Relationship Guide: What makes relationships stronger: Sympathy or Empathy? | – Times of India

Many things go into the making of a successful relationship. But there are some basics of a strong relationship like love, trust and mutual respect. It is also interesting to look at the significance of sympathy and empathy in creating strong relationships.
Sympathy, at its core, involves feeling bad for someone’s hardships or misfortunes. It is an emotional response to someone else’s condition, often accompanied by expressions of support or consolation.But the thing with sympathy is that it is rather short-lived. That is, after some time you stop feeling bad about what has happened to the other person, even your partner. Additionally, sympathy has an element of pity and no partner ever wants to be pitied by the person they love. What they want is love and understanding. And that is where empathy comes into play.
Empathy is more than sympathy or pity. It is a deep understanding and sharing of another’s feelings, experiences, and perspectives. When you empathise with someone you feel how you would have felt if you had to go through their life-experiences. Empathy requires active listening, openness, and vulnerability, core-aspects of a strong relationship. Thus, an empathetic partner not only acknowledges the other’s pain but also validates their emotions and offers support without judgment or condescension.
Research in psychology and neuroscience corroborates the importance of empathy in nurturing healthy relationships. Studies have shown that couples who demonstrate high levels of empathy exhibit greater relationship satisfaction, communication, and overall well-being. A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that partners who were empathetic towards each other reported higher levels of relationship quality and lower levels of conflict.
A real-life case study on a married couple provides further insights. S and D, a married couple, were facing significant challenges in their relationship. S, grappling with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, often withdrew emotionally, leaving D feeling frustrated. But instead of only feeling sorry for S or simply disconnecting from his partner, D imagined the situation from S’s shoes. He thought of how emotionally difficult the insecurities might feel. D then helped his partner work through her insecurities. He was with her during the entire process and that’s how they strengthened their relationship.

The difference between empathy and sympathy responses towards your partner:
1. Empathy: Expressing vulnerability by sharing your own struggles or insecurities, to show them that they are not alone in this and that you know what it feels like.
Sympathy: Offering only words of consolation such as saying, “That is so sad” or “I feel bad for you”.
2. Empathy: Checking in with your partner to see how they’re feeling and what they need rather than what you feel.
Sympathy: Gestures like sending cards, flowers or chocolates without understanding or helping them.
3. Empathy: Telling them that you both can figure it out together and that you will be with them every step of the way.
Sympathy: Using phrases like, “Life is hard.” “You can do it” “You can figure it out”
How to develop empathy for your partner:
1. Be mindful of their needs and feelings.
2. Show appreciation for their efforts.
3. Communicate openly and honestly.
4. Take their feelings into account when making decisions.
5. Share your own vulnerability.
6. Prioritise quality time together.
7. Offer genuine apologies when needed.
8. Be kind during a disagreement.
Thus, while sympathy has a place in understanding a partner’s suffering, it is empathy that is key to deepening and strengthening your relationship. Sympathy may evoke feelings of pity or detachment but empathy bridges emotional divides and is a sign of understanding, validation and support. Recognise the profound capacity of empathy to heal, unify and enrich your closest relationships and use it to reset your relationship.
Authored by: Dr. Hansaji Yogendera, Director of The Yoga Institute.

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