Part VI: Creating a Safe Environment
Developing empathy is a huge step toward creating a safe environment where you and your partner can discuss feelings. If I know that when I speak, the first thing I will hear back is your effort to understand me, then I feel reinforced for sharing my feelings. If the first thing I hear back is dismissal and arguments, I probably won’t take the risk of trying to communicate with you.
It’s hugely helpful if the couple makes it a norm in their relationship that they can speak about feelings or other sensitive issues in a calm and open manner. For most couples, this requires practice. I encourage them to do a “Daily Temperature Reading” with each other, as close to every day as they can. This is based on an exercise created by Virginia Satir that involves mirroring and empathy statements, and “checking in” with each other in a variety of areas.
It works like this:
Partner One states an appreciation, for something large or small, that Partner Two has done, or for some quality about them – “I appreciate that you’re a terrific parent,” for instance. Partner Two says, “I hear that you appreciate that I’m a terrific parent. Did I get that? I’d imagine that makes you feel supported and secure regarding our child.” Then, Partner Two states an appreciation to Partner One, who then responds with mirroring and empathy statements.
Then they make a statement about “How I am feeling right now,” and they mirror each other and make an empathy statement. Next is “how I am feeling about us right now,” and again they mirror each other and make an empathy statement.
Some couples might use this as an opportunity to list their complaints about the other, which is not the same as saying “I am feeling X.” But many couples will try to avoid conflict by saying “I’m feeling fine about us.” I encourage them to be honest and reasonably constructive about this. I want them to be OK with saying, and hearing, “I’m feeling generally hopeful about us but also frustrated that we still can’t agree about our step-parenting problem.”
The idea is not to get bogged down in a long discussion about “why do you feel that way, whose fault is it, how can I defend myself, or how can we fix it.” But rather it’s to practice hearing your partner’s feelings without having to react to it in those ways, while containing your own feelings about what you are hearing. I tell my couple clients that I want them to build the skills, or “muscle groups,” for discussing difficult topics in a calm and productive way, and to come to resolution on them. But at the same time, this exercise works a different muscle group that is also essential – the ability to sit with and tolerate some tension, without having to act out about it or resolve it immediately.
Many couples need practice just sitting with emotional content, rather than having to fix it, fight about it, or make it go away. Over the course of a decades-long marriage, you are guaranteed to annoy each other or feel hurt sometimes, and those occasions don’t have to become huge fights or major problems. It’s an important skill to accept that sometimes there is some tension in the air, and it doesn’t always have to be resolved right this minute.
So this exercise helps you to have daily practice with speaking and hearing emotional content while managing your reactivity. You are creating a new normal of calmly addressing feelings and other challenging issues. As you become more comfortable discussing feelings this way, you will feel less need to bottle up your feelings until they explode, or to avoid and internalize issues between the two of you, or to express feelings in an attacking or blaming way.
The Daily Temperature Reading can be expanded to include check-ins on logistics, or calendar items – “I’m letting you know that the car will be in the shop on Friday and we have a kids birthday party on Sunday”; “puzzles,” or questions you have been wondering about for each other; a Behavior Change Request, for one specific change you would like you partner to do for one week; and Wishes, Hopes, and Dreams, in which you share a dream you have for the future.
So again, you are learning to communicate more effectively, but you are also learning to be present with one another in a calm and supportive way. You are using communication tools to heal the relationship and to grow in deep and meaningful ways.