Expert point of view
When our relationships are going well, we feel supported, understood, loved. When our relationships are struggling, we feel isolated, judged, rejected.
We are essentially relational beings. When a sibling or a spouse is hurting, the family suffers. When a marriage is hurting, the child suffers. When an individual is struggling, his relationships struggle as well.
We can’t deny: the quality of our relationships affect the quality of our lives. And how we let these relationships grow has a real impact on the happiness both in our lives, and in the lives of the people we care about.
But the challenges are many: increasing pressures and demands from our work or businesses, fragmenting family units that lack adequate social support, unrealistic expectations of ourselves to ‘do it all’, and of course, the advent of technology.
Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, claims that over-reliance on devices, and on simultaneous, rapid-fire online communication, is harming our ability to have valuable face-to-face conversations.
Turkle, who has spent the past 30 years observing how people adapt to new technologies that change the way we communicate and relate, concludes: ‘We turn to our phones instead of each other,’ in marriages, in families, in friendships, and at work.
So how do we grow our most important and intimate relationships?
Sometimes, we don’t even know how to begin. Perhaps your relationships are messy, or complicated, or feel so distant that you don’t know where to start.
Perhaps you don’t know how exactly to articulate your feelings. Perhaps you don’t even know how you feel. I think the best thing to do is to come with an intention to understand, not to be understood.
Every good thing comes from a sincere intention. An intention to be present, curious and attentive to the ones you love often goes a long way. An intention is saying: “Yes, this is what I want and this is what I’m going to do about it.” It is about making your mind up to put your relationships first. It is about making a decision to schedule in meal times with your family like how you would schedule a business meeting.
Intend to, and then, follow through.
So when you do show up, then what?
Do you show up preoccupied with the tasks you have left undone? Or with judgment and biases about your friend sitting across from you? Or with irritation and impatience towards your child who just can’t seem to cooperate?
Sure, showing up is important, but critically, how you show up is probably the dealmaker (or deal breaker).
Researchers have found that for women, satisfaction in a relationship was most strongly associated with feeling that their partners' were making a 'perceived empathetic effort’ - the degree to which he or she seems to be making an attempt to understand why you're feeling a certain way.
The study by Harvard Medical School and Bryn Mawr College which was published online by the Journal of Family Psychology, worked with 156 couples and concluded that the presence of empathy demonstrated ‘the desire and investment of their male partners to be attentive and emotionally attuned in the relationship’.
Even if you don’t get it completely right, just making an effort to understand where your partner is coming from will make both parties feel better.
For children, there’s really nothing like knowing that the most important people in your life (your parents or primary caregivers) truly value your perspective and experience. When we empathise with our children, they can develop secure and healthy attachments to us, which then impacts their future relational habits.
Only with empathy can true connection begin. When we can make the effort to feel what the other may be feeling, or to see the situation from the other’s perspective, we are getting closer to an authentic connection.
Margaret Paul, Ph.D., a relationship expert and best-selling author, wrote that ‘We all want to be seen for who we really are - which is who we are when we are open.’
To foster that emotional openness, she encourages us to focus on what we value in the other person, to frequently speak about the other’s positive qualities. This helps the other person feel accepted and included, creating a safe space that encourages him to let his guard down, to reveal more of himself- and in essence, become more vulnerable.
And vulnerability is a necessary part of all loving relationships. It allows for mutual trust and true intimacy to develop. Because when you know you are loved for who you are, you are really loved.
Some information for this article was taken from The Atlantic’s article “The Flight From Conversation” published 07 Oct 2015 and from Huffington Post's article "Women's Happiness In Relationships Tied To Men's Empathy: Study" published 07 March 2012.
Jolene Hwee, M.A.(Psych), MSPS
Director & Counselling Psychologist
Womancare Psychological Services LLP
Ms.Hwee is a psychologist and consultant in private practice. As such, all views and opinions expressed in the above video and article do not represent the views or opinions of her organisation or other institutions or organisations that the author may or may not be related to or affiliated with unless explicitly stated otherwise. All information and opinions expressed herein do not represent endorsement by Ms. Hwee of any product, service or organisation.