In serious relationships and marriages, we are right there with our spouses when they face difficult times. Whether you simply have a bad day or experience a traumatic event, like a death or illness in the family, how you respond can have lasting effects.
Typically, we choose one of two approaches to confronting the emotional hardships of our partners: empathy or sympathy. What’s the difference? Sympathy is feeling pity or sorrow for what someone else is going through, while empathy is having the ability to understand someone’s feelings and share those emotions with them.
Sympathy is much easier than empathy. We can express sympathy without having to share any painful emotions, and we can reassure ourselves it’s not that bad by looking for the silver lining. On the other hand, empathy requires us to be in touch with our own emotions and to feel the pain of our partner’s afflictions. It’s the difference between saying, “I’m so sorry you lost your grandmom, but at least your parents are still alive,” and “It must be really hard to have lost your grandmom. How can I help?”
In military relationships, practicing empathy can be especially helpful, as our spouses face a lot of added stress as service members. Here are a few ways you can use empathy to ensure your spouse is feeling supported:
1. Embrace the art of listening
Military spouses face their own types of challenges. We worry about things like our next duty stations, whether our partners will go on deployments, and how we will hold down steady jobs with so many relocations.
These are all valid concerns, but they can be very different worries than the ones our partners are facing.
When I asked my husband what his biggest fears are about his first deployment, he said being a newbie, being away for a very long time, and not knowing anyone else. These are ENTIRELY different than my own concerns, like that he will get inured or sick or that I’ll be lonely without him.
When our spouses come to us with these fears or others, we can practice empathy by putting aside our own worries and being fully engaged listeners. That means NOT thinking about what we are going to say next, but instead slowing down and really listening to the words our partners are saying.
It can be difficult not to compare or indulge in our personal concerns, but it’s necessary if we want to validate the importance of what our spouses are trying to communicate with us.
While we won’t ever know exactly what they are going through, we can certainly feel for them and make the effort to understand their emotions.