Academic journal article Family Relations

Understanding the One You Love: A Longitudinal Assessment of an Empathy Training Program for Couples in Romantic Relationships

Academic journal article Family Relations

Understanding the One You Love: A Longitudinal Assessment of an Empathy Training Program for Couples in Romantic Relationships

Article excerpt

Understanding the One You Love:

A Longitudinal Assessment of an Empathy Training Program for Couples in Romantic Relationships*

Forts-eight couples in romantic relationships volunteered to participate in a 10-hour empathy training program. The five sessions of the program were briefly described and empirical support was given for each component of the training. Couples were randomly assigned to either a treatment or wait listed comparison group. Both groups completed the five-week training program at different times. The change in empathy was assessed by several repeated measures analyses of variance. Scores on three empathy measures improved in both groups over the six month period. A change in the perceptions of a partners empathy at six months was positively related to relationship satisfaction at the six month follow-up.

Key Words: dyadic perspective taking, empathy, marital and premarital enrichment, relationship enhancement programs, relationship satisfaction.

The marital and premarital literature presently demonstrate that partner empathy is an important characteristic of a welladjusted, stable relationship (Davis & Oathout, 1987; Franzoi, Davis, & Young, 1985; Long, 1990; 1993a, 1993b; Long & Andrews, 1990). Empathy (perspective taking and empathy will be used synonymously within the body of this paper), has been defined as the ability to understand what the other is thinking, put oneself in the other's place, and intellectually understand another's condition without vicariously experiencing their emotions (Hogan, 1969). This line of research clearly indicates that empathy, understanding the point of view of one's partner, is an important predictor of marital adjustment and a propensity to divorce for both husbands and wives (Long, 1993a, 1993b; Long & Andrews, 1990). Individuals are more likely to have stable, well-adjusted relationships if they have partners who are capable of expressing empathy. As a result of this line of research, some marriage therapists have argued for the need of empathy training for couples in romantic relationships (Bagarozzi & Anderson,1989; Long, 1993a,1993b).

Empathy training programs have been developed for a diversity of groups including: high school and college students (Hatcher et al., 1994), medical students (Patore, 1995), nursing staff (Herbek & Yammarion, 1990), and parents (Brems, Baldwin, & Baxter, 1993). However, the authors are aware of no published programs that have a sole focus on an increased expression of empathy with a romantic partner. While numerous marital and premarital programs are available that focus on active listening, communication, and conflict resolution skills, no other programs are designed solely to increase partner empathy. For example, the Relationship Enhancement Program (Guerney, 1988) has one component of the 30-hour training that addresses the skill of empathy. However, the stated purpose of the nine-step program is to promote the values of honesty, compassion, and equity in order to improve family relationships, not increase family empathy. Given the empirical support for the importance of empathy, and the lack of other empathy training programs designed for couples in romantic relationships, the senior author developed an empathy training program (Long, 1995). The purpose of the present study was to provide empathy instruction to a volunteer group of couples involved in romantic relationships and then assess the effectiveness of that instruction at the conclusion of and six months following the training.

Empirical Rationale and Program Description by Session

A very brief description of the empathy training program is provided in the body of this paper. The program was designed as a structured, psychoeducational group for couples who desired to increase their expression of empathy with a partner. Like other training programs, the information was developed to be easy to understand, free of formal terminology, and relevant to specific romantic relationships (Brems et al. …

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