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Expressing Compassion and Empathy

Intimate conversation requires you to lean into your partner’s pain before you offer advice or try to help.

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Expressing Compassion and Empathy

One of the keys to maintaining intimacy in conversations (in addition to avoiding collective monologues, asking open-ended questions, and reflecting) is to express compassion and empathy when your partner is upset. This is both complex and powerful, as described in “What Makes Love Last?” Here is a basic introduction to expressing compassion and empathy in your relationships:

Look back on conversations with your partner. You may find that in many situations you felt that they were upset for illogical reasons, that they were overreacting, or that they should have had a different emotional response. You offer your opinion and suggestions, try to play the “voice of reason,” and unconsciously botch the entire attempt at helping them. You will also likely remember cases where you were the recipient of such “help,” and were left frustrated and upset.

Here are simple suggestions for ways you can change your approach to such conversations, dramatically improving not only outcomes, but strengthening and deepening bonds with your mate and other loved ones.

Dr. Gottman reminds readers of Ginott’s motto: “Understanding must precede advice.” We all have subjective experiences of situations we experience. Everyone’s emotions are valid. Most of the time, when your mate (or anyone) comes to you with an issue that has made them upset, they don’t immediately ask for advice. They are silently asking for your understanding and compassion. They want to feel that you are on their side.

When you think your partner judged you for your emotional reaction, you come away hurt. Already emotionally vulnerable, you feel that someone you trust criticized you.  Your ability to make the right judgments was questioned and the validity of your suffering was rejected as illogical.

This blog post offers a series of examples illustrating the right and wrong ways to approach these conversations in your own life. You can read about simple exercises that you can practice with your partner in the future to increase your attunement to each other, and practice the art of intimate conversations. Though these processes take time and patience, your efforts will pay off. Your friendship will be strengthened as you feel that you can depend on each other, and according to Dr. Gottman, trust and friendship are the keys to making love last.

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Ellie Lisitsa is a former staff writer at The Gottman Institute. She holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

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