the work of empathy

I read recently that empathy is the secret sauce to a happy marriage. But having empathy itself isn’t what matters. The article is based on a Harvard study:

The perception of empathic effort by one’s partner was more strongly linked with both men’s and women’s relationship satisfaction than empathic accuracy. Men’s relationship satisfaction was related to the ability to read their partners’ positive emotions accurately, whereas women’s relationship satisfaction was related to their partners’ ability to read women’s negative emotions accurately. Women’s ability to read their husbands’ negative emotions was positively linked to both men’s and women’s relationship satisfaction. Findings suggest that the perception of a partner’s empathic effort—as distinct from empathic accuracy—is uniquely informative in understanding how partners may derive relationship satisfaction from empathic processes. When working with couples in treatment, heightening partners’ perceptions of each other’s empathic effort, and helping partners learn to demonstrate effort, may represent particularly powerful opportunities for improving satisfaction in relationships.

In other words, to be satisfied in a relationship, you have to show your work and your work has to be seen. If your work isn’t obvious, another person can’t tell that you tried. If s/he doesn’t think you tried, s/he’ll have a very hard time thinking you care. If s/he doesn’t think you care, s/he’ll stop (or pretend to stop) caring, too. (And then you both risk apathy, which I’d safely guess is highly unsatisfying.)

I like the phrase “perceptions of each other’s empathic effort.” Are you seeing what the other is trying to do?

Are you sharing the work?

One thought on “the work of empathy

  1. Really interesting. We also don’t want sycophants as spouses, though some people initially may be attracted to that.

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