Recently, we discovered the first necessary step toward a growing level of intimacy with your partner is simply through the act of noticing.
This next practical step toward generating a culture of empathy may very well be the most challenging for the general population because it is possibly the most uncomfortable.
Many people avoid an uncomfortable feeling by dismissing it, replacing it, or ignoring it…and this can translate quickly into how you may address the uncomfortable emotions in your partner.
P R A C T I C E
Note: The following exercise is an adaptation of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn's exercise of Transforming Difficult Emotions that I have slightly modified to use within couples therapy.
We're going to slow this practice waaaayyyy down since the level of discomfort can easily escalate a simple conversation into a hurricane of discord.
So, next time you notice that your partner is experiencing an unpleasant or distressing emotion, perhaps a misunderstanding or an argument, a situation where she may seem somewhat angry, regretful, or guilty over something that has happened...
Slow down and breathe.
Breathe and notice the sensations of the breath in your body (the shoulders or abdomen moving or the differences in temperature of the inhale from the exhale).
Now, take a moment to welcome your partner to share what she is feeling, what emotion is he experiencing, or even gently reflect the emotion you are noticing with an opportunity for her to correct that reflection.
As she is sharing, guide your mind to the experience of your partner and the general emotion she says she is feeling. Allow yourself to take some time to tune into any physical sensations in your body that the feeling evokes. Note where it may feel most tense (shoulders, eyebrows, back, stomach, hands, holding your breath, etc).
As you soften and show openness to these sensations, you can begin pairing the sensation with your breathing - letting go of any tensing and bracing you may find as you are showing understanding (words like "soften", "open", "relax" or "release" can be added to your out-breath and initiate a physiological response of releasing and softening.
And now, as you breathe, inhale with the intention of sending your breath into that part of the body, wherever it may be, and your exhale will release your breath from that part of the body. Explore how perhaps the intensity of that sensation shifts up and down from one moment to the next.
As you soften and show openness to these sensations, you can begin letting go of any tensing and bracing you may find as you are showing understanding. Say to yourself “softening” or “opening” as you exhale.
You can also begin verbally welcoming the emotion with your partner, “Whatever you’re feeling is here right now with us”; or “it’s already here”; or “It’s okay.”
(Editor's note: stating “It’s ok” is not judging the feeling or situation or dismissing it as “it's fine; everything's fine. We're all fine”. Rather, it’s welcoming the feeling as a temporary guest, knowing that it does not need to reside there permanently.)
And while this exercise has significant benefit to connecting with your partner, focus more on your willingness to remain present in the emotion with your partner. Notice how your response may have shifted from communicating disgust or avoidance to generating a safe camaraderie in the moment.
Next...problem-solving with empathy in mind.