“I know it is,” Les said in a comforting voice.  “Not to mention the fact that it’s a week before Christmas and we don’t have a tree, let alone groceries, and my parents are flying in tomorrow.”

“Exactly,” I said with relief (he understands).  “This is the craziest timing ever.” 

“It’s not a Norman Rockwell Christmas, that’s for sure,” Les quipped as he gently put his hands on my shoulders.  

“Nope,” I replied with a smile, “but if we’re lucky it might snow in our boy’s rooms tonight.”

“We can only hope” Les said deadpan, without missing a beat.

That was it.  A brief moment of empathy from my husband turned our off-kilter mood around.  Within a minute’s time we were back on the same page, feeling connected.

Now I can almost hear you saying, “What moment of empathy?”  Did you miss it?  Were you expecting something more psychologically sophisticated?  Empathy doesn’t necessarily require anything more than letting your spouse know, with compassion, that you recognize what’s going on inside of them.  And that’s exactly what Les did for me. Rather than trying to reason with me on the technicalities of how an HVAC system works, he revealed my true concerns about our family and Christmas in a caring tone.  That’s all it took to get me back on track. 

But here’s the thing.  Les could have never done this if he was not aware of his own emotional terrain.  He would have been unable to reflect back to me my concerns if he wasn’t aware of feeling stressed out about the move himself.  If he’d lacked emotional self-awareness in that moment, what would he have said instead? 

Here are a few options that come to mind … 

“Do you realize how irrational and emotional you’re being?”

“If you want to pick up the manual and figure this out yourself, be my guest.”

“I’m happy to have this conversation when you’re not being insane.”

Take your pick.  If you’re like a lot of married couples, you probably already have.  Most everyone is guilty of these kinds of caustic statements at one time or another.  And Les could have certainly responded with one of them.  And if he did, the result would have sent our emotions to yet another level of intensity and probably brought us into the realm of a true fight.  Instead, he was self-aware enough to monitor his own uneasy feelings and that served as a pathway to mine.  In other words, his self-awareness allowed him to set his own emotional agenda aside and thus opened the door to empathy.

Adapted from the new book from Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott's new book Trading Places: The Best Move You’ll Ever Make in Your Marriage (Zondervan, May 2008) 

Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott are founders of RealRelationships.com and co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University.  Their books include Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, Love Talk, and Trading Places, from which this article was adapted.  Visit www.RealRelationships.com for their speaking schedule and to take the Trading Places Assessment.