When your spouse doesn’t get a hoped-for promotion, your best friend suffers the loss of a parent, your child feels rejected because she’s not invited to a classmate’s party…whenever a loved one is hurting, chances are, you’re hurting too. You want to make it all better, but you can’t. You might even feel it would be easier to suffer the loss yourself rather than see your loved one go through pain.

That’s probably not possible, either. However, the little-known secret is that there is a way to turn this into an opportunity to strengthen your relationship. It’s called empathy—such a simple thing, yet it goes so far.

To begin with, a person in pain needs to know they are not alone. When bad things happen, a sense of isolation is a natural byproduct. Cognitively, your spouse, friend or child knows he or she is not the only person who’s ever been in this situation before, but at the moment it sure can feel that way. Sharing your own painful experiences can go a long way toward showing you care, easing that sense of isolation, and reminding your loved one of the proverbial wisdom that this, too, shall pass.

Maybe you were also passed over for that great job you were sure you’d get, but later you found an even better one. Maybe your own mom passed away a few years ago, and while you still miss her, you’ve learned to find comfort by sharing stories about her with your kids or making her favorite recipes for family celebrations. Or in high school, maybe you were the only one of your friends without a date to the freshman dance, but…(insert your own happy ending here). The point is that when a person is hurting, it can feel like the end of the world. But if you’ve been through hard times of your own—who among us hasn’t?—and lived to tell the tale, suddenly you’re living proof that it’s not.

And this is where the added benefit comes in: You’ve opened the lines of communication, which so critical to building and maintaining healthy relationships. You’re not just trying to make loved ones feel better and show you care, you’re learning to understand them a little better at the same time—and they’re learning to understand you better, too. And in the process you’ve made them more comfortable sharing their feelings with you in the future.

Finally, remember that empathy has little to do with giving advice, and even less to do with trying to minimize whatever it is they’re going through. (“You think that’s bad? Well, let me tell you about the time…”) As uncomfortable as it might be, they need time to experience their feelings, so express your empathy but also give them the space they need. That way, if and when they want to talk some more, you can talk through it together and come out with a stronger relationship in the end.

Author's Bio: 

Casey was licensed as a marriage and family therapist 1995 and has owned private practices in Fullerton and Irvine. She started the OC Relationship Center to help even more people find the peace and love they deserve, want, and need.