Empathy Cures All

Have you ever seen the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”?

In the movie, the quirky father character uses Windex as a cure-all for anything from skin rashes to swollen phalanges. His famous line is… “Put some Windex on it!”

Here’s my grand leap for the week: Empathy is the cure-all for relationships.

Ok, so maybe there actually isn’t a cure-all for everything, but empathy is profoundly transformative skill and can help any relationship thrive.

I recently had a couple in my office who were working on building their emotional intelligence. One way to practice this is by having couples practice their “other awareness”.

I had the couple go back and forth describing the tells and clues that told them exactly their partner was feeling. They took turns sharing what clues they picked up on when their partner was feeling a specific emotion.

The husband was the first to take a stab at what I thought was a pretty harmless emotion to start off with… “carefree”.

He shared a few clues and said, “like when we were on our honeymoon, you were carefree.”

The problem is that the mere mention of honeymoon and carefree together brought the wife to tears.

She did NOT experience the honeymoon as carefree. In fact, her first and strongest memory was feeling hurt from a fight they had, and now, in my office, she’s crying over the memories.

The husband responds with, “what am I supposed to do? She’s bringing up a fight we had 12 years ago!

Enter the metaphorical Windex, a.k.a. Empathy.

Empathy is the capacity or ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

I love the quote by Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird.

The lead character Atticus Finch says in order to truly understand another human being, you must climb into his skin and walk around in it a bit.

What is so potent about empathy in relationships?

The most common complaint I hear from couples is not feeling heard or understood by their partner.

In fact, when conflict occurs, it usually escalates not because of the subject at hand, but instead about not feeling understood.

Commonly, individuals are more focused on proving their point than listening and understanding their partner’s point of view. This just results in a couple repeating their perspective over and over and over… louder each time.

Empathy is hearing your partner’s perspective and taking a moment to reflect on what that must feel like for them.

So back to my couple…

When the husband asked, “What am I supposed to do?” I said, “Try to express to your wife an empathic statement. What do you think that must have felt like for her 12 years ago? How do you think it must feel for her to remember THAT moment from her honeymoon?”

He looked his wife in the eyes and said, “It must be awful to remember our honeymoon in that way. Honeymoons like ours should be remembered for love and fun and instead, you had a terrible experience and your memory is of me hurting you.”

Ok, now!

With those two sentences, she wiped her tears and started to nod along. “It is awful to remember our fight.”

With the husband’s empathetic statement, he was able to meet his wife in her hurt moment and show his ability to attune to her feelings. There is no way for him to go back in time and change the night of her birthday.

Notice that he didn’t try and convince her that she really did have a lovely honeymoon and that she really did enjoy herself. He also didn’t apologize for his actions in the past. He simply listened to his wife, and not just to her words but to her feelings as well.

Listening with the intent of understanding your partner’s point of view is a powerful skill. We all want to feel heard, understood and accepted by our partner.

So put some Windex on it,

Laura Heck