I’ve often considered my high degree of empathy to be a weakness. I have to minimize my news intake of tragic events, I never let a friend cry alone, and I have to turn away when an ice skater falls during a performance. I’ve read studies that explain people who deeply empathize have many of the same neurons firing in their brains as those who experienced the event. That helps explain why I can relate to emotions that are far from me.
Good news if you are like me: empathy is a strength in marriage. This isn’t just my opinion. It’s been shown through psychophysiological research. Finally, being emotional has an up-side.
The book The Energetic Heart assesses bioelectromagnetic interactions within and between people and explains some of the current research. Author Rollin McCraty, PhD, reports on multiple studies that show people synchronize some of their physiological activities, such as heart rate, when they empathize.
For example, Levenson and Gottman studied physiological synchronization in married couples and concluded partners who were skilled at showing empathy mimicked their partner’s physiology. Their heart rates sped up and slowed down to match their spouse’s when they discussed emotional content. McCraty adds that researchers have been able to use physiological observations of couples to predict those who will divorce.
If couples who are not skilled in empathy are more likely to divorce, we should dissect this ability further. Empathy is the capability to share another’s feelings and emotions. We can’t get to that point if we are not truly present to one another and effective listeners. We also must be open and vulnerable emotionally. I’ve been writing a lot about techniques for listening, and it’s not because I’m not feeling heard. Many types of research lead me back to the topic and stress the importance of listening in all types of relationship success. How can we be empathic if we don’t hear or understand our spouse’s true concerns? How can we improve intimacy without empathizing with one another’s deepest worries, goals and desires?
These psychophysiological studies are a fancy way of demonstrating couples who are emotionally in touch with one another, but I’ll bet you know if you’re in touch without the gadgets. Do you find your mind wandering when your spouse talks about his dreams for the future? Does your anger level rise when you hear your wife was mistreated? Are you in tune with your partner’s mood or anxieties? Try taking a few deep breaths before you reconnect to help your bodies adjust physiologically before your minds connect emotionally.
Do you think empathy is just a female skill? Do you think it can be learned or improved, or are there some people who are just not emotional? Read about how the brains of bullies empathize in surprising (and not good) ways. It may explain why abusive spouses are unlikely to change.