Marriage is hard.
The difficulty primarily stems from the frustrating fact that men are from Mars and women are from Venus and, according to my five-year-old who is currently learning about the solar system, “Those planets are really, really different.”
It’s not news to any couples who have made a commitment to share a life that it can be painful at times. If love is like a flame (as the artists and poets have told us), it has to be deliberately tended to like the Olympic torch, not left to burn out like a 10-cent votive from IKEA. In my seven years of marriage, I’ve discovered that this kind of attentiveness is expressed most clearly through empathy. Taking the time and energy to put myself in my husband’s place—and check out the view from Mars—is the only way to avoid near planetary collision.
Dr. John Gottman—famed researcher, therapist, and founder of the Gottman Institute—cites empathy as “the key to attunement” with your spouse. Gottman describes empathy as “as mirroring a partner’s feelings in a way that lets them know that their feelings are understood and shared.”
You can’t love without knowing, and the path toward knowing involves both seeking and finding through a gauntlet of blood, sweat, and tears. There’s no X-ray machine for this kind of insight, but there is a way to see and be seen, and that is to really look and really share.
Here are three ways my husband and I have learned to build empathy:
01. Take a personal inventory.
Taking a personality test—not of the Disney Prince kind, but a real framework to understand yourself—is a great starting point. One important thing to figure out is if your significant other is introverted or extroverted. Recognizing that my husband is an introvert, and then understanding that introverts are drained by socializing and must have some recovery time, changed my marriage for the better.
Another terrific tool is knowledge of the Five Love Languages. We’ve all heard it before: “Do unto others as you would have then do unto you.” That is great as a general guideline, but it turns out that can get a little dicey if you’re someone who needs quality time above all but your beloved primarily wants to give jewelry. Or if you enjoy heaping words of affirmation but they fall on the deaf ears of someone who just really wants a back rub. If you’re aware of his love language, you’re already well on your way to increased empathy.
02. Ask and tell.
Things get tough even in the best relationships. Stressful situations can especially wreak havoc if you and your partner don’t intentionally check in with one another to see how each is faring. The best way to find out what is working and what is not is to simply talk about it. Explain what you like—and what you don’t. You can say, “I really appreciate your little love notes but not so much when I find one in the refrigerator next to a completely empty milk jug.” Now you’re getting somewhere.
03. Workshop date nights
If you find that the two of you are talking past one another, it’s time for a date night. This kind of date night is for talking about what you’re feeling—big picture and nitty-gritty—and listening to your beloved do the same. Practice telling back what you just heard to be sure that you really understand it. Misinterpretations are the worst but are easily avoided with the help of honesty and clarity. Avoid being petty or nasty. Don’t let your anger or annoyance get the best of you. Instead be open about how you feel and let it refine your relationship so your man clearly sees what has been entrusted to him.
All of this takes a lot of effort, but regularly exercising empathy will build up your endurance to get you through the worst of times. And that’s exactly how lifelong commitment works.