The Power of Empathy In Marriage
The Power of Empathy —
If I had to pick one topic from all of our posts that has had the greatest positive impact on our marriage, this may be it. This may also be one of the most difficult things I have had to learn as a husband.
Many of you have likely watched the “It’s Not About the Nail” video that was viral on YouTube a few years ago. If not, you can watch it HERE.
Erin used to tell me that she felt as if I were emotionally unavailable. On one hand, she was saying that she felt like I never shared my feelings with her and that I lacked vulnerability. She was right and I actually talked about that HERE. However, on the other hand, she was saying that when she shared her hurts with me, that I seemed very distant or cold.
She was right on both points.
I first paid attention to the word empathy back when we started therapy and Erin developed an insatiable desire to read and watch everything she could that may help save our marriage. Mostly because that word seemed to be a key element in every resource she found on relationships. And it seems like empathy came up in every session with our marriage counselor.
Erin would say,
“I just wish Jason would try to enter my world and hurt with me.”
Wait, what? I’m supposed to be sad when you’re sad and hurt when you hurt? That makes no sense! I mean, sure, I don’t like it when you’re sad but that doesn’t mean that I need to be sad. One of us needs to be strong, right?
Empathy is the best way to comfort someone when they are sad or hurting and is defined this way
Empathy is — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
The Bible describes the act of empathy like this —
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. (Romans 12:15)
Now, a lot of people confuse empathy with sympathy. What’s the difference?
Sympathy is defined this way — feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.
See, I understood feeling pity and some level of sorrow for Erin’s misfortune but I wasn’t able to share her feelings with her.
Also notice that empathy is defined as an “ability” where sympathy is defined as a feeling. Empathy is a skill (ability) that we have to learn.
Another way to say is —
Sympathy is something we feel FOR someone but empathy is something we feel AND show WITH someone.
Jesus was friends with a guy named Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. He even stayed in their home in Judea on at least two different occasions. One day, Jesus was in a city close to Judea when he was told that Lazarus was dying. As odd as it may seem, Jesus didn’t leave for Judea for another couple of days.
Now, Uber wasn’t a thing back then so Jesus had to walk to Judea. When he arrived (4 days after Lazarus died), he was confronted by Martha. She walked out of her house, approached Jesus and said (paraphrasing) “If you had been here sooner, my brother would still be alive. Jesus assured her that her brother would rise again.
Then someone told Mary that Jesus was looking for her. So, she got up quickly and went out to see Jesus. But she didn’t go alone. The Bible says that there were several people who had come to Mary and Martha’s house to grieve with them and they followed Mary out to meet Jesus.
Anyway, Jesus looked at Mary and not only did He notice how sad she was but He also noticed how many people were at her house to mourn with her. Apparently, Mary was crying because the way Jesus responded reads like this —
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and greatly troubled. (Luke 11:33)
Then we read the shortest and possibly most memorized verse in the whole Bible —
Jesus wept. (Luke 11:35)
The way that verse is actually interpreted is —
“Jesus ugly cried”
So, let me ask you a question: Why did Jesus cry?
Keep in mind that the Bible says Jesus is God in the flesh so Jesus couldn’t have been shocked when he heard that Lazarus had died. In fact, it’s safe to say that he already knew it, right? The story continues and we find that Jesus eventually raised Lazarus from the dead. That in itself is a big deal but I’ll let the preachers and theologians discuss that point.
Why did Jesus “weep” when he saw Mary and her friends mourning the death of Lazarus.
The answer is one word: Empathy.
Jesus knew that Mary, Martha and her friends needed empathy. He knew that they needed him to enter their world and hurt WITH them.
“But he’s Jesus, of course he knew what they needed!” That’s true. It’s also true that you aren’t Jesus but let me assure you —
Empathy is what your spouse needs too. Guaranteed.
Once I understood what empathy was supposed to look like, I still had no idea how to manufacture an emotion without seeming disingenuous.
So how do you do it? How do you feel something for someone else? What if you come home from work happy but find that you wife has been crying because the kids have driven her nuts all day?
For starters, you have to want to be empathetic. That is, you have to want to enter in to her world and you have to want to comfort her.
The key word there is comfort. Most of us want to fix the problem and we do that because we don’t like the discomfort of sadness and we want it to stop.
Remember this: Comfort before correction. Comfort first and always, correct last and sometimes.
When you see that your spouse is hurting your first instinct needs to be comfort. So, in the example I mentioned before you may start by simply acknowledging and letting her know that you are sad with her! Don’t tell her how to fix the kids. You may be able to do that later…MAYBE. But you want to comfort her immediately by offering empathy. It may sound like this:
“Honey, I am so sorry you’ve had such a hard day with the kids. (that’s the sympathy part) But (here comes the empathy) I want you to know that it makes me sad that you’ve had such a difficult day.
By contrast, here is a great example of how NOT to respond: “Well, if you would just manage your time better and stop letting the kids run over you then…”
Stop. Stop. Stop. That is neither sympathy nor empathy. That is cruel and you need to stop talking.
Now, you may consider reaching out for her hand or even putting your hand on her knee (non-sexual touches) and just remain silent while you comfort her.
Sometimes, empathy is best shown and not spoken. That may mean simply putting your arms around your spouse and holding them while they are sad. Or it may mean rubbing your husbands back in silence while he decompresses over a difficult day.
In most cases, your spouse just wants to be heard, not fixed. Listening is a big part of empathy.
You know who is typically really good at displaying empathy? Your family dog. If you have ever owned a dog, then you know that they have a special way of sensing your emotions. If you’re happy, they are happy! If you are sad, then, at least in my experience, they have an amazing ability to curl up next to or even sit in your lap and comfort you while you’re sad. They don’t talk…ok, to be fair, they can’t talk but just their presence is comforting.
That is empathy.
Unless you’re a dog, empathy takes practice and it may feel forced for a while but it will become more natural over time. So, you have to be willing to offer your spouse a whole lot of grace while you are both workings towards becoming more empathetic.
Keep in mind that empathy isn’t just something for your marriage. Empathy can be a powerful tool in all of your relationships, including your relationship with your kids, friends and even your co-workers.
The big idea is that you want to first comfort the hurt (sadness, anger, loneliness, etc) before you try to correct anything. But empathy, if practiced in your marriage will result in the greatest level of intimacy you have ever experienced. Look for opportunities to show empathy for and with your spouse. Later, ask them if they felt that you were comforting them during that time. Again, empathy takes practice and grace to make it work.
Here is a great video from Brené Brown that does a great job of illustrating empathy: