Why Sympathy Doesn’t Work… but Empathy in Marriage Does.

Revised 1/2/20

When our spouse is pleased with us… happy…connected then empathy in marriage is a breeze. But particularly if you’re male, it’s more challenging to display empathy in marriage when our partner sees us as a source of sadness, pain, or frustration.

Men sometimes attempt to inspire their gloomy partners by marginalizing their partner’s negative thoughts and feelings as the real problem. We want our spouse to feel better, but we attack their feelings as “the enemy.”

If our partner could just see their pain the way that we see it, it would all be so much better. So we buck up and become reasonably “sympathetic.”

That’s the rub with sympathy. Sympathy is merely a quick cobbling of an understanding of how your partner feels but skipping over the more challenging work of experiencing the feelings together.

It’s sometimes hard for some men to sit with feelings. So in their benign impatience, they discount their partner’s feelings as a way of managing their own sense of powerlessness and mounting anxiety.


The Art of Empathy in Marriage has 4 Key Ideas

1. Start With A Differentiated Stance and a Beginner’s Mind.

A Cup of Tea
Nan-In, a Japanese Zen master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

The professor took a seat on the largest pillow and talked endlessly about Zen.

Nan-In served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then, as the visitor continued to prattle, Nan-in kept on pouring.

The professor, noticing the overflow, blurted out, “It’s too full. Please stop pouring!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-In whispered in his ear, “you are too full of your own ideas and opinions. How can I show you true Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

So please empty your mind of all the preconceived ideas about your partner’s unhappiness. Including notions of your own guilt. When you focus on how you may or may not be “responsible,” you are caught up in the perils of judging and evaluating.

This critical mindset focuses on notions of responsibility and blame. “Defense” is not a good play right now. Careful noticing and curiosity is a better stance. A differentiated stance permits you to be open curious, and fully present to what your spouse is feeling, without carrying the weight of your “responsibility.”

Empathy in Marriage Doesn’t Pursue Absolute Truth

2. Forsake the idea of Finding “The Truth.”

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and right-doing, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.” Rumi

In every relationship, there are two realities. When the focus is on cause and effect, and assignment of blame, it’s hard to reach the place where feelings are discussed and shared.

Your partner is upset for a reason. Can you imagine being them and feeling what they feel without getting defensive? It’s not easy. But it is possible.

Empathy in Marriage is an Emotional Experience, Not an Emotional Idea

3. Remember the Vulcan Mind-Meld.

Here is where listening with great attention is paramount. Gottman tells us that empathy in marriage differs from sympathy.

Empathy is a profound experience of what your partner is experiencing. What your partner needs is not a “reasonable” understanding of their position following quickly by your counter-argument.

They need to feel “gotten.” Understood. Validated. Pay more attention to your real partner and less to the partner in your head.

Dr. Gottman ( I’ve long suspected that he is a closeted Trekkie) tells us that to attune to your partner requires the ability to experience their feelings on such a level that you almost “become” your partner.

Gottman describes empathy as emotionally connecting so deeply that experience is viscerally shared. Not just understood.

If you’re having trouble climbing down into their foxhole, start by being curious about what your spouse is feeling. Emotional gridlock has no winner. Just be curious. Listen. Ask questions.  At first, empathy in marriage might feel like running into a burning house.

But remember it’s a fact that they have a feeling…but the feeling isn’t necessarily a fact. You both have a truth to tell. Don’t focus on controlling or prevailing over your spouse.

4. Summarize and Validate.

Validating your partner’s perspective doesn’t require you to shred your own perspective.

Your point of view is not diminished by validating your partner’s.

Empathy in marriage requires an authentic curiosity about their feelings and the vulnerability that lies underneath.

Listen to understand, not to fix. Learn to tolerate the anxiety of hearing about their pain and discomfort. Then feedback what you heard them say without commentary.

Validation is not an agreement. The essential idea about validation is “if I had your background, beliefs, and world view, I’d probably feel about this issue the same way that you do.”

“Validation is such a fundamental component of attunement that summarizing without it is like having sex without love.”  Dr. John Gottman

Men, behind each of your wive’s complaints, lies a deep pool of vulnerability, longing, and aspiration. As you become aware of this, you will find it easier to choose empathy in marriage. But if you take her complaint personally, reactively defending will not make things better.

Empathy in marriage takes mindful practice. It’s also worth noting that the research shows that empathy is a two-way street. It’s a two-way is a mutual process. It’s easier to be empathetic if your partner tends to do the same for you. Empathy in marriage is the bedrock of marital satisfaction. And mindfulness is the quarry.

Do You Want More Empathy in Your Marriage?

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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