E is for Empathy in The Relationship Alphabet

The Relationship Alphabet by Zach Brittle on #staymarriedThis guy wrote this book and you HAVE TO get it! The guy is Zach Brittle, a Certified Gottman Therapist, and I’ve been fan-girl following his work on the Gottman Relationship Blog for the past couple of years. The book… THE BOOK!… is The Relationship Alphabet: A Practical Guide to Better Connection for Couples.

As you might imagine from the title, Brittle discusses an essential element of healthy relationships for each letter of the alphabet. I love the way the format allows you to read the book from cover to cover or choose a letter & topic and dig right into it. With discussion questions at the end of each chapter, this is the kind of resource I’ll be picking up again and again when I hit those roadblocks in my own marriage and need just a little direction and encouragement.

With this book, Zach Brittle has taken his years of experience helping couples in therapy as well as thriving in his own marriage and created something that is fun and easy to read, practical, and implementable!

You can grab your copy here, and YOU SHOULD, but I just couldn’t wait to share a bit of wisdom straight from the book. Here’s Zach with E is for Empathy…

E is for Empathy

Let’s review the Relationship Alphabet so far:

         A is for Arguing

         B is for Betrayal

         C is for Contempt and Criticism

         D is for Defensiveness

Pretty grim, right? Not what you signed up for when you got married? Actually, you might have. If you had a wedding you probably stood up in front of a bunch of people and promised something like “for better or for worse.” A through D represents the best of the worst. But it gets better. Because E is for Empathy.

I’ve been obsessed with empathy for a while now, and I’m not alone. There’s a pretty vibrant debate these days about whether empathy is a necessary leadership quality. Many high-profile (and high-profit) companies are thriving despite their leaders’ lack of “people skills,” but psychologist Daniel Goleman cites empathy as the cornerstone of emotional intelligence, an essential quality for the successful leadership. In the medical field, one recent study found that doctors who are more empathetic generally have patients with better outcomes. But this research only confirms what we intuitively know. After all, the term “bedside manner” was coined long before that study.

CEOs have to have it. Doctors have to have it. Presumably anyone who wants to obey the Golden Rule or walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes has to have it. But what is it?

The Relationship Alphabet by Zach Brittle on #staymarriedEmpathy is generally understood as the capacity to identify and share someone else’s emotions and experiences. Dr. Gottman describes empathy as mirroring a partner’s feelings in a way that lets them know their feelings are understood and shared. He cites it as the key to attunement with your partner as well as essential to the “emotion coaching” style of parenting. As a husband and a father, I cling to Gottman’s wisdom on empathy — after all, he’s earned his stripes over forty years of research. But if I’m honest, my absolute favorite perspective on the concept comes from a little boy.

One of my favorite books of all time is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. On the surface, it’s your typical story of intergalactic warfare with a race of alien bugs. But it’s also a brilliant case study in empathy as demonstrated through the character of Ender Wiggin, a young boy with an unusual aptitude for battle strategy as well as an enormous capacity for compassion. Reflecting on the central conflict of the novel, Ender says:

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.

There’s quite a bit going on here. Ender begins with an insight into conflict, and the reader expects to learn how he will achieve victory over his enemy. Victory, however, isn’t the goal. At least it’s not the only goal. Ender is chasing understanding, and that understanding leads to love. To have empathy is to understand somebody fully — what they want, what they believe. And not just in the moment, but in general.

As a therapist, my goal is to help couples understand this concept. Often, they come into my office thinking of one another as the enemy. They’re entrenched in patterns of argument, betrayal, contempt, criticism and defensiveness, and they have a hard time achieving or even seeking understanding. I remind them that the enemy mindset doesn’t help them get what they want — trust, respect, understanding, intimacy. Instead, these things are built through a commitment to hear not only the complaint but also the dream embedded in the conflict. You’re arguing about the groceries, but what does your partner truly want? To be heard? To be appreciated? This is hard work. It may require you to be a master tactician, strategically deploying conflict management skills. More often it requires you to shift your mindset from “enemy” to “partner” in the battle for your relationship.

You may be a CEO or a doctor. Maybe you’re a husband or a wife or a parent. It’s possible you’re a therapist. You are most definitely a person, and I’ll bet you want to be in safe, interesting, life-giving relationships. I urge you to become obsessed with empathy. Once you fully commit to understanding another person, I’d be surprised if you don’t start to love them, as one little boy observed, in the same way they love themselves.

Discussion Questions:The Relationship Alphabet by Zach Brittle on #staymarried

  1. Why might empathy be a critical character trait in medical and business professionals?

  2. Do you agree that empathy is the key to attunement with your partner? Why or why not?

  3. Can you identify moments in which you felt empathy for your partner? What about when you felt empathy from them? How was your relationship impacted?

  4. Have there been times when you viewed your partner as an “enemy”? How might empathy have helped change your perspective?

  5. Commit to choosing empathy in your relationships for one month. How do you think this will manifest itself? With whom, or in what situations, might this be most difficult? Keep track of your feelings throughout the month and note what, if anything, changes.

Zach Brittle, LMHC has been teaching, coaching, and counseling couples for over 15 years. He is a Certified Gottman Therapist with a private practice specializing in evidence-based couples therapy. Zach and his wife have been happily married for 17 out of 18 years. They live in Seattle, WA with their two daughters. They own a mini-van and most of the silverware they got as wedding presents. For more from Zach, you can follow him on Twitter.

 The #staymarried blog was created to offer hope, stories, and resources for couples who want to stay married.

Interested in more posts inspired by The Gottman Institute? You might like…

71 Ways to Express Your Love When You’re Not Shakespeare
The Art & Science of Love – 15 Favorite Moments from our Gottman Workshop Weekend
♥ Feed the Good Stuff – 10 Ways to Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration

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