She is upset and lets you know about it. You want to listen, but it’s hard to hear what she’s saying, it hurts to hear her in pain. You try to make her feel better, so you tell her not to 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. Does this sound familiar? We all do this to some extent and we’ve all had it done to us.
She doesn’t appreciate your efforts. And if she does, there remains a part of her that doesn’t feel heard. She might get angry with you, tell you how selfish you’re being. She doesn’t feel like going out or listening to music. She might 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. Most of us don’t welcome pain. We 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, 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 to avoid pain, trying to preserve your mood without letting her affect you, know that it gets easier with practice. A long term relationship is 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 about listening.