If you’re in the position of wanting to develop empathy for your partner, you already know that being with your partner’s painful feelings can be hard to bear. If you’re like most people, you don’t like pain, and you don’t like to be with another’s pain. You may have problems of your own that you feel need attending to and are hungry for them to be more understanding of you. But putting this aside, what can you do to develop empathy in yourself? How do you help a partner develop it in themselves?
Does your mind tend towards problem-solving? Are you trying to prevent your partner’s negative emotions overwhelm you? These are common ways to stay away from pain. Your brain reads your partner’s pain as a threat rather than as an opportunity to connect.
If you want to build a stronger connection with your partner, try to learn to stay with your partner’s negative feelings. Great couples find a way to get comfortable being vulnerable. So can you let yourself feel some of what your partner feels without rejecting it or trying to change it? Let it in. Feel the discomfort it brings without exiting. Try it again, take on what you can each time. If your partner sees you as making an effort to stay with them in their darker emotions, it draws you closer.
A lot of people who are very good at problem solving can have a surprisingly difficult time with empathy. Empathy is a muscle that must be exercised. The short video below illustrates how to be present without trying to fix the problem.
Bruce Hearn is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco. He works with couples, men and women. He works with people who have trouble making use of empathy in their relationships.