According to Dr. Gottman, the fourth and final key to maintaining intimacy in conversations with your partner is to express compassion and empathy when he or she is upset. Though this may seem like a no-brainer, it is simple only on first impression. Don’t be fooled by the intuitive nature of the words “expressing compassion and empathy.” Dr. Gottman’s description of this concept reveals its complexity (and its power)!  Until we understand what it really entails, the idea is often difficult to apply in real life. You can read a complete explanation of this subject in Dr. Gottman’s book, What Makes Love Last? For now, we will offer you a basic introduction to expressing compassion and empathy in your relationships:

If you look back on your past conversations with your partner, you may find that in many situations you have 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 many, many cases in which you have been the recipient of such “help,” and been left more frustrated and upset than you were in the first place.

Luckily, Dr. Gottman has simple suggestions for ways in which you can change your approach to such conversations, dramatically improving not only their outcomes, but strengthening and deepening your bonds with your mate and other loved ones.

Dr. Gottman reminds us 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, for you to problem solve, or even ask your opinion on the matter. Most of the time they are silently asking for your understanding and compassion. They want to feel that you are on a team – that you are on their side. When your partner comes to you and says that their boss has criticized their work recently, complaining that they have been treated unfairly, the last thing they want to hear is that they have been tired and overstressed and that potentially the solution is to sleep more and have a better attitude. They want to hear you say, “That sounds so frustrating! I can understand why you are so upset.”

In a recent blog entry on this subject, we described the mutually exclusive nature of intimacy and fear. When we feel that we are being judged by our partners for our emotional reactions – that they feel that our responses to upsetting situations are unjustified – we come away shattered. Already emotionally vulnerable, we are further hurt because we feel that we have been criticized by someone we trusted. Our ability to make the right judgments has been questioned and the very cause or validity of our suffering has been rejected as illogical. We are offered simple, quick-fix solutions (that we don’t want to hear!) instead of compassion and empathy. We wonder why we even tried talking about it in the first place.

In our following blog post, we offer you 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.

More in What Makes Love Last
Expressing Compassion and Empathy

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.