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Empathy for couples: a sixth love language?

During the Pandemic, Gesine and I started seeing couples for mediation on Zoom. Joe and Mindy were living in Los Angeles and working in the film and television business. Despite being in their late thirties, neither one had held down a relationship for longer than a few years. They couldn’t understand why it was so painful being together. Why were they were having the time of their lives one moment, and the next moment they were in hell? One particular flashpoint was at the end of a restaurant meal, when Mindy left food on her plate and drink in her glass. For Joe, this was virtually the end of the relationship.

Gesine and I introduced them to the five languages of love. The five are: words of appreciation, quality time, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Joe and Mindy found it helpful to understand that there’s more than one way to give and receive love, and that the other’s way of giving and receiving love was different to theirs.

By contrast, Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, emphasised honesty and empathy. Honestly and vulnerably expressing what’s in your heart can create connection and be received as love. Empathy is distinct from words of appreciation or acts of service, and it is definitely a way of giving and receiving love. So maybe there are actually seven love languages?

Here, I want to celebrate the power of empathy by describing three benefits, or needs that it can meet for couples: connection, love and healing.

Empathy fosters connection

When we take the time to acknowledge in a respectful way the experience of our partner, it helps to create understanding and deepen connection. Even if we don’t agree with their views or how they go about their life, we can still acknowledge the needs that they are trying to meet. After several sessions, Joe could acknowledge the needs Mindy was meeting by leaving food or drink on the table at the end of meals. Mindy wanted to care for her figure and feel free not to eat all the food on the table. Joe was able to do this without getting it mixed up with his care for resources and dignity – he interpreted the leftover food and drink as a sign that he wasn’t ‘giving’ Mindy a good time, and so lost his dignity. Once both needs were on the table, they were able to discuss how to meet them.

Empathy can be received as love

Here’s a secret: empathy is very likely to be received as love. As Joe was acknowledging Mindy’s needs for care for her figure and freedom about what to eat, something miraculous was happening to her. She could receive his acknowledgement as love! No one had ever been with her in this way before. There had always been a conflict rather than mutual understanding, and love.

Empathy promotes healing

We supported Joe to empathize with Mindy’s needs long enough that she started to experience some healing from the painful childhood memories associated with the situation. It wasn’t easy. We spent several hours listening to Joe’s side: care for resources and dignity. But once he had connected with his own needs and values, he had the space to listen to Mindy. In doing so, they broke the spell that had been holding them since childhood, and allowed them to relate to each other as adults.

When you’re finding it tough to listen to your partner, we suggest you recall these three benefits to help you keep going: connection, love and healing.

Join us on our NVC for Couples online course

In January we are launching our new 6-week online course, The Languages of Love: NVC in intimate relationships. Bring your partner if you can! If you’ve already done a Level One or Foundation Training, you can join us on one of our Level Two trainings.