It's Scary To Offer Your Partner Radical Empathy —​ Do It Anyway

Photo: getty
smiling woman hugging bearded man

"Radical Empathy" sounds like a crazy idea, doesn’t it? How can empathy be radical?

But first things first, what is empathy?

Wikipedia defines empathy as "the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference ... the capacity to place oneself in another's position."

That’s a good start but it sounds too cognitive. There’s no mention of emotions.

The power of empathy comes through the sharing of feelings.

So, I define empathy as "the ability to understand and share in another person’s emotional experience."

Believe it or not, applying the principles of Radical Empathy to your relationship can help you and your partner grow closer as well as deepen your sense of connection.

It won't always be easy, but it certainly is worth it. 

RELATED: People With These 5 Personality Traits Have No Idea What Empathy Means

What is an example of Radical Empathy saving a marriage?

Imagine your partner is telling you about an upsetting experience they had when their boss criticized them at work. For you to have true empathy for your partner, you have to connect with them on two different levels.

You can adopt their perspective and understand how they're viewing the situation — i.e. "It was humiliating and my boss is a jerk!" You don’t have to agree with their perspective but you need to be able to see it the way they see it.

Or, you can experience what they're feeling. If the experience made them sad, you have to be able to recognize their sadness and share their sadness with them.

So, empathy is the ability to share both the other person’s perceptions and their emotional experience.

When I'm empathetic with another person we are "attuned" or "in-sync". I don’t have to agree with the way they see the situation or how they're responding to the situation.

But, I understand how they see it and I can connect with how they are feeling in their experience.

Author Daniel H. Pink says, "Empathy is about standing in someone else's shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes."

Empathy vs. Sympathy

Empathy and sympathy are often confused. However, the two concepts couldn’t be more different.

"Sympathy is feeling for someone, while empathy is feeling with them," says author Brene Brown.

For example, if you tell your friend about a painful experience, they can respond in two ways:

Sympathetic: "Boy, that must have really hurt."

Empathetic: "I can see why you’re so upset. I would be devastated if that happened to me. It makes me sad to even think about it."

Brown defines empathy as "communicating that incredibly healing message of 'you are not alone.'"

RELATED: What People Mean When They Talk About Empathy — And Why It's So Important

Why is empathy so hard?

When someone you love is upset, it makes you upset. You immediately want to help them to feel better because we are uncomfortable with their pain.

Unfortunately, the way you might tend to make them feel better only makes everything worse. Your natural instinct is to minimize their pain rather than empathizing with their pain.

Go back to the example where your partner is upset because they were criticized by the boss. They're very upset by the experience. And maybe they're crying or yelling or both.

This upsets you and you want to calm them down. Your natural reaction is to minimize her experience, and you say something like:

"It doesn’t sound that bad."

"I bet he was just trying to help you."

"You need to toughen up."

Instead of empathizing and seeing it through their eyes (whether you agree or not), you’ve just told your partner that they're wrong. And now, they feel let down by their partner and even more alone.

And there’s a good chance that some of the anger they have for the boss will now get directed at you.

It’s a natural human reaction. When someone is hurt, we try to tell them "It’s not that bad." But all that does is make them feel more hurt, alone, and wrong.

The path to empathy lies in seeing it through their eyes rather than denying their experience — by being on their side.

"What a jerk."

"It makes me angry just to hear about it."

"That would really ruin my day."

Using Radical Empathy

Radical Empathy takes your natural empathy and cranks it up a notch by making a conscious commitment to:

Be open

Let your partner be upset

Listen carefully

Actively seek to understand their perspective

Share in their feelings

Practice radical empathy when you have the courage to use your own vulnerability to help you shift from the defensive mode ("It’s not so bad") to a connected mode ("I feel that way too").

The goal of Radical Empathy is to create an emotional connection so that you, and your partner, feel you’re on the same team, have a shared experience, and that neither of you is alone.

You know you’re practicing Radical Empathy when your words, actions, and feelings tell your partner: "I see you. I hear you. I feel you. I am here with you."

RELATED: What Is Empathy & How To Be More Empathetic In All Of Your Relationships

Jacob Brown is a couples therapist in San Francisco, specializing in helping couples rebuild their sense of trust, intimacy, and love. You can learn more about his practice on his website or from his blog Sex, Love, and Couples Therapy.

This article was originally published at Sex, Love, and Couples Therapy. Reprinted with permission from the author.