Look into her eyes with a smile and listen intently while she talks about her friends. Or, look into his eyes and listen intently while he talks about an exciting game. Doing this will move your relationship toward deeper, more open and satisfying communication between you and your partner.
Empathic communication is the gateway to long-term satisfying relationships. Not only have you moved your relationship toward intimacy and passion, but you are also reducing your own stress and anxiety. New research proposes that expressing empathy is inversely proportional to the amount of stress one carries.
The Link between Stress and Empathy
Jeffrey Mogil (Lee 2015) has recently discovered a link between empathy, stress and having shared experiences with others. His research demonstrated test subjects had limited empathy for strangers. It seems that adults, when in the presence of strangers, have an unconscious stress reaction that evokes the fight or flight defense mechanisms. This makes sense, as the primitive survival brain wants to know if the stranger is a threat. Will this stranger be friend or foe? Mogil’s research demonstrates that when these unconscious survival defenses are activated one's capacity for empathy is diminished.
In essence, the stress of not knowing a stranger blocks one's natural capacity for empathy. In his experiment Mogil gave the test group metyrapone, a drug that blocks the fight or flight stress reaction. He found subjects on metyrapone had greater empathy responses to strangers than the same group did with out the metyrapone. He then had the test group play the game, Rock Band with strangers for 15 minutes. The test group who played Rock Band had higher levels of empathy for the person they played Rock Band with than they did prior to playing the game. Mogil concluded that with as little as 15 minutes of shared activity strangers were able to have significantly higher levels of empathy.
Mogil’s conclusion is that the unconscious stress reaction of not knowing the other contributes to blocking empathy while having simple shared experiences with a stranger reduces stress. As the stress response lowers the empathy response raises.
The Implications for Couplehood
Mogils research was with strangers; not with couples. However the implications for couples is substantial. Empathy is a key component for relationships at all levels. Whether the relationship is an intimate relationship, a business relationship, a community relationship or a relationship between two nations empathy is a key component. Throughout his political career Barack Obama has repeatedly emphasized what he refers to as “the empathy deficit.” In his commencement address at Northwestern University Obama said, (Obama 2006) "I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us."
One important implication from Mogil’s research for couples is shared experiences promote empathy toward each other and lower the stress levels for each partner.
When couples first fall in love looking into each other's eyes and listening intently with an open mind and heart are two universally shared behaviors. These shared behaviors promote a belief in both partners that they know the other and the other cares about them. This happens spontaneously and repeatedly in new relationships. These spontaneous and repeated shared behaviors tend to diminish over time for most couples. There is an interesting correlation between diminishing shared behaviors and the experience of stress increasing in the relationship.
A New Definition
This presents a new definition for stress in a relationship. Stress might be defined in terms of unconsciously seeing the partner as a stranger. One of the most common complaints in couple’s therapy has to do with no longer knowing the other person. Often clients express, "he's changed," or "I don't know who she is anymore." Along with not knowing the other person another common complaint is not being able to understand the other persons behaviors, choices or decisions.
Virtually all relationships go through a period of time when one or both partners are challenged by something that they had not experienced in their partner previously. Virtually all relationships go through a stage in which partners are uncertain about the other’s intentions, That naturally arouses a stress response.
When stress levels are high empathy tends to be very low. This is especially true in one’s most intimate relationships. Stress shows up in an intimate relationship when partners begin to doubt each other. Central to the doubt is the uncertainty of really knowing the partner. The common belief is the partner has changed or is somebody different than who they presented themselves to be. These beliefs create an image of the partner as a stranger. Seeing the partner as a stranger heightens stress and blocks empathy. Blocking empathy prevents empathic communication from happening. As the number of shared behaviors and the frequency of shared behaviors decrease the sense of knowing the other also decreases at an inversely proportional rate to the increase of stress in the relationship.
Mogil’s assertion that shared experiences reduces the stress and increases empathy makes sense as shared experiences would naturally reduce the anxiety of the unknown and increase the capacity for limbic resonance. Limbic resonance is the capacity to resonate with the deep emotional states with the other, or to have empathy.
The Gift That Gives Back
This does have major implications for couples and long-term relationships. Couples who are creative and intentional about having shared experiences can give their relationship the gift of empathy.
Gravotta, L. Feb. 12, 2013. Be Mine Forever: Oxytocin May Help Build Long-Lasting Love. Scientific America. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/be-mine-forever-oxytocin/
Lee C. Jan. 15, 2015 The Secret of Empathy. MgGill University News Room. Retrieved from http://www.mcgill.ca/channels/news/secret-empathy-241112
Obama, B. (2006). Northwestern Commencement Address. Retrieved from http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2006/06/barack.html#sthash.AajRN3EY.dpuf