The #1 Question That Brings People to Therapy

Posted on Apr 5, 2016

Three months ago, Suzanne asked the question that brings most people to counseling: “Is there hope?” She wanted to know if there was hope for her marriage. She and her husband, Jake, just couldn’t see eye to eye anymore. There was a growing sense of disconnection and they didn’t know how to bridge the gap.

With disconnected couples, one of the first interventions I suggest is contacting each other during the day so that when they reunite at the end of the day, they are somewhat connected.

Suzanne asked that Jake check in with her on his commute because she got home first. That seems easy enough. And yet, it resulted in conflict.

Here is their text conversation:

  • Suzanne: What time will you be home?
  • Jake: I am on the turnpike.
  • Suzanne: I didn’t ask where you were. I need to know what time you’ll be home.
  • Jake: No matter what I say it is the wrong thing.

Though this fight may sound stupid (stupid fights are the best to work with in couples counseling), Suzanne and Jake are actually really smart. They are high-achieving, successful people with PhD’s from the Ivy League school where they met.

However, strong relationships are not built on academic intelligence.

They are built on empathy.

There are 3 kinds of empathy that are essential to successful relationships:

  1. Cognitive empathy: understanding how others see things and knowing what language to use so you will be understood.
  2. Social empathy:

    sensing in yourself what the other person is feeling.

  3. Empathic concern: this is the empathy that moves one to action. It’s not just feeling the pain of others but being moved to do something about it.

In this small example, we see that there were failures on all three types of empathy.

First, there was a breakdown in cognitive empathy. They did not understand what the other meant.

What Suzanne really wanted to know is whether or not Jake would be home in time to eat with the family. Dinnertime is important to her because feeding the family at the end of the day was part of how she expressed herself as a wife and mother.

Jake couldn’t say a specific time he would be home because the traffic is unpredictable. He thought that if he arrived later than expected, Suzanne would be angry with him for this lateness.

Suzanne didn’t understand that Jake was actually trying to be supportive of her desire to eat as a family. Because neither communicated what they really meant, the conversation seemed like conflict when in reality both parties were working toward the same goal.

Then, there was a breakdown of social empathy. Neither could sense what the other was feeling.

Suzanne missed that Jake wanted to feel appreciated and welcomed home–especially since he was trying to please her by leaving work early.

Jake didn’t understand that not giving Suzanne an answer made her feel frustrated and resentful because she thought he was withholding.

Finally there was a lack of empathic concern. Neither Suzanne nor Jake showed concern for what the other was experiencing in the moment.

Saying something as simple as “I hope you have an easy commute.” or “I am looking forward to being home with you and the kids.” could have set them up for feeling connected instead of conflicted.

I am happy to say that in 3 short months, Suzanne and Jake have improved their relationship greatly.

They communicate more effectively by starting from a place of cognitive empathy first. When there is tension, they ask for more information to find the meaning behind the words rather than shutting down.

They have a greater sense of social empathy for each other, which has lead to more compassion and forgiveness between them.

They have learned that empathic concern for each other is the elixir that can smooth out the rough spots as they go about their days separately, and lead to happier, more loving reunions at night.

I encourage you to look at all your relationships through a lens of empathy.  It will undoubtedly lead to a greater sense of connection and truly bring quality to your time together