A Valentine Cocktail: Imagination With A Splash Of Empathy

Photo of couple toasting each other on Valentine's Day, for a post on The Couples Tool Kit.
Credit: EronZeni/iStock.

The romantic season starts now. It’s pretty short – twenty-four little hours. Well not really – there’s the build up and the aftermath to factor in. It is also an opportunity rich with the possibility of long lasting gain for your Coupledom.

I will not challenge the merits of our culture’s classic symbols of romantic devotion – they are fun. Chocolates and lingerie, jewelry and candlelight dining; a weekend in the Poconos or Provence. Even the big teddy bear from New England can spell LUV to any one of us.

But I would add one more item to the Valentine’s Day shopping list: imagination – not necessarily the kinky kind, but the kind that is enriched by empathy: empathic imagination.

Let me tell you why. A good percentage of couples who enter couples therapy are in a very high state of distress – not all, though: some are wisely seeking assistance early in their difficulties to prevent a descent into relational crisis. And not all couples in crisis are alike. But to put a visual to what I often see, hear and feel in the room, it’s that both seem to wear a blindfold over their eyes and earplugs in their ears when speaking of the other. And that other, seated by their side, is rolling their eyes or letting tears slide down their cheeks, emitting deep sighs or lifting their hands in the air in the universal gesture of helplessness, hopelessness and bewilderment – imploring eyes directed at me – “This person doesn’t know me at all!”

What’s at play here? Its really quite simple. The empathic imagination link is down – usually for some time. When I do a history of a relationship, couples tend to describe an earlier period of mutual understanding and caring – feeling seen, known and loved. Is that just lust? Is the knowing just projection, identifying with the other: “We had so much in common?”

Whatever greases those wheels that drive people together, at some point for some couples, the grease dries up and the wheels definitely do not glide. The empathic imagination – which means being able to draw a picture in your mind of how the other person experiences their world, walking in their shoes, pondering what must it be like to do what they do all day, what it must be like for them to live here or work there or have a mind so different from your own that it sees blue where you see green – is in short, wondering what’s it like to be them?

Empathic imagination is what we draw upon when we feel concern for strangers in crisis, ripped out of their homes by a natural disaster, war ravaged and starving, attacked for the color of their skin. We can picture them and in fact we see pictures of them and we want to help. But the person across the dinner table – not so easy – that person, well, we assume either they are an extension of us – think like us and want what we want; or that they can be a threat – they won’t cooperate with our agenda; they seem unwilling to meet our needs. How is that possible? Aren’t they suppose to love us?

The deaf and blind quality that I witness so often between partners in my office is especially intense around feelings. People joined together in an intimate relationship assume they know how their partner feels about them and almost everything else. Assumptions are at the heart of the Coupledom disabilities. Asking your spouse what they really feel or think on any subject is the first step to empathic imagination – it is crucial to inquire with sincere interest and just as crucial to listen – allowing the answer to float in the air before you shoot it down. Reflect on the answer and draw a picture of the person next to you who answered that way – imagine why they gave that answer – this allows that empathic link to charge back up again.

That is the first step. If that doesn’t go well, don’t be discouraged. Go to the second step: Watch them in their world. Really look at them and listen. You will be amazed how much information you will receive. Typically we don’t even remember what our partners are wearing when they leave the house or how they are planning to spend their day. Step three: with this new data, expand the picture in your mind of your partner – it should be richer, more dimensional – imagine with empathy – who this person is that you live with and love.

As you approach this Valentine’s Day celebration set aside all the typical notions that you associate with your mate – the good and the bad – the residue of your daily interactions. And try to imagine who they are – independent of you. A figure standing on its own. What streets do they walk down and what beliefs do they cherish? What fears pile up for them in the middle of the night and what joys excite them during the day? What pressures are on them and what ancestors left their tracks across their hearts. And see if your imagining of them allows for a richer more expansive picture – a more empathic picture – and then your Valentine’s Day gift might actually be more meaningful in the long run.

Now that’s a Valentine Cocktail worth sharing.

©2016 Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 





9 Responses to “A Valentine Cocktail: Imagination With A Splash Of Empathy”

  1. kim

    I concur with everything you have written. And as you do so well it is beautifully written and so spot on with how you teach your patients.

  2. Fred Wolinsky

    Common sense doesn’t always apply when feelings, expectations and judgements already embedded in our relationships get in the way of really seeing each other. You have described this distortion brilliantly against a classic backdrop of Valentines Day, which carries its own bag of distorted expectations. One suggested solution: celebrate “the day/night after” with that cocktail.

    • Jill Edelman M.S.W., L.C.S.W

      Great observation – distortions and distorted expectations abound in all Coupledoms and of course in the iconic “romantic” ritual of our culture, Valentine’s Day – yes maybe that cocktail is best served cold and shaken the day after. Thank you so much Freddie for reading my post and for commenting.

  3. Darcey O'Donoghue

    Thanks for an insightful article! I think what you describes can be applied not only to romantic relationships, but every sort of interpersonal interaction–social, business, even–and maybe especially–political. What would our world be like if, instead of rushing to justify their own viewpoint, folks asked themselves, “What is this other person looking for? What are his/her goals, hopes, dreams, fears? What thoughts and feelings motivated their behavior?” I think we might see a lot more meaningful dialog and a lot fewer “You’re a moron!” comments on the international! Sadly, though, while couples who come in for counseling usually are at least aware of a problem and are seeking to address it, lack of empathy in other spheres is mostly taken for granted….

    • Jill Edelman M.S.W., L.C.S.W

      Dear Darcey,

      Thank you so much for reading my post and commenting on it. I agree – 100%. I do stay within the confines of my “expertise” but clearly if we were able to “imagine with empathy” the lives of others, we would be a truly kind and inclusive culture. If only….


  4. Darcey O'Donoghue

    Thanks for an insightful article. I think what you described can be useful not only in romantic relationships, but in all kinds of interpersonal interactions: social, business, even–maybe even especially–political. What would our world be like if instead of rushing to justify their own viewtpoints, folks asked themselves, “What is this other person looking for in this situation? What are his/her hopes, dreams, and fears? What motivated this particular behavior?” I think we might have more meaningful dialog–and fewer “You’re a moron!” comments on the internet! Alas, though, while couples who seek counseling usually at least acknowledge there is a problem and are seeking to find a solution, lack of empathy in other areas of life is all too often accepted as the norm.

  5. sharan

    Thanks for your very insightful focus on empathy. You hit the nail
    on the head!! Empathy is the key- and our most human attribute- to
    walk in another’s shoes- is our gift- to respond and behave more empathically – as
    you suggest in all relationships-will create a better world!!


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