How to be more empathetic in relationships (& have better sex)

Molly Frances|2021.09.16

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Empathy is easier to feel than define. When someone demonstrates empathy toward you, it helps you feel seen, heard, and valued rather than judged or belittled. Empathy is one component of emotional intelligence. It comes naturally to some, and others have to work at it. The good news is that empathy is a skill that can be learned and refined. Learning how to be more empathetic will improve all of your relationships.

Empathizing with your sexual partner(s) will help you better tune into their needs and desires. Whether you're enjoying a casual sexual relationship or a more committed one, being able to read your partner's emotional and sexual responses and respond in kind will make the relationship more fulfilling.

Whether you don’t consider yourself to be particularly empathetic or already practice it but want to improve your ability to tune into your romantic partner specifically, read on to discover how empathy can improve your relationships, as well as some practical steps to make you a more empathetic person.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to tune into and understand another person's emotional state. It improves communication because it makes you more likely to adjust your responses to other people’s feelings.

Empathy is easily confused with sympathy. An easy way to tell the difference is to think of sympathy as feeling for someone and empathy as feeling with someone. When you sympathize with someone, you may say things like, "I can't imagine how hard that must be," while an empathetic response might be something like, "Wow, that sounds difficult. Tell me more about how that feels."

Empathy recognizes the other person's perspective. It involves sitting in the person’s pain, grief, or anger (or elation and joy) and listening more than you talk. People with high levels of empathy don't interrupt to give experiences from their personal life. They have the self-awareness to hold back their own emotions and biases and place themselves in the other person's shoes.

The relational value of learning how to be more empathetic

Humans crave understanding and connection. When someone is having a hard time, an empath works to see the situation from that person’s point of view rather than sharing their own experiences. On a large scale, empathy can help you understand people from different backgrounds and prevent conflict. In your daily life, empathizing with others improves interpersonal relationships.

Empathetic responses are the most direct path to intimacy and vulnerability—two essential components of a satisfying relationship. You’ll improve your relationships with loved ones, co-workers, and family members when you practice empathy. They’ll trust that your reaction to the problems they share will be appropriate and kind.

When you empathize with a sexual partner, it encourages them to open up to you because they trust that your response will be free of judgment. When your partner knows you won't judge them, they will feel safe sharing fantasies that can enrich your experience in the bedroom and beyond.

7 ways to be more empathetic in your relationships

Empathy deepens connection and intimacy, which can improve your sex life. Empathy is a skill, and practicing it allows you to tune into your partner and read their facial expressions and body language during sex so you can do more of what they enjoy. Here are some strategies for increasing empathy so you can develop a closer emotional relationship and a more satisfying sex life with your partner(s).

1. Pay attention to body language

People often hold back their true feelings during conversations with loved ones due to fear of judgment or reprisal. If your partner isn’t comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings, body language can provide a window into their authentic emotional state. But you have to be able to tune into what their body is saying. Learning to read body language and control your own can help you become more empathetic.

When your partner crosses their arms and refuses to make eye contact, it indicates that they are distressed. The actual emotion could be anxiety, worry, fear, or insecurity. You may not be able to ascertain the exact feeling, but you can use body language as a sign that you need to dig deeper.

When you're pleasuring your partner, paying attention to how their body moves can help you discover how to please them, even if they aren’t ready to give you explicit direction. If they lean into your hand, let their eyes flutter closed, or grip the sheets, chances are you've found the right spot and touched it perfectly. Then, you can just keep doing more of what you’re doing.

2. Be curious

Another way to practice empathy is to demonstrate curiosity in what your partner shares with you. Asking open-ended follow-up questions can help avoid misunderstandings that derail communication. They also demonstrate a willingness to invest in another person's life.

They don't have to be complex: "Tell me more," "How did that make you feel?" and "Is there anything else you want to share with me?" often work wonders for drawing someone out.

To deepen the emotional connection between you and your partner through empathetic responses, look for opportunities in everyday life to be curious. If your partner shares frustration about their workday, ask how they felt about it rather than stating how you feel about it. This demonstrates that you are listening, interested, and supportive.

3. Examine your biases

If being empathetic is the basis of effective communication, then biases are the kryptonite. We walk around with a suitcase full of experiences that can manifest as unconscious biases that may impact relationships with our partner(s). The two types of biases that can derail relationships are confirmation bias and negativity bias.

A confirmation bias is the tendency to pay attention to information that affirms what we already believe and filter out the rest.

Suppose you think that your partner is satisfied with your sexual relationship. When your partner then initiates sex and gives you a few moans, you pay attention to that alone. However, the reality is that your partner is yearning to be more adventurous and is giving you signals in conversation. Still, you’re missing them because you're only listening to the things that confirm your belief that they're happy.

Being empathetic requires us to remain open to information our partner presents us and checking in with one another, even if their answers alter our perceived reality.

Negativity bias explains why your partner remembers your negative comments and forgets the compliments and praise you shower on them. If you are critical of your partner somehow, it may take several positive interactions before they feel safe being vulnerable with you again.

4. Keep an open mind

Being empathetic requires you to sit with someone in their reality rather than impose your reality on what they're saying or feeling. Keeping an open mind means that you are willing to admit that you might be mistaken regardless of how certain you thought you were.

When your partner is willing to share their emotions with you, receiving those statements without judgment is essential. While they share, remain open-minded and look for opportunities to ask follow-up questions.

Let's say your partner wants to talk about that thing you do with your tongue. You know the one. You think your partner enjoys the thing, that's why you do it every time. But, your partner opens up and lets you know that they don't want the tongue thing at all and would prefer that you stop doing it.

An open-minded, empathetic person will accept that feedback rather than get defensive. They’ll also believe their partner’s words and see their partner’s vulnerability as bravery.

So, instead of saying, “But you said you had no issues with our sex life!” you’d say, “Thanks for your courage in sharing this with me. I didn’t realize it didn’t work for you, and now that I know, I’ll stop.” And to put the cherry on top, ask: “What’s something you'd like me to try instead?”

Keeping an open mind will show your partner that you’re willing to hear what they say, adapt to their evolving needs, and learn from them. You'll deepen your emotional connection and start to understand what sorts of touch they enjoy and where (hint: try exploring these erogenous zones together). Better connection and more pleasure mean you're all winning.

5. Practice listening skills

Listening and empathy have a lot in common, and it's nearly impossible to be empathetic without good listening skills. The goal of listening is to understand the message your partner is trying to communicate. Listening requires you to focus and eliminate preconceptions, think about what is said and put the speaker’s needs first.

Try focusing on what your partner is saying and not thinking about your reply to practice listening well. If you're planning your reply, you aren't listening. Before you respond, spend a moment repeating back what you heard your partner say and ask any questions that come up.

Try something like this: "I'm hearing you say you want to have sex a few more times a week. You feel upset that I've turned you down this week because you were feeling disconnected and wanted to fix that. Is that right?" If they confirm, you could say, "I'm really sorry for making you feel like I didn't want to connect with you. I imagine that stung a lot. How did that make you feel in the moment?"

It's easier said than done, but to practice this intentionally, avoid making it about you ("I only said no because I'm stressed!") or telling them they're wrong ("How can you feel disconnected? We ate dinner together every night this week!").

This will push your partner away because they feel misunderstood. The point of empathy is to validate another person's experience, and that often means letting go of the need to be right.

6. Learn to identify emotions

Allowing emotions to control your reactions can lead you astray during a conversation or an interaction with your partner(s). Emotions signal that we need to think about the situation, not that we need to react a certain way. Learning to identify your feelings can help you keep them in check to keep listening with an open mind.

To work on identifying emotions, ask yourself what feelings you're having and write down any that come to mind. You might have a long list of emotions, and they may even contradict each other. Then, try to determine which feeling is the most powerful.

If you aren’t able to identify how you’re feeling, start by writing down how your body feels. Are your shoulders tense? Is your jaw clenched? Is your breathing shallow? Is your heart racing? The answers to these questions can give you clues to your emotional state.

Being able to identify your emotions will help you identify what your partner is feeling. When you understand the feelings of others, it's easier to see things from their perspective, which is the whole point of empathy.

7. Consume media that improves your emotional intelligence

The type of media we consume can influence how we see the world. If you're constantly on your phone scrolling through your social media feed, you might miss signals from those around you. You can't tune into what people are saying or feeling if you aren't watching them. The more time you spend on your screen, the less time you might spend practicing empathy.

In our media-centered society, staying off your phone and computer isn’t realistic, nor is it necessary! You can use your devices to practice empathy. If you use social media to foster connections or keep in touch with distant friends and family members, you can practice your empathy skills by reading their stories and engaging with them. You can also choose to interact with people on social media from different backgrounds and perspectives than your own. Broadening your interactions can help you recognize your biases and become more open-minded and inclusive.

Even if your media of choice is television, choosing the right media type can help you practice reading emotions and body language—two critical components of becoming more empathetic. Research indicates that watching fictional shows like dramas requires you to determine characters’ feelings to follow the plot, increasing your emotional intelligence.

How to be more empathetic? Take care of your needs first

Empathy requires you to put effort into understanding someone else's perspective and feelings. You can't possibly do that if you haven't taken care of your well-being first. Taking care of yourself may mean confronting issues in your own life, examining your emotions, triggers, and biases, and working to overcome them so you can show empathy when needed.

Sometimes when we try to listen to others, the conversation can inadvertently trigger negative feelings for us. When we’re triggered, we stop listening, and our ability to empathize shuts down. This may cause us to judge others instead of holding a safe space for them to share and feel understood. If being empathetic is a struggle for you, or you just want to ensure that your self-care is on point so you can be the best friend, family member, and partner possible, Dipsea can help.

In our Tough Love series, Freddie walks you through a series of guided meditations designed to help you with everything from living without regret to eliminating the habit of comparing yourself to others. When you focus on self-awareness and improving your emotional state, you are better able to show empathy to others.

Listen, light yourself up.

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