Empathy – A Key to Brain and Relationship Health

Empathy – A Key to Brain and Relationship Health

Empathy is having the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings.  Sometimes there is nothing more meaningful than when you get the sense that your partner ‘gets it’ – not just understands the facts of your situation with their head, but really attunes to your feelings with their heart (geez, what a therapist thing to say!).

But it’s true – research has for decades told us that having high levels of empathy is one of the main keys to forming, and maintaining, a satisfying intimate relationship1-2.  Also, neuroscience has started to show us that learning and practicing empathy can lead to more neural plasticity3-4 (the ability for your brain to be flexible, important for successfully adapting to new changes and experiences) and has links with improved perspective-taking and emotional regulation5-7, crucial skills for psychological health.

But empathising is easier said than done.  In practice, here’s what empathy is not:






Fixing It



Shutting Down



On the other hand, here are some basic empathy tools to help you on your way to improving your relationship and brain health:

Acknowledge the other person’s words and feelings – this doesn’t mean you have to agree with how they got to be feeling the way they are, but acknowledging that they feel the way they do is a vital empathy tool.

Ask for clarification when needed – say things like “help me understand…”

Be open to correction or additions by the other person, allowing them to clarify your understanding of their experience.

Be present with the other person when they’re communicating – putting your phone/laptop/tablet etc. down and looking each other in the eye when speaking can make all the difference.

Listen with your head and your heart (and your ears, of course), instead of talk.

Stay patient with their experience – try to fight the desire to help or interrupt, and try not to cut in or interpret what they’re saying, but instead encourage the other to continue so that they can express how they feel


Learning to empathise and flexing those empathy muscles when you’re interacting with your partner can truly lead to more closeness, connection, and relationship satisfaction.  If you feel your relationship and your brain could benefit from some empathy and compassion training, contact us at 1300 784 184 or info@couplesmelbourne.com to book an appointment.




1 Davis, M. H., & Oathout, H. A. (1987). Maintenance of satisfaction in romantic relationships: Empathy and relational competence. Journal of personality and social psychology53(2), 397.

2 Busby, D. M., & Gardner, B. C. (2008). How do I analyze thee? Let me count the ways: Considering empathy in couple relationships using self and partner ratings. Family Process47(2), 229-242.

3 Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Ricard, M., & Singer, T. (2013). Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience9(6), 873-879.

4 Klimecki, O. M. (2015). The plasticity of social emotions. Social Neuroscience10(5), 466-473.

5 Decety, J., & Lamm, C. (2006). Human empathy through the lens of social neuroscience. The Scientific World Journal6, 1146-1163.

6 Zaki, J., & Ochsner, K. N. (2012). The neuroscience of empathy: progress, pitfalls and promise. Nature Neuroscience15(5), 675.

7 Coutinho, J. F., Silva, P. O., & Decety, J. (2014). Neurosciences, empathy, and healthy interpersonal relationships: Recent findings and implications for counseling psychology. Journal of Counseling Psychology61(4), 541.