for more great resources. LMH 

Make Room for your Partner in Your Heart:

This is the art of welcoming your partner in your heart. Over the years you might have grown so accustomed to your partner’s presence that now you might take him or her for granted or simply tolerate his or her idiosyncratic behaviors. One husband described this bluntly: “Now when I get home my dog is the only one who seems excited to see me!”

The starting point in empathy is treasuring your partner. Take a few seconds to focus on those qualities and strengths that you honor and respect in your partner. Focusing on your partner’s existing positive attributes versus his or her negative traits restores your partner’s value in your heart. Do this every day on your way home from work or as you prepare to meet again in the evening. When you greet your partner let him or her feel that you are glad that he or she is in your life. Often you can communicate this with a genuine smile and some expression of affection. Make him or her feel welcome in your heart.

Joe, a successful physician, and Sylvia, a marketing executive, complained about their unfulfilling marriage and stressful lives. The more they talked, the clearer it became that they were living parallel lives. There were no nasty arguments or abusive behaviors, but both spent most of their time and energy in their individual careers. Their first challenge was to switch the focus away from themselves and onto each other. They acknowledged that they were taking each other for granted and their primary interest was not so much to love each other but to succeed professionally. Their jobs got the best of them and they ended up giving each other the leftovers. Fortunately, they were willing to focus first on each other’s feelings and needs. This meant a change in their priorities and to practice daily the art of welcoming each other into their hearts. Today they feel far more emotionally connected and happier, and their professional life has benefited as a result.

TRY THIS: When you get home from work, look your partner in the eyes and make him or her feel welcomed into your heart.

Become Interested in How Your Partner is Feeling:

Remember when you were dating your partner? You had an insatiable curiosity about how he or she was feeling. Over the years you may have shifted focus away from your partner and more towards yourself. Perhaps now you expect that he or she will be available for emotional support as needed, and hope that he or she will not interfere with your plans. When you disregard your partner’s feelings as unimportant, however, you are actually disregarding your partner. Understanding your partner’s feelings opens the door into his or her intimate emotional life. Perhaps you find yourself operating in a task-oriented mode. From the beginning of their marriage, many couples define and assign each other roles and focus on fulfilling those duties in order to be a good husband or wife. This would be true if marriage were only a legal contract, but marriage is more than a division of labor. It is a sacred covenant in which the principal rule is to love one another. The rest follows as a consequence.

One feeling deserves special attention: finding out what makes your partner happy. You do not have to be particularly insightful or sensitive to notice what makes your partner angry because sooner or later he or she will tell you. This applies also to what makes your partner worried or depressed. In more than twenty years of clinical experience with couples, we have found that most people are only partially accurate, uncertain, or even dead wrong about what brings their partners genuine happiness.

Mary and Robert had been married for seven years. She complained that Robert liked to run the household as if it were his office. He was caring and responsible but always placed tasks before people. He was convinced that he was a good husband because he worked very hard to provide for his family and had never cheated on his wife or done anything immoral or illegal. He could not understand why Mary was unhappy with him. After all, he thought, wasn’t he hardworking, loyal, honest, and responsible? Mary eventually confronted him: “Yes, Robert, you have all those qualities, but you don’t give me what I want!” Throughout their marriage he played the role of the good husband, according to him! Finally he realized that he was a good husband only if Mary felt loved by him. Mary wanted a husband that focused first on loving her and the kids and then on completing tasks. He also discovered that Mary felt loved by him when he understood and valued her feelings.

TRY THIS: Once a week, ask your partner for something specific that you could do during that week to bring him or her joy.

Validate Your Partner’s Feelings:

Validating your partner’s feelings means valuing how he or she is feeling and showing it through supportive feedback. You do not need to analyze or judge the validity of those feelings but simply appreciate that he or she shared them. Now you can understand and support him or her in a better way.

Mark and Tiffany had difficulty validating each other’s feelings. Their attempts to communicate with each other usually followed a predictable pattern of failure. When Tiffany shared anger, worry, or sadness, Mark tried to help her by offering advice on how to solve or prevent the situation that caused those negative feelings. He did not validate her feelings first by saying something such as: “I can see how upsetting that was for you. Is there anything that I can do to help you now?” Often Tiffany just wanted to feel understood. Whenever Mark gave her unsolicited advice, she became upset with him for patronizing her or disregarding how she felt. Mark, in turn, felt upset that she did not appreciate his genuine desire to help with her problem and began to withdraw emotionally. Tiffany felt his detachment and began to resent and criticize his emotional insensitivity and shared her feelings again only with reluctance. This aversive cycle continued until it became unbearable. Fortunately they broke the cycle by learning to validate each other’s feelings. Now their sharing leads to greater emotional intimacy.

TRY THIS: When your partner shares feelings with you, value what he or she shared, without offering solutions or unsolicited advice.

Empathy chapter excerpt (pgs. 14-18) from Thriving Marriages: An Inspirational and Practical Guide to Lasting Happiness by John Yzaguirre, Ph.D., and Claire Frazier-Yzaguirre, M.Div., M.F.T., New City Press

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