Empathic accuracy skill can reverse intense negative reactions that can kill a relationship

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Jane’s having trouble maintaining a loving relationship with a man. She has a strong desire to love someone, but she says the guy always does something to ruin their relationship. For years she’s assumed that she’s just not found the right person.

What’s curious is that the men she dates are generally regarded as good guys by most people. However, when a man makes a mistake, Jane’s powerful reactions push him away. She fears that she’s uncovered a fatal flaw and her scanning for imperfections intensifies.

Initially men express adoration for Jane, but her tendency to focus on finding flaws causes her to keep her protective shield up. Positive comments bounce off her armor. A downward spiral develops in her relationships as the negative encounters overwhelm the positive exchanges.

The problem is that Jane’s “dead right” about problems. She’s right about the guy having made a mistake, but her intense negative reactions ultimately kill the relationship. She’s left feeling isolated, lonely, and unloved – just the outcome she feared.

Jane’s convinced that the problem lies primarily with the men. She has an image of what she thinks the perfect relationship with a man should be like. She believes that her tendency to bristle with hostility when a guy doesn’t live up to her expectations is only natural. It feels natural to Jane, however, because of her upbringing. Her mother was extremely critical and had difficulty sustaining close connections with Jane’s father as well as Jane.

Having grown up with an insecure attachment to her mother, Jane didn’t learn how to maintain a loving connection while struggling to find a win-win solution to a problem. She never developed a deep conviction that another person would continue to provide love and support during distressing times. Instead, she became conditioned to having fearful feelings arise when a person got close to her. As an adult, she remains overly independent in an attempt to protect herself.

Jane craves connections and wants a mutually supportive relationship. But her intimate relationships are volatile because she is extremely sensitive to any actions that she interprets as rejection or abandonment. The sensors created in childhood for detecting negativity in relationships have left her mind programmed to be hyper-vigilant and highly defensive.

Studies have shown that both cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy can be very effective in retraining people to respond more positively in their relationships. Jane can learn to recognize that she easily lapses into black or white thinking. For example, she can reprogram her brain to challenge her thought that problems mean there’s little hope of ever restoring the loving feelings.

Jane can learn to calm her anxious mind by discovering how to resolve problems and re-establish supportive connections. Interpersonal therapy would help her to see that most people are not like her mother – they have a great deal of positive to provide even with their shortcomings.

In order to learn how to sustain a secure attachment to someone, psychologist Daniel Goleman says that people need to develop their “empathic accuracy.” In Social Intelligence he reveals research showing that couples who learn to read each other in the early years of a relationship go on to having long and satisfying marriages.

Empathic accuracy is the skill involved in understanding other people’s thoughts, feelings and intentions. Our brains can instinctively sense when someone is unhappy with us, but we don’t know why or how to respond without understanding exactly what’s causing their heartache.

When Jane reads distress on another person’s face, she automatically – and prematurely – pushes them away in order to protect herself from their negative emotions. She needs to learn how to slow the conversation down and focus on empathizing with her partner rather than allowing fear to instantly incite fight or flight reactions. With a few inquiries partners can develop an understanding of each other’s negative emotions and how to transform them.

Cultivating insight into what her partner needs to feel good will work to calm Jane’s fearful feelings because she’ll know what it will take to improve the situation. This is how to maintain love: accept that we can’t always do things right, but that we can always make things right.

As couples learn to read each other and resolve their troubling issues, they build trust in their ability to stay emotionally open and communicative. Over time their attachment becomes secure as they develop faith that painful moments will pass because they’ll stay connected in order to understand how to meet each other’s needs.