The amazing work of neuroscientists such as Marco Iacoboni reveals human beings are neurologically “wired for empathy” and — an innate moral nature. The same brain circuits are mobilized whether feeling one’s own pain and others’, and merely observing someone performing a certain action activates the same areas of the brain in the observer.

The special neurons that make this possible are known as “mirror neurons” are linked with the experience of empathy, compassion and learning.

Not surprisingly, the ability to remain empathically connected, especially in challenging moments when you are triggered, is a key attribute of partners in strong, healthy marriages.

In contrast, the absence of an empathic connection is what underlies arguments and distressed relationships. Without empathy, fears and anxieties about human drives for love and recognition in your relationships, etc., activate defensive reactions. It disturbs your sense of safety and trust when the empathic connection in your relationships is thrown off balance.

Listening to empathically understand the other is one of the most important expressions of love. With Valentine’s Day around the corner, here’s a two-phase exercise you and your partner can complete daily to improve and deepen your level of empathic listening.

Phase 1:

Consciously set aside 30 minutes each day, if possible, and agree upon a time that works best for both. Most importantly: Set an intention to “give” this time to one another as a “Daily 30-Minute Gift” to one another.

  • Think about something you’d like to share with one another, perhaps a stressor or something rewarding you experienced that day that is not related to “issues” in your relationship or between you.
  • Take turns listening, empathizing for about 15 minutes each.
  • In the role of listener, it means expressing empathy by reflecting back, paraphrasing, validating, etc., your partner’s perceptions, opinions, feelings, needs as valuable. (See handout on “Characteristics of Effective Conscious Communication.”

Phase 2:

  • Once you get “good” at Phase 1, feel free to move to the next step — and add a “Weekly 60-Minute Gift.”
  • Consciously set aside, if possible, an additional hour weekly, finding a time that works best for both.
  • Use this time to talk about your own progress in therapy; your celebrations as you objectively examine your own progress, and areas that you still need to work on.
  • Use this time also to ask for feedback. Listen to what would make this process easier for your partner. Make requests for specific actions. (Take care to do so in ways that are free of blame, complaining about past actions, judgments of the character or personhood of self or the other, etc.)

Tips:

  • It is best to remain at Phase 1 for a couple of weeks.
  • On the other hand, don’t expect to ever feel “fully comfortable” about talking about issues, and seek to stretch your comfort zones a bit further than you “think” you can.
  • Start with topics that are safe, such as telling each other how your day went.
  • Once you’re both comfortable with talking about “safe” topics, make a list of frustrations that each of you keep handy. At least once or twice a week, decide in advance to make it day of listening to one of each other’s frustrations.
  • End each “Empathy Session” with at least 15 seconds of laughter, and fun.
    • For example: Start belly laughing for no reason, etc. (This may sound silly, however, it is an effective way to train your subconscious mind (the operating system of your body) to enjoy and see the value of working hard to develop your abilities to listen and empathize with your partner, without getting reactive.)