Your partner is upset and lets you know about it. You want to make her feel better, so you say, don’t worry about it. You’ll feel better in the morning. Don’t let it ruin the evening. Let’s put on some music. How about going out for a drink? Let me tell you about my day so that you don’t have to think about yours. Let me tell you what I’d do in that situation. Or perhaps you feel offended, hurt that she’s criticizing you, so it’s hard to take in anything else she’s saying. Does this sound familiar? We all do this to some extent and we’ve all had it done to us.
Your partner won’t always appreciate your efforts. And if she does, there will still be a part of her that won’t feel understood. She might get angry with you, tell you how selfish you’re being. She won’t feel like going out or listening to music. She might even seem to be hell-bent on ruminating and wallowing. Nothing seems to help. Then you might get frustrated and hurt. You might give up, play a videogame, watch TV. Now you’re disengaged, trying to distract yourself from the tension that has come between you.
Wanting to approach your partner’s pain is hard, you try to avoid pain. Most of us don’t like being put through the wringer. The bad news is that you have to be willing to feel some of what she’s feeling yourself, to let it in, and this is a lot to ask. This is where we can use our relationships as a gym, a place to work out the emotional muscles, gradually increasing the load that you are able to lift. This is the empathy zone, the place to develop emotional muscle, or if you prefer, emotional intelligence.
When you slip up and notice that you did it again, going too quickly into problem-solving or minimizing mode, trying to preserve your mood without letting her affect you, know that this does get easier with more exercise. This is a long term relationship, and you’re in a long-term training program. When she sees you’re making an effort to hang with her in that dark place, it can make her feel that maybe she can rely on you. Even if there are no immediate solutions that would help, you’re there with her, and that’s really the main thing that matters. Leave the problem-solving for later, if it turns out to be needed at all.
Brene Brown, a well-known psychologist, studies emotion and empathy. Take a look at the video she presents here on empathy. It’s a few minutes long but captures an important quality of empathy.