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Empathize With Your Spouse

Schonbuch-Rabbi-Daniel

To feel loved and nurtured your spouse needs to feel that you empathize with his or her emotions. The key is empathy. Empathy isn’t the same as sympathy or pity. It means being able to put yourself in another’s position, to feel what he feels and see what he sees, without losing yourself in the process. And it means you do all of that, even though you may disagree with your spouse’s perceptions, opinions, or feelings. Take a few minutes a day, at a time that works best for both of you, to empathize with the stresses and strains you are each experiencing in other areas of your life. It can make a difference between a marriage that succeeds, and one that fails.

Through empathy you can deepen the effect of active listening and make your spouse feel that they can turn to you whenever they need to. Empathizing means that we listen without judging the other person’s thoughts and feelings. We tell them that we understand what they are facing and share their pain.

Here are two scenarios that contrast empathetic versus non-empathetic communication.

In the first conversation, Shlomo goes on the attack with Batya, and forgets that she is just looking for someone to empathize with her feelings, not solve them.

Batya: I’m so upset at my sister for not inviting our entire family to the simcha.  I can’t believe she would hurt us like this.

Shlomo: She’s terrible! I can’t stand when she plays games.

Batya: You better believe it.  Last year we spent so much money on her visit, to make her happy, and now she does this? I’m really angry.

Shlomo: We spend so much on her.  Why can’t she reciprocate!?

Batya: She always plays games like this. I never know where she is coming from.

Shlomo: Yeah. She has done this so many times before. I’m getting used to it.

Batya: That’s right. She has always behaved like this. I remember when we were little kids she would make sure to hog the nosh before anyone else did.  She would just grab the pack of treats and eat them in her room, so nobody could see.

Shlomo: I told you.  She is a grabber and can’t control herself!

Batya: Right, just like now.  She doesn’t think of other people’s feelings.

Shlomo: She never does.

Batya: I am so hurt!

 

In the following dialogue, Shlomo utilizes the power of empathy to relate to his wife’s feelings:

Batya: I’m so upset at my sister for not inviting our entire family to the simcha.  I can’t believe she would hurt us like this.

Shlomo: You’re feeling hurt by your sister.

Batya: You better believe it.  Last year we spent so much money on her visit, to make her happy, and now she does this? I’m really angry!

Shlomo: We spend a lot of money, and now she tells you we can’t come.

Batya: She always plays games like this. I never know where she is coming from!

Shlomo: You don’t trust her and you don’t understand how she makes decisions.

Batya: That’s right. She has always behaved like this. I remember when we were little kids she would make sure to hog the nosh before anyone else did.  She would just grab things and hide in her room, eating them.

Shlomo: She grabbed things before you had a fair chance.

Batya: Right, just like now.  She doesn’t think of other people’s feelings.

Shlomo: You feel she doesn’t care about you.

Batya: That’s right. I wish she would be more sensitive to my feelings.

Shlomo: I understand.

 

Being empathetic takes time and effort. To deepen your level of empathy, here are some of the dos and don’ts that can make a difference:

Empathy Don’ts

  • Don’t ignore what your spouse is saying.
  • Don’t diminish the importance of your spouse’s concerns saying, “What’s the problem?” or “Don’t be so sensitive!”
  • Don’t rush to fix the problem: “Well, if I were you I’d…” or “You should have…” Many people mistakenly believe that downplaying worries or offering advice is helpful. In fact, pat reassurances often magnify negative feelings, since they force a person to try even harder to feel acknowledged.

Empathy Do’s

  • Do pay attention. Set aside the newspaper and turn off the TV when your spouse is talking.
  • Do validate feelings. “He gave that special assignment to the new recruit? I can see why you’re annoyed.”
  • Do ask questions with genuine interest. Make sure your spouse knows you heard what he or she has said. “So how did you respond to him?”
  • Do respond with affection, understanding, and support:  “I’m really sorry you have to put up with that.” “Oh, sweetheart, that could happen to anyone. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
  • Do show support. Take your spouse’s side. “I think your boss went a little overboard, too,” is appropriate. “Well, you shouldn’t have been late in the first place,” isn’t.

About the Author: Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, Marriage and Family Therapy, is an expert in marriage counseling, pre-marital education, and helping teens in crisis with offices in Flatbush, Cedarhurst, and Crown Heights. He is a certified PAIRS instructor, and trained as a Level 1, Emotionally Focused Therapist at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, and is a member of AASECT. He is the author of At Risk – Never Beyond Reach and First Aid For Jewish Marriages. To watch his free videos on marriage and parenting and for appointments visit: www.JewishMarriageSupport.com or call 646-428-4723


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