It is good that you understand why your spouse is stressed, but this alone will not help him or her get rid of the situation. Extend a helping hand and it will cement your romantic relationship further, feel researchers. A team of US researchers studying empathy in relationships found that in the absence of caring, understanding alone does not cut it when stressful situations arise in relationships.
The findings — published in the journal Psychological Science — provide the first evidence that cognitive and affective forms of empathy work together to facilitate responsive behaviour.
“When people were empathically accurate — when they had an accurate understanding of their partner’s thoughts and feelings — they were more responsive only when they also felt more empathic concern, more compassion and motivation to attend to their partner’s needs,” said lead author Lauren Winczewski from the University of California, Santa Barbara. “When listeners had accurate knowledge but did not feel compassionate, they tended to be less supportive and responsive,” Winczewski added.
The team argued that responsiveness requires not only accurate understanding, but also compassionate motivation.
They tested their theory by asking couples to discuss a previously identified personal or relationship stressor — jealousy, or as in one case, one partner’s extreme fear of flying. By videotaping the conversations, they were able to gauge empathic accuracy and empathic concern — as well as responsiveness — both in real time and after the interaction had concluded.
The results showed that when a listener’s concern for their partner was high, their accuracy bolstered responsiveness. But when compassion was scant, understanding did little to aid responsiveness.
The findings suggest that empathic accuracy facilitates responsive behaviour only when one is motivated to use that insight for benevolent goals. “In this way, our study shows that ‘thinking and feeling’ work together to help us be as supportive as possible to those we love,” said co-researcher Nancy Collins.