I’ve worked with hundreds of couples in my 25 years as a licensed marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. Much of guiding couples to get their relationships back on track is helping them learn to share and listen to and “get” the feelings causing their conflicts.
For example, when I notice John freely sharing his confusion and upset over being fired from his job, and his partner Laura truly getting the felt sense of John’s experience in that moment, I realize that John “feels felt”—and Laura knows her empathy and understanding are accurate.
Will John continue to be so honest with his feelings outside the safety of the therapy session? Will Laura’s empathy continue to be spot-on? A recent study provides us with a resounding and reassuring YES.
Researchers recruited 155 mixed-sex couples and asked them to identify a continuing disagreement in their relationship. Independent observers analyzed their recorded 11-minute conflict resolution sessions, with the aid of the participants themselves. Their goal was to investigate whether greater expressions of feelings on the part of the sharer correlated with greater empathic accuracy on the part of the perceiver.
According to the study’s results, any clear expression of one partner’s emotional experience of the moment does greatly increase the accuracy of the perception of the other partner in that moment. In other words, it really doesn’t pay to hide your feelings in couples therapy—but it does pay to give expression of emotions the attention they deserve.
Not just in the moment in a therapist’s office. This study shows that the capacity to be empathically accurate, truly “getting” the other person’s experience, carries over to other moments or other situations, as well. (Good news for John and Laura!)
According to this study, it makes no difference whether you’re expressing a well-worked-out thought or a spontaneous emotion; if the feeling is clear and the partner is paying attention and really tuning in, then the accuracy of the empathy seems to hold steady for both thoughts and feelings.
These results might make intuitive sense to you. Clear expressions result in clear understandings. So, what gets in the way of accurate gauging of your partner’s thoughts and feelings?
It’s common for one partner to react with a startle response if they detect a veiled criticism from the other partner. The attentive recognition of that startle response and continued attention to any feelings and thoughts being expressed keep the communication open and the empathy accurate.
Unexpectedly, the researchers consistently observed that empathic accuracy was not significantly moderated by perceptions of criticism in those thoughts and feelings. (With the caveat that, in truth, the conflict context was not highly distressing for the couples in the study, and that participants may have been reluctant to report feeling threatened.)
What’s more likely to inhibit feelings from being expressed is that many adults have simply not learned how to feel their own feelings, let alone trust that another person will be interested in hearing them and caring about them. Nor have many people received enough skill-building in listening to the people closest to them without devaluing, defensiveness, or debate.
I’m encouraged by the study’s conclusion that confirms a fundamental assumption of couples therapy: When one partner expresses their thoughts and feelings more, the other partner can more accurately infer their thoughts and feelings in that moment, and in other moments in the relationship, as well.
So how do therapists help clients learn these skills now? To clearly, openly express what’s true for them in the moment, and to process those communications with open-mindedness, accurate empathy, and curiosity?
In my 25 years of teaching clients these skills, I have found these three steps to be essential.
1. Chunk it down
Therapists guide clients in s-l-o-w-i-n-g d-o-w-n. One-bite-sized piece of information, one thought or feeling at a time.
John can say, “I feel so disoriented, not sure of what to do next.” And give Laura space to hear and reflect that back. “I do sense the disorientation, feeling a bit at sea. Can you say more?” The openness to hearing more encourages further sharing.
And, of course, there may be many feelings and thoughts swirling around each other that need to be unpacked, named, honored. When John continues, “I’m feeling angry, too,” Laura can ask to explore the nuances of that anger. “Of course you would be angry. That makes sense. I’d like to hear more about that to make sure I’m getting it right.”
When John feels felt in his experience, he can explore his feelings at a deeper level: “I feel singled out.” And Laura can stay with him as his feelings and thoughts shift and evolve. “That sounds really important. Tell me more about feeling singled out. I want to make sure I understand that.”
Chunking it down encourages more feelings and thoughts to be shared and makes sure the communication remains open and the empathy remains accurate.
Couples can also learn to pause and check the accuracy of the empathy as they go along.
John says to Laura, “This is what I said. What did you hear me say?” Or Laura can say to John, “This is what I heard you say. Is that right? Did I get that right?”
In this way, there is time for John to express his experience exactly as it is in the moment, and for Laura to accurately empathize with the real meaning of it.
The therapist can slow down the process and ask these questions, too: “John, this is what I heard you say. Am I getting that right?”
When couples are in high conflict, this pausing is essential for the conversation to stay on the rails. Sometimes, therapists need to co-regulate the reactivity of the client’s nervous system that may have gone into fight-flight-freeze-collapse survival mode, which can override the higher brain’s knowing what our feelings in the moment are and what to do with them. Therapists can suggest gently touching hand on heart, feeling feet on the ground, slow breathing, or eye contact with each other or with the therapist. After a moment of being more grounded in the present moment, the clients can return to checking in with each other: “This is what I said”; “This is what I heard.”
But most important is for the partners to practice these skills again and again when they are home in the routine of their lives.
The practices of chunking it down and pausing give both partners more time to consciously process feelings and thoughts, and to reflect rather than react. The speaker becomes more aware of the evolution of their own feelings and thoughts: “I hadn’t quite thought of it this way before.” And the listener can become more aware of their own responses to what they are learning about their partner: “Yes, when you talk about missing the camaraderie with your colleagues at work, I notice I feel sad, too.”
When John hears that Laura accurately hears him (no editorializing, no commentary), John is validated. His experience is real and it matters. It matters specifically because his mate makes it matter, which reinforces their bond. When Laura is reassured that she is understanding John accurately, “getting it,” she can remain open to the next communication from John, and the next, and the next. She can remain accurate in her empathy, even many days later.
These three steps—chunk it down, pause, and reflect—create the felt sense of safety within the couple that encourages honest, open communication, and gives them time to regulate their emotions, all of which creates more safety.
Different theoretical orientations claim that our feelings trigger our thoughts (narratives) or that thoughts drive our feelings. There’s merit in both views, and it’s reassuring that the findings of this study hold whether the sharing partner is sharing thoughts or feelings.
Making experience explicit is the foundation of any therapeutic process. This can entail bringing a client’s experience in any moment into explicit awareness so that they and their partner can be aware and accepting of themselves and each other. If they can just be with that experience, be curious about it, and even befriend it, that will open the door to empathy and compassion for the experience—and for each other. Helping clients practice that on their own strengthens the safety, trust, and healing in their connection. This new study gives us a robust green light to do precisely that.