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We really aren’t very good at putting ourselves in our partner's shoes: The empathy gap in marriage

Empathy is the ability to understand what another person is feeling. It also invokes the understanding of what others are thinking, but that is part of the broader ability of perspective-taking and mind-reading. It is an extremely important skill that when used correctly makes relationships, both causal and close, go more smoothly. Research shows that empathy is an important ingredient, in particular, in successful marriages, and makes us more likely to forgive a marriage partner for a negative behavior by identifying with their struggles and shortcomings.

Imagine if we didn’t have this skill. We would base our judgments of people not on what we thought was going on in their head, but only on their behaviors or what we could see. So, if someone showed an angry face, we would see that something was bothering them, but have little ability to realize what it actually was. That makes dealing with others a challenge, to say the least. It is born out that when we don’t understand what someone else is feeling, or the emotional experiences they are having, we use the most blunt, unsophisticated tools we have to understand others. When another person does something that impacts us negatively, we tend to make the quickest leap to thinking that person is either stupid, or evil. Those are the most broadly applicable reasons for someone doing something bad, after all. But when we do that and the person we are judging is our long-term relationship partner, it’s not so good for relationships.

Evidence shows that when we, as a judge of character, are in a different emotional state than the person who was actually in a real situation where they had to act, we underestimate the role that emotions play in driving decisions and behavior. In other words, while we have some ability for empathy, we’re not that good at putting ourselves in others’ shoes, especially when the situation the actor was in is a highly-charged one. Say, one that involves being nervous, scared, angry, or aroused (physically or sexually). We tend to have an egocentric bias, which means we think people would act like we think, given our cool, non-emotional state where nothing is at stake. But research shows that people don’t make the same judgments, given mere hypotheticals, than when they are faced with a real choice. To sum up, we think we would act cool and rationally, when in reality behavior is driven much more by emotions. The stronger the emotions, the less accurate our predictions are. Thus, our empathy is lacking.

So, what can you do armed with this information? Recognize your limitations. Realize we can’t ever really put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. The more extreme the emotions faced in the situation, the less accurate our judgments are. In plain English, we can be too judgy. If you want to be happy in a relationship, listen to what your partner says they felt in the moment, and be compassionate and forgiving. It will pay off in the long run.

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