Intimate relationships are difficult under the best of circumstances and with the stress and strains of living a high paced life couples are finding it nearly impossible to sustain a happy and healthy existence.

Relationships require time, energy and skill. Unfortunately, according to recent statistics marriages are not faring very well in today’s environment. Nearly 50% of all marriages end in divorce. The emotional and financial toll on the people and children involved is often enormous.

Why do relationships have such a hard time surviving or even thriving? I believe most of the problem lies in the lack of skill and the commitment to making changes in one’s behavior to implement those skills.

Relationships thrive with the following skills: empathy, effective communication, negotiation, compromise and conflict resolution. Not only do the parties involved need to practice the skills but the timing and implementation of these skills are also important.

Once people feel injured in a relationship, there is permanent withdrawal from the “emotional bank” so to speak. Injuries appear to add up over time, even if the injured party says “I forgive and forget”. Perhaps there is in each of us an emotional defensive resource that can be depleted over time. When we start a relationship it is as if we are at full capacity with our reserve. As the relationship progresses, if injuries occur, we decrease that reserve until we find that we can no longer continue.

Couples who end in divorce appear to have experienced that they can no longer suffer the injuries. The only recourse they believe they have is to exit the relationship in the hope that they can heal from the injuries. Couples who divorce and ultimately develop a friendship appear to have reached an understanding that protects each other from further injury.

How do couples prevent injuries? Prevention is likely to occur when the relationship skills are practiced. Take empathy for example. When someone empathizes with you, there is zero percent chance they are likely to hurt you. Empathy is simply defined as another person being able to put himself or herself in your place. They feel what you feel and can think what you think. If you feel what another person feels, it is not likely you will hurt that person in some way. You share perspectives, outlooks and emotions.

When someone you love is able to put himself in your world, he can demonstrate that ability by formulating ideas and insights that reflect your world. Expressing your ability to empathize is seen by your capacity to make statements that reflect another’s person’s viewpoint. You can express your empathy by not only the content of what you are saying but by experiencing and expressing the same emotions.

Empathy is not the same thing as repeating what another person is saying. It is not even the same thing as agreeing with the person. Empathy is truly an ability to put yourself in that person’s position and feel and think what he feels and thinks. We all share the human experience; it is likely that no matter what the situation, with a good ability to empathize we are able to share anyone’s experience.

Empathy is not simply agreeing. You can even disagree with the content of what a person is saying, but empathize fully with their experience. An example is when your spouse tells you story about a coworker whom she dislikes and feels very frustrated and angry by that person’s behavior. The content of your spouse’s complaint may be something you disagree with, but you may be able to empathize fully with not liking a person and feeling frustrated and angry.

If you are able to hear your spouse’s complaint and put yourself in your spouse’s position and feel what it feels like to be frustrated and angered by a coworker, you will then be able to express yourself empathically to your spouse. Your spouse will feel understood and safe when on the receiving end of that expression. Emotional bridges are built through empathy.

Healthy relationships are built on other skills as well. To learn more about compromise and negotiation, look for our next issue.

Dr. Vanessa Gourdine is a psychologist, executive and life coach and Director of Specialized Therapy Associates, LLC and Life Work Strategies, LLC. She can be reached She has a behavioral health column in BC Magazine and is a regular contributor to lifestyle publications. She has developed a coaching model based on using strategies to influence growth and change for successful living. She can be reached at 201-224-5200.