Why Curiosity Is Better Than Empathy

How do you know when your partner or spouse is mad at you? What if she or he isn't mad, but is just having a bad day? How do you know the difference? 

More arguments than I can count start because highly empathetic partners mistake themselves for mind readers. How many times have you heard yourself say something like this:

I just knew you were angry by looking at you, so I didn't say anything.

I didn't need to ask you! It was written all over your face.

I wasn't going to ask you for sex. It was obvious you weren't interested.

Couple Holding Hands

Couple Holding Hands

Let's assume for a moment that you are right. Let's assume that your educated and well-informed guess was correct and that she was bored. Let's assume that the reality might have been that had you said what was on your mind, he would have rolled his eyes at you as usual.

There's still a problem.

Just because you are correct, doesn't mean that you are right. The more you rely on your own insight into your spouse's boredom or your partner's frustration, the less of a voice she or he has in her or his own experience.

Depending on how your spouse reacts to feeling powerless or frustrated, this probably means that she or he will either argue with you, leaving you feeling unheard and dejected, or worse, she or he will just leave the conversation, leaving you feeling panicked and abandoned. 

Try something different. 

Even if you know without any shadow of doubt that you are correct, that he really did say he didn't care about you. Even if you are certain that she really didn't want to have sex with you, and that her reason for not wanting sex with you is because she doesn't doesn't like sex, or doesn't like you, or both, try to exchange your empathy for curiosity. 

How do you do it?

Step One

Start by cultivating an assumption that there may be a side to her experience you don't understand. I know this will be difficult, but do it anyway. If you don't really feel it, fake it. Pretend like you are curious and throw everything you learned in 8th grade theater into it. Over time, your pretending will turn into something genuinely resembling honest curiosity. 

Step Two

Take all the effort you've previously enlisted to convince him that he is wrong and redirect it toward your new obsession with convincing him that you understand. Usually people are scared at this point of "giving in." This is an unnecessary fear. You can validate him and still be authentic. 

Step Three

Finally, clarify your intention. If she accuses you of being rude, there's probably little effectiveness in responding to her accusation rudely. Rather, follow the first two steps and then say something like, "that wasn't my intention." Don't say "I'm sorry," unless you really mean it. Otherwise, you're just patronizing yourself and your spouse. 

Let your empathy go for a brief time and discover whether your genuine curiosity about your spouse or partner might not make the difference between an argument or a conversation.

Dr. Mathis Kennington