The Secret to a Happy Relationship Is Empathy

March 7, 2020

Everyone has met a couple like this: She loves sushi; the smell of raw fish makes him nauseous. He loves horror films; she finds even mildly scary movies unwatchable. She’s Catholic and regularly attends mass; he’s an atheist.

They are two people who don’t make sense as a couple on paper, but when you see them together in the real world, it’s clear their relationship is a happy one. “How do they do it?” you ask yourself. You imagine they must have some magic, secret relationship sauce only they’ve discovered. After all, you and your partner bicker even when you agree on 99% of things. If only you could have some of the magic that they have.

You can.

What is the secret to a happy relationship?

The secret sauce in a happy relationship isn’t magic; it’s empathy.

Feeling empathy for another person means putting yourself in their shoes. It is the ability to imagine what someone else is thinking and feeling. Unlike sympathy, which means feeling compassion or pity for another, empathy is putting yourself in the other person’s place and seeing the world through their eyes. Sympathy is “I’m sorry that happened to you”; empathy is “I feel your pain.”

Empathy means caring as much about your partner’s well-being as you care about your own, and it can make the difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one.

How can you tell if your relationship lacks empathy?

One sign is that you assume your partner has the same needs and boundaries as you do and that they experience life the same way as well.

A relationship without empathy quickly hits a bump. A few weeks or months in, you discover your partner is not the person you thought they were when you started dating. Suddenly you’re confronted with the fact that he or she doesn’t always share your preferences or opinions, and you begin to have the same argument again and again: Your partner wants to go to brunch on Sunday mornings, but you want to eat at home. You want to curl up with the Sunday edition of the Times, but your partner wants to go on a hike. You thought your partner was a pancakes-at-home person, but suddenly they’re not. What happened? The truth is, they never were that person. You just assumed they were because you are.

Relationships can fall apart because of these kinds of differences, but empathy can create a bridge and generate mutual respect. A long-term romantic relationship has to be based on more than shared likes and mutual dislikes. You and your partner may agree 99% of the time, but it’s that 1% that can spell disaster if there’s no empathy between you.

How do you develop empathy?

You develop empathy within a relationship by regularly listening to each other’s thoughts and feelings. Seeing the world from your partner’s point of view helps to build closeness as well as respect for your partner’s individuality.

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