Verbalize your empathy*. Respond to your spouse’s feelings.
*Empathy: the ability to understand the emotions of others.
To respond with empathy,
Be watchful not to …
Understand your spouse’s perspective AND express that understanding in a way that they can appreciate. You must express it to really show your empathy. You don’t have to agree with it, just understand why they feel that way. “I can see why you see it that way.” Don’t try to fix the problem until after you provide some empathy.
This is a possible flow for such a conversation:
↓ Your spouse expresses a discontent.
↓ You reply ”What I heard you say is … [summarize/ paraphrase]”.
↓ Your spouse can then add or clarify.
↓ Continue until your spouse has finished sharing all.
↓ Summarize. “What I got from your sharing is [summarize]”.
↓ And then don’t talk about it for some time (an hour at least) so that you can really think about it.
Why this works: When your spouse feels that you understand their perspective, it encourages them to relax and let go of the stress they’ve been holding onto.
Some people are apprehensive about asking their spouse about their feelings. Below are some of those apprehensions:
Asking about feelings is unlikely to make the feelings worse. And most likely, your empathetic ear will help lift their negative feelings and they can come up with solutions.
Listening is always helpful. And that’s what spouses do for each other.
The person with the problem holds the responsibility for fixing the situation. If you try to fix it, you may be cutting off their autonomy and might impede their ability to find solutions.
Many times, we take too much responsibility for the other’s feelings. But, if you are responsible for what happened, you are better off knowing about it and dealing with it.
[If you fear criticism because your spouse criticizes very often, that is another problem altogether.]
To know if a particular instance is one in which your spouse wants privacy or support, just ask.
[To overly generalize, men tend to want to figure it out themselves when they feel emotional; women want to feel connected and supported. But it could be otherwise.]
Knowing is almost always easier and more empowering than not knowing at all. When you know it, you can begin to address it.