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The concept of empathy may be explained in several ways. It is our ability to take in another's experience and feel it in our own brain and body. It is the practice of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. You essentially put yourself in their place and feel what they are feeling.
Empathy is a necessary component of any positive relationship, particularly marriage. When couples can empathize with each other, they are attuned to one another, less defensive, and better able to stay calm during conflict. In fact, one of the key tasks of marriage therapy is creating empathy between partners.
There are four neurobiological processes involved in practicing empathy. An understanding of those processes may help you develop your own empathic responses to your loved ones. So let’s review them, one at a time.
This first process, resonance, means feeling in one’s own body that which someone else is experiencing. This ability is, in part, explained by the existence of "mirror neurons" in the human brain. Mirror neurons are in the parts of our brain that react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce those same emotions within ourselves. These neurons could help explain how and why we "read" other people's minds and understand what they are feeling, or why we wince when another person is injured. If watching an action and performing that action can activate the same parts of the brain in both the “doer” and the “viewer”—down to a single neuron—then it makes sense that this process also elicits the same feelings in those two people.
This next process concerns putting oneself in someone else's shoes. It means considering how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. It is the ability to take someone else's perspective and understand the effect their viewpoint has on their emotions.
This is the ability to regulate our emotions so as not to experience our own personal distress at the disclosure of someone else's distress. For example, when you hear about someone's grief or anguish, you do not take it on yourself and become distressed. This understanding of someone's feelings does not involve you having your own bad reaction to those feelings.
This helps us know the difference between self and others, and it is essential to the concept of "differentiation." Differentiation is our personal autonomy and ability to separate thought from feeling. The more well-differentiated people are, the more resilient they will be, and the more flexible and sustaining their relationships will be. Differentiated individuals develop healthier relationships and handle stress better than those who are either overly dependent or isolated.
These four neurological processes work synergistically within you to create genuine empathy. When partners express more vulnerable emotions (for example, "hurt"), as opposed to the secondary reactive emotions (for example, "anger"), it evokes empathy between them. It also helps for partners to have an understanding of each other's family of origin experience. This evokes empathy around unmet needs and reasons why current situations trigger strong reactions. Couples should have a curiosity about each other in this regard as curiosity also facilitates empathy between them.
Cultivating empathy between partners is an essential ingredient necessary for underlying change to occur between a distressed couple. If empathy is lacking in your relationship, there are techniques to help you develop it. One method is the "speaker-listener" technique, where partners take turns as the "speaker" for three minutes of uninterrupted talking, and then the "listener" only summarizes what is heard. Role-playing, by taking turns "being each other," can also increase empathy. Spouses can relay to each other what they imagine it might feel like if they were experiencing the exact situation, their spouse is experiencing. Although it may seem unnatural or awkward at first, eventually, empathic responses become more spontaneous for couples who practice these techniques.
Empathy cannot be taught directly. It is something you experience, rather than something you do. You can, however, create an environment within your relationship that helps empathy develop. This involves promoting the empathic behaviors and processes reviewed above, self-awareness, nonjudgmental attitudes, positive regard for others, good active listening skills, and self-confidence. By developing the fertile ground for empathy to develop, you will be giving your relationship the chance to grow and strengthen.