Empathy is one of the cornerstones of healthy, happy and connected relationships. But for women, it’s particularly important. In Women Happier in Relationships Where Men Feel Their Pain, an APA study demonstrated that men like to know when their partners are happy while women want the man in their life to know when they are upset.
According to Shiri Cohen, PhD and author of the study,
“It could be that for women, seeing that their male partner is upset reflects some degree of the man’s investment and emotional engagement in the relationship, even during difficult times. This is consistent with what is known about the dissatisfaction women often experience when their male partner becomes emotionally withdrawn and disengaged in response to conflict.”
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to recognize another person’s emotions and imagine what they might be thinking and feeling.
Empathy doesn’t come naturally for everyone for a number of reasons. Attachment trauma, poor modeling or other family of origin experiences where empathy was not demonstrated are a few. And historically men haven’t been socialized for empathy as much as women though this is shifting as the meaning of masculinity shifts. But with time and patience, empathy can be learned, practiced and integrated into your relationships, no matter your background.
Learning to be empathetic with her starts with learning to be empathic for yourself.
What many men learned about what it means to “be a man” often flies in the face of self-compassion or empathy for self. If when growing up you received messages like “Suck it up,” or “Men don’t cry,” it might feel counterintuitive to hold a soft, compassionate space for yourself. And if you have experienced trauma, it’s can add to the complexity. One way to do this is to learn to address yourself as you would a friend. Reflect upon where you might have been wounded yourself, often quite inadvertently. Perhaps you learned somewhere it wasn’t safe for you to show sadness or similar distress. How might these wounds shaped your world view in a way that blocks you from empathy for self? (Check out Family of Origin: Untangle Your Unhealthy Roots for help figuring this out.) It’s important to address this as you work towards being more empathetic to your partner otherwise it likely will prove more challenging.
Men who are trying to learn how to be more empathetic in their relationships can start with behaviors that demonstrate emotional engagement.
Ways to step up your empathy with her:
- Ask her about her day. Pay attention to the feelings underneath the facts and ask questions.
- If she is sharing a frustrating or upsetting story, imagine yourself in your shoes. How would you feel?
- Be curious and ask questions.
- Listen well, be present and open up. Removing your mask to reveal your own feelings can create a bond.
- In an argument listen without interruption, look for the pain points for her and validate her feelings. (“I can see how you’d feel that way.”)
- Recognize that she likely sees things differently. And she likely also responds differently emotionally.
- Even if you think you are “right,” keep your focus on the emotional process and stick with it.
- Let her see you demonstrating empathy in other areas of your life.
Empathy has the power to connect just as easily as a lack of empathy can disconnect. In the study above, relationship satisfaction was related to men’s ability to read their female partner’s positive emotions correctly. It also must be noted that men need empathy too! Healthy and secure relationships need this type of resonance on some level to avoid a build up of resentment. Couples can benefit from a better appreciation of the other’s efforts to be empathetic. This is a helpful piece on empathy in relationships that includes an exercise to do with your partner.1