How To Connect Better With Your Partner, According To Neuroscience

Image by Boris Jovanovic / Stocksy

As we step into the new year, it is the perfect time to think about what we want to leave behind and manifest in the coming months like detoxing from toxic relationships and strengthening healthy ones.

When looking to deepen our relationships with our partners, we may be accustomed to looking outside ourselves in the form of gifts or extravagant gestures to express our appreciation or love. While these could provide fleeting happiness, they may not fill the void.

A more unexpected tool to explore in your relationship this coming year? Empathy. Dr. Helen Riess, empathy expert, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, defines empathy in her new book The Empathy Effect: "Empathy is best understood as a human capacity consisting of several different facets that work together to enable us to be moved by the plights and emotions of others."

You could be thinking, "Well I'm lacking in this capacity," and the truth is many of us are, but Dr. Riess' extensive research suggests that we are wired for it and it is something that we can learn and grow.

In fact, it can help us connect on a deeper level with our partners.

"Through empathy, we actually are able to stand in the other person's shoes and try to understand their goals, their objectives, and their desires from their point of view," she explained. And this is absolutely critical in a partnership where give and take of prioritizing our own needs as well as our partner's is almost constant.

Every partnership faces different challenges that are often created by conflict or exacerbated by it, so learning how to move through conflict with greater ease could create a positive ripple effect in your relationship. It's easy when in an argument with another person to focus heavily on your perspective and opinion and lose sight of the other's thoughts. By cultivating greater empathy for yourself and your partner, you can navigate conflict more smoothly.

How do we begin to incorporate empathy into the conversation?

Start with what Dr. Helen Riess calls the ABC technique—a way to "literally get the other person's perspective."

Acknowledge

The first step is to recognize you are in an emotionally charged dispute.

Breathe

Acknowledging you're in an intense conversation enables you to begin to slow down your breathing.

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Curiosity

Become inquisitive about your partner's perspective. Ask yourself, "Why might they be feeling this way?"

"Curiosity is the way into another person's experience," said Dr. Riess. She pointed out that it is particularly difficult to engage curiosity when in a gridlock argument or in a heated emotional conflict.

If you do find yourself in a situation where both you and your partner are worked up, you are most likely in fight-or-flight mode, she explained, and this causes you to focus on protecting yourself, making it hard to think about your partner's perspective.

In this case, it's best to consider revisiting the conflict in a few hours once you and your partner have some space. "I think one of the biggest mistakes is trying to get a resolution to something when no one is able to be in a state of curiosity," said Dr. Riess.

While partners can work together to bring empathy into their relationship, focusing on self-empathy first is essential. It is challenging for someone to find this for another if they are struggling with deep childhood scars or felt unloved early on in life.

This could require emotional healing through therapy with a professional and may be too much of a burden for a loved one to take on. It's worth examining this in your own life and talking to your significant other to understand why empathy may or may not be coming naturally to them.

A great way to check in with the level of empathy in your relationship is to take what Dr. Riess calls your "empathy pulse." Throughout the day, pay attention to how much time you are spending focused on your own issues and to-do lists and how much time you spend thinking about your partner's challenges. You can ask yourself, "Am I in tune with the pressures there are on this person? Am I in tune with their positive feelings?"

If you are feeling like your partnership could use a little TLC, consider how you greet your partner when they come home from work; it can be as easy as making eye contact and taking time to notice their facial expression–are they looking down or are they coming home cheerful and excited?

It's easy in a world where we are constantly exposed to troubling news, videos, and images to forget to find empathy for our loved ones at home—we can even feel empathy-depleted.

These practices are a great reminder that it really begins at home. If we can increase our empathy for ourselves and our partner, there's a greater chance for this empathy to spread to others.

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