Couples Facing Cancer: Practicing Empathy

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Empathy is our ability to feel and deeply understand the feelings of others. In relationships, the power of empathy is in allowing one’s partner to be felt and seen in the context of the relationship. When empathy is missing, partners can begin to feel misunderstood and alone (Walser & Westrup, 2009). Couples facing major stressors, like cancer, can often find themselves challenged to maintain empathy under the pressure and vulnerability of their “new normal”. 

When couples begin to lose their ability to be empathetic, they often fill in the gaps of understanding with their own projections and attempts at mind-reading in order to understand their partners. Instead of focusing on what your partner may be feeling and what that experience may be like for him/her, all of the energy being put into the relationship centers on your own feelings and how let down, angry, disappointed, or lonely you may be. This focus on one’s own interpretation of a partner’s story continues to breakdown the connection in the relationship and can lead to disengagement and a lack of connection.

Why does this happen? Often, it is because each person in the relationship is trying to navigate his or her own emotional reaction to this incredible source of unanticipated stress that has moved in uninvited. Each partner may lose touch with how to leave room for the experience of his or her partner in the face of fear, anger, sadness, and guilt associated with the cancer diagnosis. This means that the Hollywood version of the bonded couple fighting their way through cancer hand-in-hand may not be what you are seeing in your own relationship. However, this does not make your relationship is unusual. In fact, struggles with empathy and connection are a common concern for the patients and their loved ones that come into my office.  

The good news is that empathy can be learned and practiced. So, if you want to stay connected during your cancer journey and beyond, here at 10 ways to cultivate empathy:

1.    Focus on Listening – Try to focus on looking your partner in the eye and hearing what he/she is saying. Paraphrase what you heard when he/she is done and then express your emotional reaction or your understanding of your partner’s feelings. The goal is to hear your partner and to understand his/her perspective. Example: “I understand that you aren’t sure what radiation is going to be like. I hear that you are nervous and want to run away.”

2.    Get Curious and Avoid Story-telling – One of the best things you can do is to ask questions. The best questions to ask are about your partner’s feelings or what they may need from you. If you don’t understand then ask and don’t fall into the trap of making up a story about what your partner is thinking. When you let your partner hear that you want to understand in a deeply connected way you can increase your level of intimacy. Example: “I know you said today was a tough one for you. What’s on your mind?” 

3.  Use Compassion to Connect – Compassion is the way that we let others know that we see their suffering or struggle. Taking a compassionate approach to our interactions means listening with care to messages about what your partner’s struggles and suffering may be without assumption or judgement. For example, if your partner shares that he or she is afraid then listening with compassion would have you focusing on what is the source of the fear and offering understanding and validation of that fear.

4.    Imagine How Your Partner Feels– You know your own perspective well. Now, I challenge you to think about if from your partner’s perspective. What might it be like to be your partner right now? How would you react in his/her shoes? How would you feel? If you felt that way, how would you want to be treated? This approach does not assume that you actually know how your partner is feeling but is an exercise in focusing on taking your partner’s perspective and allows for greater compassion and empathy in your interactions.

5.    Validate Your Partner – Validation is not the same as agreeing. It is simply about hearing what your partner is feeling and offering him/her understanding and care in return. You may not feel the same way (and that is just fine) but you can still validate your partner’s experiences. Example: “I hear that you are angry about how much life has changed since you started treatment and I can see how hard this has been for you.” or “I know you have had to miss a lot of work since I started treatment and I hear that you are feeling stressed.”

6.    Provide Physical Reassurance– A simple hug or hand squeeze can go a long way in helping your partner feel your presence and care. Sometimes couples express worry about physical affection during cancer treatment due to worries about pain or discomfort. The rule of thumb is: if you aren’t sure if physical contact will be uncomfortable then ask rather than avoiding and missing a chance to connect. 

7.    Imagine What Your Partner Wants – If you were scared, angry or feeling ill or caring for an ill loved one there are many things you might appreciate that offer you comfort during difficult times. If you know what your partner finds comforting it can be a wonderful gesture to offer these things to help him/her feel cared for. The focus is really on what your partner would like and if you aren’t sure what helps your partner feel safe and cared for then ask. If you try something and your partner expresses that an approach doesn’t work for them (e.g. their favorite food on chemo day) then it is very helpful to let him/her know you heard the feedback and adjust accordingly. 

8.    Avoid Problem-Solving (unless asked)– Keep in mind that empathy is not about fixing the problem for your partner but it is about attending to your partner with understanding. If you rush in to fix his/her feelings that is often experienced as invalidating and sends the message that your partner’s emotions are not welcomed or allowed. When you can simply listen and offer understanding you will find that your partner will feel reassured and cared for.

9.    Be Open and Vulnerable– Be open to sharing your own experience and ways in which you can relate to your partner’s concerns or emotions. This openness to sharing your own feelings creates channels for deepening intimate connections. This is not making it “all about you” or getting into a discussion about who has it worse. Instead, it is about being willing to share your emotions openly with your partner.

10.  Steer Clear of Judgement– We all handle stressors in different ways. As human-beings, we also have a terrible habit of wanting to make everything into a clean category of good or bad (black or white). The combination of making everything black and white and assuming we know the best way to handle stress can be a big problem when cultivating empathy. In order to be truly empathetic, judgement needs to be put away and replaced by an openness to understand and hold the layers of feelings our partner may be experiencing and how they are trying to cope even when we disagree or see things differently. 

Facing a cancer diagnosis can be very difficult time for couples. Focusing on empathy can help to build the support and connection that each member of the couple is looking for and can be the basis for increased intimacy during this challenging time.


Walser, R. D. & Westrup, D. (2009). The Mindful Couple: how acceptance and mindfulness can lead to the love you want. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 

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Dr. Stephanie Davidson is a licensed, clinical psychologist in Westlake Village, CA specializing in the use of acceptance and commitment, cognitive-behavioral, humanistic and existential approaches to treat patients with a range of medical and mental health challenges. She has a strong interest in mindfulness-based interventions to heal the body and mind. License# PSY24540