"Just like me"-a tool to build empathy in challenging relationships

I do a lot of work with couples, and I notice that a common wish is for increased intimacy. Intimacy is sometimes a code word for sexual and romantic engagement, but often, people are referencing a genuine, heartfelt desire to feel more emotional and relational connection with their partners.

So what do I prescribe? Bubble baths a deux? Romantic weekends away? Sure, those are good, but the real need is to find a deeper and truer connection.  The challenge is to build a feeling of empathy for your partner, when you may be feeling that he or she is the reason that you are feeling so disconnected.

We cannot directly control others' behavior, so I always advise people to look for ways that they can change to create the relationship they want, rather than waiting for their partner to change.  I'd like to share a tool you can use to try to generate an increased sense of compassion and empathy for your partner. I've borrowed it from the meditation world, which has so many useful tools to help us stay calm and connected, even during challenging moments.

I call it "just like me."

First, reflect upon what you want out of a positive relationship. You might want to feel valued, loved, connected, supported, and safe in your relationship.  

Now, try to guess what your partner wants out of a relationship. You might have all kinds of ideas that don't sound quite as nice as your wishes. Maybe you think your partner wants to dominate you, or just wants your paycheck. Maybe you think they don't want to connect to you at all and just want to stare at their phone.

Let me tell you something that may surprise you.  Your partner is just like you.  Your partner wants to feel valued, loved, connected, supported, and safe in your relationship.  I know this because it's what we all want.  All people want to feel valued, loved, connected, supported, and safe.  Sometimes we don't act like it, but we all want it.

So when you're feeling distanced from your partner, think about what you want from the relationship at that moment and remind yourself that "just like me, my partner wants ______." You can use this tool when you're together, or when you're thinking about the relationship.  Just say to yourself "just like me, my partner wants to feel loved," or "just like me, my partner wants to feel connected." You don't have to forgive behavior that you don't like, or explain away past pains. Just acknowledge that just like you, your partner is a person who wants many of the same things as you do.

This can be very hard to do, but if you are able to find moments where you can remind yourself that you and your partner share the same basic needs. It isn't a magic bullet that solves all pain, but it does begin to create tiny moments of increased connection and empathy, and I believe it can be a tool to help rebuild connection in difficult relationships.

Give it a try, and let me know how it goes.