The Most Important Relationship Skill
After working with over a thousand couples, I can definitively say there is nothing more complex than intimate relationships. There are so many moving parts and subconscious emotions and memories being activated that are the true cause of why we all become so conflicted. There is no way for the average couple to be aware of these things.
There are a variety of factors as to why relationships fail and why the divorce rate is over fifty percent. And that’s just for first marriages. The rate goes up about another ten percent for each subsequent one. When you truly understand the process of what contributes to generating conflict, and an erosion of connection, in relationships, you begin to wonder how anyone can succeed.
However, the recognition of what causes relationships to fail also leads to the knowledge of what needs to occur to make them succeed. There is a science we have discovered in psychology related to attachment, emotions, and systems or dynamics in a relationship that provides a path towards sustaining them.
Research shows the most effective model for creating secure relationships is Emotionally Focused Couple’s Therapy developed by Dr. Sue Johnson. Rather than creating a theory and testing it, Dr. Johnson took an approach that was revolutionary at the time: she observed hundreds of couples and identified what securely connected couples did that was different than other ones. I know this may sound simple, but it was revolutionary at the time.
One of the qualities the successful couples exhibited was their capacity for empathy or to make space for the others unique emotional and subjective experience. You hear a lot about empathy in a variety of contexts. However, it is my experience that few individuals actually know what it truly is, let alone have the capacity to display it.
Empathy is the ability to connect with another’s emotional experience at a felt level without judgment. It is one of the most difficult things I have every attempted to achieve. It is relatively easy for me to do with clients but just as challenging for me to accomplish in my personal relationships.
It is not sympathy or compassion, which it is often confused as. However, having love or care for someone can make it easier to be empathetic towards them. Contrastingly, I could dislike you and still attain the goal of having empathy towards you. As I mentioned earlier, it is not an intellectual or conceptual understanding but an emotional resonance or felt sense.
Furthermore, you don’t get to define yourself as having empathy, only the other person can say you understand them on an emotional level. One of my pet peeves is how many people post all over social media that they are empaths and how empathic they are. No matter how much you feel someone, unless they say they feel felt and understood, you have not reached the goal of empathy. Real empathy is associated with humility. It can be such a difficult goal to achieve, it is humbling to accomplish it. Attaining it does not lead to ego inflation or self-aggrandization.
Emotions give the context to a situation; without them we do not truly understand. If someone tells me how afraid or hurt they were, I get it on a cognitive level. However, when I see the level of emotion in their face and feel it in my body, now I understand. Moreover, when they see the emotion reflected in my face and their body begins to feel I am feeling them, this is when they feel the most understood and cared for.
The reason I define empathy as the most important skill in a relationship is due to the fact if you can realize it, you can navigate anything relationally. It doesn’t matter what the topic or issue, when someone feels understood and validated on an emotional level nothing will lower their defenses more and open them up to doing the same for you. Moreover, the solutions for the conflict will begin to appear as you realize what is most meaningful and important to your partner about the situation.
One of the first steps towards achieving empathy is developing self-awareness and learning how to self-regulate. No two people on the planet experience reality exactly the same. It is important to develop the humility that your version is just that – another version. Realize how you interpret reality is not better than your partner’s, just different. Regularly assess why you perceive or interpret events the way you do, and make efforts to work towards developing healthier ways of doing so.
Certain issues, such as sex and money, can be difficult for couple’s to discuss without becoming conflicted. This is because sex and money are never about sex and money but the emotional issues associated with them. These topics typically elicit strong emotions. Staying attuned to your body as you become tense and anxious allows you to monitor your breathing and regulate yourself or ask you partner to slow down or take a break if necessary to avoid becoming conflicted.
Another important factor in the effort to achieve empathy is to realize understanding does not equal agreement. I can disagree with you but still appreciate it must have been scary or hard for you and validate that fact. This can be quite challenging if you were raised in a home where views and opinions that differed from your caregivers were not accepted or shamed. In adulthood, this results in a fear if you attempt to understand someone you will lose yourself. You will need to reassure yourself this is no longer the case or get support to process these emotional memories so you can break free from this fear.
I would say the most crucial aspect in empathy is going slow. Whenever you and your partner start to become anxious or triggered emotionally, everything begins to speed up. This will result in activation of a fight or flight response and progressive deactivation of your prefrontal cortex. You will then lose all rationality, and your brain will register your partner as a survival threat to be defended against. The only way to prevent this is to go slow enough to avoid this from occurring or taking breaks when it does to allow your energy to regulate and your prefrontal cortex to come back online.
Lastly, don’t prioritize facts. This is a death trap and dead end. Neither one of you experienced the event the same. Furthermore, memory is horribly inaccurate. Research shows by the end of one year the memory has altered by at least fifty percent. Whenever you are debating over specific details, STOP! Instead, listen for your partner’s emotional experience. Remember, emotions are key. Don’t get caught up in the minutiae.
Be patient with yourself and your partner. Empathy is a very difficult goal to achieve and skill to develop. It takes time, and there can be numerous blocks to becoming more empathic. There is no doubt it is the most important skill to develop to create a satisfying and secure relationship. When you have the ability to create space for each other’s experience without judgment, you will be able to accomplish anything relationally.