Seeing from Your Partner’s Eyes
By Tova Kreps, LCSW
“He just doesn’t get me,” she says, bewildered that he didn’t know how she needed him. “It’s a guy thing,” he says, implying she doesn’t understand.
Sometimes we have soul mates who seem to know us without words, at least they did when we first started to date. Other times, it seems no one knows us at all. Still other times, the people around us “know just what we are going to say,” but since they’ve interrupted or walked away mid-sentence, proof will never come.
We all long to be truly known and understood, especially by our partners. If you can offer empathy to your partner for Valentine’s Day, you will have given him or her a “gift” of great value.
Empathy is the understanding or shared vicarious experience of another being’s feelings, thoughts, or attitudes. Here are some points on empathy to help you along your path of gift-giving.
First, stop thinking about yourself. You can’t possibly understand someone if you don’t know him. And you can’t know what someone else is thinking or feeling if you are only focused on yourself. You simply won’t even notice. But then again, you might not care, except… when his actions no longer work for your best interests. Then, understanding may be too late; their feelings will be left a mystery to you! So, step one, is to start thinking about the other person. Notice him, pay attention, wonder about the mystery of him, and stop thinking about yourself for a moment.
Second, be curious. Everyone’s actions make sense to them. You may not agree with her rationale, but to her it all makes sense. A thief steals because, “I deserve it,” or “they don’t need it,” etc. So, if you find yourself with exasperation declaring that your partner “just makes no sense,” then you really don’t know her very well, because to her, it makes sense. Ask questions of curiosity
. “What were you thinking when you said ---?”
“Why is this so important to you?”
“What was that like?”
“What were you hoping would happen next?”
Explore the thoughts, feelings and actions of your partner with open-ended questions. These questions are not to interrogate, prove your point, or lead in to your next statement. They are just a longing to know, really know, the person you love. Treat her as the most fascinating, intriguing person you have ever met. She likely is, if you have chosen her as your partner.
Third, take a dose of humility. You really don’t know everything about him. Only God can read minds. We think that because we have lived with someone for a long time that we know all about him. There is nothing automatic about proximity and knowing. Couples in marriage therapy often hear information from their partners for the first time simply because someone else asks a question. Attention, listening and a humble approach of asking instead of assuming, all lead to a wonderful sense of personal connection. Do you remember how you did that on your first date? Do it again! Even if you don’t learn something new, the person will feel heard and understood in new ways
Fourth, be courageous. Sometimes we avoid knowing what other people think or feel because it makes us uncomfortable. We might be uncomfortable with strong emotions; afraid we won’t know what to say or do if she has them. We might prefer not knowing her feelings so that we aren’t responsible to act. Or worse yet, we might be a part of the reason for her strong emotions and are not 2 yet willing to change or apologize. There is no solution to this except courage. Whether you empathize with it or not, she already thinks or feels what she does. You might as well learn it, acknowledge it to her, and then decide what to do, if anything, about it. In order to be empathetic, we have to be willing to make truth a higher priority than our own defensiveness. We have to not be afraid of the truth
Fifth, understanding how someone feels or what he believes does not mean that you agree with him. Often we avoid acknowledging a person’s view because we feel like it condones it. Separate the process of understanding someone’s view from responding to it. After you understand him, then you can decide if you want to persuade him to think differently, argue with his view of reality, defend your position, express your own feelings, respond with love, take action, or do nothing and just let him be where he is (the best choice).
Lastly, just let her be where she already is. You can empathize with your partner without needing to try to change her. Often, because we love someone we want to help her to feel better, be happy or solve her problems. Watch out for saying to yourself, “I just want her to…” No matter how well meaning, this is an agenda that others feel the pull or push of and resist. Instead, try letting her just be where she is. When someone receives empathy, acknowledgement and permission to feel what she already feels, it frees her to move forward. It is the water in the desert that she has longed for in order to take her next steps forward. She knows what to do next, she just needs someone along side who says, “I see you.”
Offer the gift of empathy to your partner this Valentines. In preparation, spend a few minutes imagining yourself being empathetic with him or her. Imagine a scene and a dialogue. Imagine his response. When you are done, ask yourself how you feel about the encounter you imagined. Repeat this process until you have mentally practiced yourself being a good listener, giving the gift of empathy, and feeling happy about it. You will be amazed at what he or she does with it when you actually give it.