Why Understanding Your Partner is Not Enough

Try to recall a fairly recent stressful situation or really difficult day.

Let’s say that you just got a speeding ticket last week. Then, while driving home after a not-so-great day at work, you get into a fender-bender. When you get home, you share all this news with your partner. Your partner nods his or her head, and maybe asks a couple of clarifying questions (such as “how fast were they going?”), but otherwise seems emotionally distant. If you’re not feeling that your partner’s response is particularly supportive, recent research shows us why.

Intellectual Understanding Yet Emotionally Distant

Published in Psychological Science, the essence of the research shows that simply understanding someone’s situation does not necessarily mean we are emotionally connected to the person or motivated to become actively supportive. Without this emotional connection and subsequent support, we, intentionally or not, send a message to our partner that we aren’t truly concerned about them or their situation. If it happens frequently enough, this perceived lack of caring can create tension and distance in a relationship.

What Leads to Supportive Behavior in Relationships?

Researchers, Winczewski and Bowen from the University of California-Santa Barbara, investigated whether understanding your partner alone is sufficient to lead to supportive behavior in relationships. They asked couples to name a previous issue in their relationship that had caused stress. The researchers videotaped the discussions between each partner and were able to measure the response of each person for levels of empathy.

The result was that when an individual had a high degree of concern for what was going on for their partner, they also had a high degree of “empathetic accuracy.” This means that a partner accurately determined that their partner was troubled. However, if that same person didn’t care about their partner’s problems, then accuracy was low.

The researchers asked whether empathic accuracy, which is understanding another person’s feelings and thoughts, could cause “responsive behavior” (taking action to support our partner) when paired with empathic caring.

In other words, the researchers wanted to know if understanding our partner’s thoughts and feelings (cognitive empathy) is enough to lead us to actively support them?  Or, does this responsive (supportive) behavior require us also to have compassionate motivation (empathic concern)? The researchers found that without this compassionate motivation, there is much less supportive behavior.

What Does This Mean For Couples?

Couples who wish to improve their relationship can pay attention to whether they are demonstrating empathetic concern for their partners. Just having intellectual understanding of your partner’s situation isn’t enough. Knowing that your partner understands how you feel about the speeding ticket and fender-bender can help you feel supported and comforted. Yet, an additional show of compassionate motivation makes you feel most supported.

On the other hand, if, over time, your partner continues to show a lack of caring regarding different issues, your partner will then get the message that you can’t trust him or her, or that he or she will be there for them emotionally. This, not surprisingly, can lead to the unraveling of a relationship.

Steps Couples Can Take

Here are some steps that couples can take to build their empathic accuracy (trust and mutual caring) in their relationships: Try having small conversations each day (choose a consistent time that works for your schedule).

1. Practice empathy-building skills. Make eye contact and reflect back your understanding of what your partner said or their main concern.

2. Participate in activities that require working together and problem-solving such as household chores, yard work, hiking, or planning a vacation.

3. When a struggle or conflict does come up, request what you need from your partner.

4. If you are still having problems after trying the above steps, consider seeing a couples counseling specialist. A skilled therapist can help advise you both on building your empathic accuracy.

What this study teaches us is that empathic accuracy is a skill that not everyone possesses, but it can be learned. The more opportunities that you and your partner have to communicate, the better each of you will be able to understand each other, relate where each is coming from, and o build mutual trust and caring in your relationship.

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