What To Do When Your Spouse Lacks Empathy
You want your spouse to be fully present with you in your feelings, thoughts and situations in life. But what happens when they don’t show empathy? You probably feel alone, unimportant and misunderstood. You’ve opened up, but your spouse seems unable or uninterested in responding in an empathetic way. So, what do you do when your spouse lacks empathy?
First, my heart goes out to anyone married to a spouse who indeed lacks empathy. This is a hard road.
Let’s begin by establishing what we mean by the word empathy. According to Harvard psychologist Susan David, “Learning to label emotions with a more nuanced vocabulary can be absolutely transformative.”
The term empathy has evolved and has recently exploded in popularity.
That’s great, but it can be confusing if it’s not clearly defined. In Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, researcher Brené Brown describes two types of empathy:
- Cognitive Empathy is sometimes called perspective-taking or mentalizing. It’s the ability to recognize and understand another’s emotions. “Your best friend told a bunch of people something you confided in them! It’s completely understandable to feel betrayed. I get you.”
- Affective Empathy is often called experience-sharing. It is one person’s emotional attunement with another’s experience. “Your best friend told a bunch of people something you confided in them! I feel that sting of betrayal. I feel you.”
Your spouse is the one person you hope will get you and feel you. Why? So they can be there for you. (In whatever way you need them to be.)
Simple phrases like, I get you, I feel you, and I’m here for you, are gestures toward empathy. When they’re sincere, they mean I. Am. With. You. You are not alone. But empathy doesn’t stop there. Empathy isn’t complete without action.
Empathy should lead your spouse to put self aside, be present in your story and absorb it. They understand, believe and validate it and you… they don’t judge, criticize or dismiss it and you. (And they definitely don’t make it about them.) Empathy is the catalyst to respond with appropriate, compassionate actions.
How to Respond vs. React
Telling your spouse they’re not empathetic is probably not gonna help. It’s more of a label when you actually need their labor. You need them to do the relationship work to get outside of themself and be considerate of you.
You may be able to help your spouse who lacks empathy by fine-tuning your communication. Be clear and direct about what you need. Invite them into your story. Frame the conversation by saying things like, “At the moment, I’m not looking for you to judge me, give me advice, or share your opinion. I need to feel heard and understood.”
Pause. Reframe. Rephrase. “I need you to be present with me.”
Begin your statements (like the ones below) with “I need you to…”
- Understand how I feel and care about my feelings.
- Listen to what I’m thinking and consider my thoughts.
- Hear me and care. I need to know I have your full attention.
- Support me and be my partner in this situation.
- Understand this part of me I’m trying to share with you.
- Understand how important this is to me.
Empathetic conversations can lead to tangible, actionable things for a caring spouse. You can set measurable goals around these statements. Often, we can address a lack of empathy with better communication. There is help and hope to improve communication so you feel heard and understood.
But what if this doesn’t snap my spouse out of themself and into being present with me?
Why isn’t your spouse empathetic even when you ask them to try to empathize with you? There can be a variety of reasons. We don’t fully understand why some people are more empathetic than others or why some people have little to no empathy. But there are indications that a person can learn to be more empathetic.
Here are a few things you can do:
1. Model empathy for your spouse.
Make empathetic statements “out loud” and do empathy work “out in the open” where your spouse can see it. For example:
- Help me understand how it felt to get that raise at work…
- Sarah, how did it feel when Hunter wouldn’t share his toys?
- Imagine what it must be like to lose everything as those people on the news did.
- Amanda, I’m not going to offer unsolicited advice. I just want to sit with you as you go through this difficult time. You tell me what you need.
2. Practice talking about emotions with your spouse.
Try books, games, apps, and websites with “get to know you” questions and conversation starters. This can be a helpful practice for discussing your interior lives. Make it a “Judgment-Free Zone” and a safe sharing space.
3. When your spouse does express empathy, acknowledge it and thank them for it.
Hard Relationships. Hard Choices.
Living with a spouse who isn’t empathetic can be draining and demanding. Because your spouse lacks empathy, they might be critical, cruel, or unforgiving. They may react with anger when they feel like you are being “too sensitive.” They could be oblivious to how their behavior affects you, or be unresponsive to your needs.
Unfortunately, this might be your reality. It’s one thing to be patient with the change process and support growth in your spouse. It’s quite another to be hurting all the time and in over your head.
Here are things to consider:
1. It’s not your job to “fix” your spouse.
Several factors can contribute to someone’s inability to empathize. Genetics. Socialization. Childhood trauma. Your spouse may have grown up in a family that suppressed emotions. You can support and encourage your spouse if they’re trying to grow in this area. But this may be an issue they need to work through. You also need to recognize if they’re not trying to grow in this area.
2. Seek professional help.
Diagnosable disorders may play a significant part in why your spouse lacks empathy (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, or Borderline Personality Disorder, etc.). Know when to bring in the professionals. But remember: Your spouse may not change.
And if abuse is going on, it may not be a safe relationship for you to stay in. Your safety and mental health are important.
**Constant criticism, mocking, and devaluing your thoughts and feelings are forms of emotional abuse, and if your spouse is completely unwilling to get help to change their behavior, that’s not ok. Understand what abuse is in all of its forms. [See below for The Domestic Violence Hotline number.]
3. Find validation from within and from other supportive people in your life.
It can take quite a bit of time for your spouse to hone their empathy skills. It’s a process that will have ups and downs. You can’t allow your self-worth to be tied up in their ability to empathize with you; it should come from within. Practice self-acceptance and self-care, and in the meantime, turn to trusted friends you can share your thoughts and feelings with. And there’s no shame in seeking a counselor for yourself, either.
Life is certainly not easy with a spouse who lacks empathy. You can do several things to improve the situation. But you also need to recognize when those things aren’t working. Many people have successfully maintained their marriage knowing that their spouse may have many positive traits, but being empathetic is not one of them. You can set boundaries with your spouse and still get your need for empathy met in other healthy ways.
At the end of the day, we all want to be heard and understood without judgment. And chances are, you both want your marriage to be a safe space to share your thoughts and feelings. Fine-tune your communication around what empathy looks like in your relationship. Practice talking about feelings. Dig deeper into understanding and believing in each other. Recognize and appreciate any progress toward more empathy – it’s a process that will bring you closer together in the end.
*Special thanks to my colleague, Tamara Slocum, for her insights/contributions to this piece.
Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience
8 Steps to Better Communication Today
Empathy Definition | What Is Empathy
The Surprising History of Empathy | Psychology Today
The Secret to a Happy Relationship Is Empathy | Psychology Today
What to Do If You or a Loved One Lack Empathy
Why Should I Consider Counseling? – First Things First
How to Find a Counselor Who Will Fight for Your Marriage – First Things First
How to Crack the Code of Men’s Feelings | Psychology Today
Keys to Effective Communication in Marriage – First Things First
Why Some People Have a Lack of Empathy (And How to Deal with Them) – Lifehack
**Domestic Violence Hotline
Do you feel safe? For a free, confidential, and clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here, or contact the Domestic Violence Hotline, 24/7, at 1−800−799−7233.
Can Empathy Be Learned?
If you clicked on this blog, you’re either:
A.) Wondering if that person you have a hard time with has a chance of growing into an empathetic individual or if they’re stuck as they are forever, or
B.) Trying to figure this out for yourself.
For the sake of clarity, I’m going to talk to you. But you can also apply this information to that sister, or friend, or mother-in-law that you feel doesn’t feel (or however you want to define your perception of them).
For the sake of your time: YES. Empathy can be learned. (Phew!)
Research suggests that genetics determine about 50 percent of how empathetic a person is. The other 50-ish percent can be learned.
Here’s how Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy:
“The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
Basically, an empathetic person can understand and share another’s feelings. But it doesn’t come naturally for everyone, right?
Here are some things you can do if you need to learn empathy because it doesn’t come naturally:
1. Understand that you are biased. Everyone is.
Every moment you’ve experienced has formed itself into the larger story of you, your life, who you are, and why. Think about the moments that have influenced you. Whatever comes to mind has shaped who you are right now. Your moments have been just as impactful as those that have shaped your sister, husband, father-in-law, or co-worker. Their moments have molded them differently. Their moments impact every decision they make, just as your moments have for you. This leads to my next point…
2. Ask questions.
The next time you speak with someone, let your primary goal be to learn more about them. Jodi Halpern, psychiatrist and bioethics professor at the University of California, says that the core of empathy is curiosity. As you ask and learn about the experiences that have shaped the person you’re engaging with, you may empathize with them more. It will also help you understand that who they are is a result of what they’ve experienced.
3. Read stories.
Dr. Helen Riess (author of The Empathy Effect) says this about reading: “You enter the thoughts, heart and mind of another person who’s not like you, and it really does break down barriers.” What an amazing excuse to curl up with a good story – yes, fiction applies to this.”
4. Join in.
The thing about empathy is that it’s not passive. In A Way of Being, clinical psychologist professor Carl Rogers put it this way: “Empathy involves being sensitive, moment to moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person, to the fear or rage or tenderness or confusion or whatever, that [they] are experiencing. It means temporarily living in [their] life…”
What Rogers describes is what it looks like to engage in another person’s life and experience. A great way to engage with people is to volunteer in your community. It’s one thing to witness brokenness (i.e., the homeless man who frequents the same bench on your commute to work). It’s entirely another thing to serve within the brokenness (i.e., feeding the man). The former is passive, and the latter is active.
You’re normal if empathy is not something that comes naturally to you.
You are not a hopeless case (and I hope no one has ever made you feel like you are because that’s just not true).
Take a breather. You can learn. I urge you to remember that everyone has things that don’t come naturally to them. Yours just happens to be empathy. You have everything you need to care deeply for others, but you don’t have to do this alone. Let someone you trust know about your plan for working on empathy so they can come alongside you in your journey and offer assistance/accountability when needed. You can do this!
Counseling and Therapy Skills by David Martin
How To Build Empathy In Marriage
How to Teach Your Child to Be Empathetic
What To Do When Your Spouse Lacks Empathy
Why Compassion is One of the Most Important Qualities in a Healthy Marriage
Compassion is important in marriage!
Did you know that there’s a whole science behind compassion in relationships? Seriously! Ok, bear with me, even if you’re not a researchy-geek like me (I promise I won’t make this sound like your high school chemistry book.) Because compassion is majorly important in marriages, even more so than you might think. And research has a lot to say about it.
Just like anything sciency, it’s essential to define terms well. And sometimes compassion, empathy, and sympathy get mixed up. Let’s untangle that.
Empathy = You don’t share the same feelings or experiences, but you choose to imagine what it might be like. They hurt; you don’t but can put yourself in their shoes. You can empathize.
And then we come to compassion. This is when you empathize/sympathize with someone (say, your spouse), and you’re prompted to show kindness in their situation.
They hurt. You empathize/sympathize. You say something to lift their spirits. Compassion!
So, sympathy/empathy are only the beginning of compassion. One study even suggests being empathetic is good to a point, but it can actually affect you negatively unless it’s followed up by compassion.1
So compassion is more than a feeling. (Classic rock fans, anyone?) Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, compassion isn’t really beneficial unless it’s put into action. One researcher describes compassionate acts as “caregiving that is freely given.”2
Think about this in your marriage.
No matter what your spouse experiences, good days or bad, you can:
- Sympathize with them, or…
- Choose to empathize with them, and then…
- Feel compassion toward them, which…
- Prompts compassionate action.
Y’all…we should be doing this all the time in our marriage!
Why? (Here we go with the science again…) Research3 tells us compassion is good for you, your spouse, and your marriage!
- Compassion toward a spouse predicts higher levels of daily relationship and life satisfaction for both people. (Don’t miss this: happiness in marriage goes up on a daily basis! Who doesn’t want that?)
- Compassionate acts benefit the emotional and mental well-being of the person receiving them (in this case, your spouse).
- The person who is acting compassionately toward their spouse also experiences a positive effect on their well-being, even if the spouse doesn’t necessarily recognize the compassionate act!
Bottom line: Compassionate acts do a marriage good.
It makes you a better spouse. It makes your spouse a better person. And it makes your marriage more loving, intimate, and strong.
Let’s consider one more reason why compassion might be one of the most important qualities in marriage. No matter who you are, most of us would agree that the world could always use a little more compassion. What if the real power of compassion in our world begins with compassionate action in our marriages and families? We know kindness is contagious.4 As they say: as families go, so goes the world.
So, inject some compassionate action into your marriage — for your spouse, for you, for the world.
1 Functional Neural Plasticity and Associated Changes in Positive Affect After Compassion Training
2Compassionate Love: A Framework For Research
3Compassionate Acts and Everyday Emotional Well-being Among Newlyweds
4Social Contagion Theory: Examining Dynamic Social Networks and Human Behavior
MOST POPULAR LINKS ON TOPIC:
– The Most Important Quality in a Marriage is…
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How to Teach Your Child to Be Empathetic
Before you had children, you may have seen the TV show, Kids Say the Darndest Things. If so, you might have thought your child would NEVER say anything like that. Then it happened. Perhaps you were horrified as you watched your sweet baby snatch a toy from a friend and scream, “MINE!” Or while pushing them in the cart at the grocery store, your toddler asked in their loudest voice, “Why does that man have BIG ears?” Embarrassed that everyone around might think you raised a little monster, you were probably wishing the floor would open up and swallow you whole.
So how do you teach your young child to be empathetic?
These 5 building blocks of empathy can set you both up for success.
1. Model empathy for them.
Empathy is the ability to imagine how someone else feels in a particular situation and respond with care. This is a tricky skill to develop, even for adults. Your child learns empathy from how they watch you model it to those around you. How you respond is often the most powerful teaching method because empathy is more caught than taught. One of the best places to start is by showing empathy for your child. Instead of seeing their behavior as being difficult, empathize with what they are feeling. (Even in the middle of a meltdown!)
2. Be realistic in your expectations. (It’s just a phase.)
Don’t worry; this is a normal phase. Laying a foundation for your child to be empathetic towards people is a good thing. However, it can be challenging during this particular developmental stage. Your 3 to 5-year-old is in the middle of what Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget called the preoperational stage. This stage’s hallmark is selfish thinking, meaning it’s not easy for them to see things from anyone else’s perspective.
Additionally, you may notice their favorite words are Me, Mine, or “I can do it MYSELF.” All of these behaviors are developmentally appropriate. At this stage, children are like reporters who report on what they see and experience without filters.
Since they like to report, ask questions to help them identify their own feelings and others’ feelings in the process.
3. Celebrate them when they show empathy.
When you see your child correctly identifying emotions, praise them. They may even ask, “Are you sad?” If you are, it’s ok to acknowledge your sadness. You can use that as a teachable moment to help them recognize and name emotions correctly. They’ll learn that expressing a variety of emotions is ok. (Here’s a great list of feeling words to get you started.)
4. Do things to nurture empathy.
It may be difficult to actively volunteer together at this age, but it’s easy to make treats or care bags (or something else) to show people they matter. Hand them out with your child to the homeless or someone who needs a pick-me-up as you drive through your community. The bag can include various items such as gift cards to restaurants, hand sanitizer, band-aids, snack bar, a small bottle of water, etc.
5. Take time to develop empathy. It’s a process.
Empathy is developed over time, but everyday moments are teachable ones. Remember, this skill grows and expands as your child grows. They won’t be perfect at showing empathy, especially at this age. Honestly, it may be difficult to be empathetic all the time. This is a learning process that goes with your child into their teen years and beyond.
It’s hard for parents not to feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of teaching your little one so many things to help them become a productive member of society. Those things may include how to walk, how to talk, and ways to expand their vocabulary. And that’s in the first year!
Ok, stop and take a deep breath.
Raising an empathetic child is a process that starts with your example; it’s the primary way you teach them how to understand others and treat them with kindness. They’re watching you. Just remember: more things are caught by our kids than are taught by us. You can do this.
Read other blogs to help you on your journey here:
7 Signs You’re a Good Friend
Am I a good friend? That’s a great introspective, self-aware kinda question! To find the answer, you could do what any sensible person would do—take a bunch of online quizzes and see if the internet thinks you’re a good friend. (I was everything from a “BFF” to a “just-okay friend.”) OR you could ask yourself this question:
“What am I looking for in a friend?”
Maybe your answers will include some of these 7 signs you’re a good friend…
1. A good friend shows up.
A huge part of friendship is just showing up and being available and reliable. You don’t have to tell your friends that you’re a good friend—you show them. (People don’t always tell you how they feel about you, but they will always show you.) We make time for what (and who) is important to us. Good friends inspire your confidence, they don’t flake out of plans at the last minute. They are there when you need them, even if uninvited. They don’t just sit back and wait for an invitation by text, but they initiate get-togethers and meet-ups.
2. A good friend lets you be yourself…
A good friend lets you be you. You don’t have to put on airs or fronts for them. You don’t worry or stress about showing “your good side.” You can be real with them and be your true self, warts and all, and not fear being rejected. They know your struggles and imperfections and accept you for who you are. A good friend helps create a space where you are comfortable being honest and transparent with them.
3. … while helping you be your best self.
But they accept who you are while also helping you be the best version of yourself. A good friend knows who you are, but also knows who you want to be and part of their time and communication is spent holding you accountable for your personal goals and encouraging you to be the healthiest version of yourself. A good friend isn’t afraid to do and say the kind of hard things you need to grow into a better spouse, parent, friend, employee, and person. When you bring your problems to them, they care, but they give it to you straight.
4. A good friend is self-aware.
They are not a stranger to themselves. They understand very clearly what is going on inside of them as well as how they come across to other people. This helps them be grounded and secure as a person. They are in touch with their own feelings, passions, motivations, goals, and abilities, as well as their own faults, shortcomings, negative tendencies, and weaknesses. Because they know who they are, they don’t get caught up in other people’s opinions or drama. Also, because they have the ability to have a realistic view of themselves, they also have the ability to have a realistic view of others and see the world through their eyes.
5. A good friend is empathetic.
A good friend is good at seeing things from multiple people’s perspectives. They have the ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes and try to feel what they feel and think what they would think in a given situation. This ability is what helps them encourage you and also hold you accountable. A good friend can put themselves in your shoes, but also put themselves in your boss’s, your spouse’s, and your kid’s. This is a big part of why they are able to dispense such good advice and aren’t afraid to call you out when necessary.
6. A good friend is trustworthy.
A good friend creates a climate in your friendship that allows you to feel safe sharing what’s really on your mind and heart. Not only can you feel safe being transparent and vulnerable but you trust them to keep things in confidence that are shared in confidence. You don’t have to worry about becoming part of the latest gossip going around. They don’t say things to you like, “Well, I promised her I wouldn’t tell anyone but did you know…” or “He told me not to share this, but you can keep a secret, right?” If someone is saying those kinds of things to you, you better believe they are saying those things about you.
7. A good friend is fun, introduces you to new experiences, and helps you grow.
Not all the qualities of a good friend are super serious! A good friend knows how to have a good time. Since they are curious about life, they are often trying new things and picking up new hobbies and interests that draw you in and enrich your life too. A good friend gets you out of your comfort zone and helps you grow as a person and try new things. They are fun to be around and when you leave their company you feel recharged, not drained. When you get back together, you feel like you can pick up where you left off.
What you are looking for in a friend — be that person! Being a good friend and having good friends are two essential things in life. Having a quality social network is associated with having a stronger immune system and even living longer. Friendship has wide-ranging benefits for your physical and mental health and general wellbeing. The best way to have good friends is by being a good friend. You got this!
How to Be a Supportive Parent
When I became a parent, I was not prepared for the “surge” of protectiveness that took over my body. I felt like it was my job to protect my child from all sorts of hurts, disappointments, fears, and sadness. I may have unknowingly included their father and other family members, too. Did they wash their hands before holding my child? Are they following my parental instructions to the letter of my law? Why is he playing so rough with them? Learning how to moderate my “Grizzly Bear Mom” tendencies helped me become a more supportive parent.
Research has shown that being a supportive parent has far-reaching benefits for your child. Being a supportive parent helps your child be better equipped to handle stressful situations, be able to handle their own emotions, be capable of regulating their behavior, and get along with others.
Here are a few steps you can take on your journey of being a supportive parent for your child:
1. Be as empathetic as possible.
Being able to empathize with your child means you can place yourself in their shoes. And consider: How tight are the shoes? Do they have holes in the toes? Be aware of a situation they experience that mirrors one from your childhood. If your childhood experience or trauma becomes the focus, your child will feel unheard and marginalized. Now is not the time to help them learn to build tough skin. When you empathize, you become a soft place for your child to land when experiencing difficulties.
2. Enjoy being a student of your child.
Becoming a student of your child means you enter their world. You learn about the topics they’re interested in even if it holds no interest to you. Your child may be interested in: Sports (baseball, soccer, lacrosse, football, tennis), Music (instruments, singing, producing videos), Art (drawing, painting, photography) Animé, Video Gaming, Crafting, Animals, or a myriad of other topics. Dig deeper and say things like: Tell me what you like about… The key here is to remember that your child is a separate person from you. Children feel seen and valued when parents ask about what they like.
3. Be open and askable.
For many parents, showing support means doing something (also known as having the “fixer syndrome”). Here’s the BEST thing your child needs you to do for them: Listen, Listen, Listen. Listen to understand, listen for more information, and listen to identify emotions. You can also give your child space to process what they’re feeling. As you become more open and askable, you’ll have to guard your reactions, especially when your child shares difficult situations with you such as being bullied, picked on, or teased by others. Believe it or not, your child is very aware of your feelings and will shut down if they feel like you’re upset. Probing statements like “tell me more” allow your child to share on their terms without feeling like they’re being interrogated.
4. Make time to connect.
Create intentional time where you both engage in an activity they really enjoy. Making time in your schedule to play them, watch something with them or even allow them to teach you something new will demonstrate your support to them. Children feel supported when they know they are cared for, encouraged to grow, and feel a sense of belonging in your family.
As you work through these key steps to becoming a supportive parent, remember it’s all about process, not perfection. There will be days you’ll miss a step or two. Becoming a supportive parent is about seeking to understand your child’s world, including their feelings, fears, and frustrations without making the situation about you. When you create this connection with your child, you’re actually creating an environment of support and helping them feel like they belong. Ultimately, you’re preparing your child for LIFE.
Image from Unsplash.com
How To Build Empathy In Marriage
Have you ever whipped up your favorite batch of homemade cookies to find out in the first bite that you left out that one key ingredient that makes all the difference? Empathy is that key ingredient to a great recipe for a healthy marriage that you don’t want to forget.
A large body of research tells us the practice of empathy is essential to a thriving, happy, healthy marriage. However, many people reduce the idea of empathy to it being just “touchy-feely” or something that some people are born having, but others not so much.
What exactly is empathy, and can you have it for your spouse if you’ve never experienced what they have experienced?
There are many definitions out there for empathy; some have described it as the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I like the definition that U.C. Berkeley researchers Levenson and Ruef give: empathy is the ability to detect accurately the emotional information being transmitted by another person. The keywords here (in my humble opinion) are detect accurately. The goal of empathy in marriage is to understand as closely as possible what is going on in your spouse’s mind and heart at the moment. And keep in mind this is a skill that you can learn, not an inherent trait that you’re born with.
But real marital empathy doesn’t stop with simply understanding. Empathy is an action. We find this reflected in an explanation of empathy given by Dr. Paul Ekman, who separates empathy into three parts. Cognitive empathy is what we just talked about; it allows us to imagine how someone is feeling and say Wow, that must be really tough.
Emotional empathy goes a little further to allow ourselves to actually feel what our spouse is feeling (even though we don’t have the same experiences). It’s the same mental processes at work as when you shed tears watching a romcom or feel sadness when you witness someone who’s down and out. The thing is, you can control whether you attempt to feel what the other person is feeling. Which is good news for spouses (like you) who want to build more empathy in their marriage.
But the third part of Ekman’s empathy triad is compassionate empathy. It balances the first two parts so that we can take empathetic action. This empathy triad, according to Ekman, keeps the whole person in mind, making empathy a work of both mind, heart, and behavior.
So here’s what this may look like in marriage. Your spouse comes home from a stressful day at work to find the kids still haven’t taken care of the dirty dishes in their rooms that they were told a thousand times to put in the dishwasher. You listen to them and try to non-judgmentally understand how they’re feeling (even though the thought of lingering dirty dishes doesn’t particularly bother you). You allow yourself to feel at least a little bit of the frustration they feel. And out of compassionate empathy, you extend a hug, thank them for all the hard work they do. Then you go upstairs to goad the ankle-biters into gathering up the fungus-laden dishes so your spouse doesn’t have to for the 1,001st time.
Considering this trilogy-approach to empathy, how do you build empathy in your marriage? Here are some steps for couples to take:
- Listen. Not to judge. Not to fix. And not even to retort. Listen simply to grasp what your spouse is feeling with as much accuracy as possible. Listen closely to your spouse to understand their feelings in the same way you’d listen to a teacher to understand how to do calculus.
- Validate. You may listen and think, Gee, I’d never get so riled up (or excited, or sad) over this. Avoid judging your spouse’s feelings based on how you would respond in the same situation. Instead, acknowledge to yourself that these are their feelings (and not yours). Respond verbally to your spouse with legitimizing replies like, “Wow, that must be frustrating,” or “I can see how you’d be excited about that.”
- Share. Namely, your spouse’s emotional response. This may take some conscious effort on your part, especially if they are emotionally responsive to a situation in a way you wouldn’t. Truly put yourself in their shoes. See the world from their eyes. Allow yourself to experience any part of the anger, frustration, excitement, happiness, or whatever feeling they are expressing to you. (Even for the most stoic person, the more you put this into practice, the easier it becomes over time.)
- Act. Take what you’ve come to understand from the previous steps and respond in compassion. When you come to understand accurately the mind and heart of your spouse in a given situation, it’s easier to be in tune with what they need at that moment. Keep in mind that this very well may not be the time to “fix” their problem. A helpful trick I’ve learned is to ask my spouse, “Is this a time you want me to listen and help you figure out a solution, or would it be more helpful to listen and simply try to understand?” More often than not, she simply needs an empathetic ear and a compassionate response.
- Practice vulnerability. Here’s the thing: empathy begets empathy. What I mean is, it’s a two-way street. Empathy is best built when both people in the marriage open up about situations, feelings, and thoughts they simply want the other to better understand. That’s the beauty of it: the practice of empathy helps you to know that you can open up to your spouse and they’ll be non-judgmental and supportive. And they can be open with you and you’ll respond in the same way. Trust is reinforced. The marriage is strengthened. And all because empathy is that one ingredient that makes the difference in the recipe.
Empathy is an all-important ingredient for a healthy marriage, but building it takes time. Empathy grows with momentum, especially if it hasn’t been expressed very much previously. However, you might find that if you pay close attention to the above steps, it doesn’t take long for the momentum to get rolling pretty quickly.
Read other blogs to learn more about empathy here:
What to Do When Your Spouse Lacks Empathy
3 Ways Empathy Can Strengthen Your Marriage
***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***
Do you find it hard to see things from your spouse’s perspective?
Do you think your spouse should see things exactly the way you do?
Is it easier for you to try to fix things for your spouse rather than listen to them?
If this is true about you or your spouse, you may have a lack of empathy. Situations where you fail to empathize with your spouse can lead to misunderstandings and disconnection. To truly understand empathy, we must define it. Brené Brown defines empathy as “feeling with people.” In its simplest form, empathy means to care as much about your spouse’s likes, dislikes, interests, issues, dreams, goals, and problems, as you care about your own.
It can become difficult in marriage when you recognize that your spouse is so very different from you. According to psychotherapist Cindy Sigal, AMFT, “Empathy bridges the divide between being separate individuals with different backgrounds, feelings, and perspectives.”
How do we build and/or maintain the bridge of empathy between spouses?
1. Listen, Listen, Listen
The greatest need your spouse has is to be seen, heard, valued, and understood by you. This begins with listening to understand them—not to fix a problem. Additionally, give your spouse your full attention within the conversation. Asking questions allows you to become a “compassionate detective” of your spouse. Resist the urge to tell them what to do or how to fix the issue. In doing so, you validate your spouse’s feelings and capacity to solve the problem while utilizing empathy to fuel your connection.
2. It’s Not About YOU
The key to empathy is seeing things from your spouse’s perspective—literally, putting your feet in their shoes. Think about: What do they like to do? How did they grow up? What brings them happiness and what causes them to get upset? What is their favorite activity, food, etc.? How would they see this situation? Practice putting aside your views and thoughts to focus on those of your spouse.
3. Respect Your Spouse’s Differences
At the beginning of your marriage, you may have thought, “It’s so GREAT how different we are.” Now reality has set in and you’re probably thinking, “OMG, WE ARE different.” YES, you are. However, there is strength in your differences. Having different views can give you the opportunity to see the picture/issue from a variety of ways. Allowing each spouse their own perspective provides opportunity for out-of-the-box decision-making as well as increasing mutual respect.
Empathy so often is considered to be the “secret sauce” in relationships. It encourages us to see past ourselves and take our spouse into consideration. It bonds couples together. Building your capacity for empathy builds your relationship.
***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***