The 5 Barriers to Empathy in Marriage (And How to Overcome Them)

Empathy is the foundation of any authentic connection. It’s the bedrock of togetherness, it’s the fuel of compassion, and it’s the mortar of grace. We must hone our ability to feel it and to give it. But empathy can be elusive. Even psychologists, who are skilled in empathy, can struggle with it when they walk out of the office and into their homes…


Photo Credit: Lorenzo Sernicola (Creative Commons)

Dusk is closing in when the shrink arrives home from work and walks in the back door. Some nights, all is well. His wife is smiling, the kids are happy. But on other nights, all is not well.

Some nights, his wife is tired and worn-thin after a long day at work and the onslaught of the children’s cries for food and attention. Some nights, his oldest son is anxious and fretting about the upcoming standardized tests, which his teachers have been hyping more than the Superbowl. Some nights, his middle son is sad and distraught about the various injustices suffered by any middle child. Some nights, his youngest daughter is bouncing and bubbling with joy and eager for a Daddy mirror, for someone to reflect all that effervescence.

Some nights, everyone wants a little empathy and the therapist is feeling stubborn.

Some nights, he gets home, and he knows what he should do. He should remember that sometimes the people we love act in such a way toward us that we begin to feel exactly what they are feeling. He should get quiet and notice that just beneath his stubbornness are his own feelings of fatigue and frustration and anxiety and injustice…and maybe even joy. He should notice this and offer himself up, reach out, find the common ground. 

He should. But he doesn’t.

Because even for psychologists, empathizing with the people we love is so hard to do. And I think it’s particularly hard to empathize with our spouses. After all, we don’t expect much empathy from our children. But we expect an awful lot from our partners.

The Five Reasons We Don’t Give Empathy

I think there are at least five fatal barriers to establishing empathy in our intimate relationships:

1. I don’t want to go first. In any relationship, both members need empathy. But at any given moment, empathy is unidirectionalit can only flow in one direction at a time. Which means someone has to go first. Someone has to be willing to meet the needs of the other, before their own needs are met.

2. I don’t agree with you. Empathy requires us to place ourselves in another person’s shoes, to allow our hearts to beat to the rhythm of theirs. We often fundamentally disagree with their perspective, and so we are tempted to debate them intellectually, rather than join them emotionally.

3. What if I get it wrong? When we try to place ourselves squarely inside of someone else’s emotional landscape, it can be a little scary. It’s unfamiliar territory. They are inviting us in, but what if we get it all wrong? Empathy can be terrifying if we have any perfectionism within us.

4. I don’t want to feel that. On the other hand, you might know exactly what your partner is feeling. It may bring up thoughts and feelings in you that you would prefer to avoid. If we don’t want to feel our own sadness, we won’t want to feel sadness on behalf of the person we love.

5. It’s not my job to fix you. We confuse empathy with “fixing.” We think we have to do something to take the emotion away, and we don’t want to be put on that hot-seat. Or some of us will have the opposite reaction: I’m going to fix you. But this undermines our ability to provide empathy, as well. Because empathy is not fixing. Empathy is joining.

Climbing the Barriers 

If we want to give empathy in our relationships, we will have to sacrifice some values we hold dear:

We will have to be willing to lose, because it will feel like losing. It will feel like our partner’s needs are being met before our own. But there is no other way.

We will have to put aside all of our intellectual debates. Empathy is not a matter of deciding who is right and wrong. It is simply a matter of finding an emotional common ground.

We have to be willing to get it wrong, because we will get it wrong. Empathy is messy. There are no three-easy-steps to accurately understanding the person we love. We have to be okay when our partner tells us we’re not getting it. And then we have to try again.

We need to embrace our discomfort, because empathy will take us into some uncomfortable place within ourselves. If we are unwilling to go there, we need to quit talking to our spouse and start talking to a therapist of our own.

And we have to quit trying to fix things. There will be a time for that later. For now, empathy is about connecting within an experience, not making the experience go away.

Empathy is for Everyone

Some nights, I know that stubborn-grumpy therapist, because he is me. I wish I could tell you he always finds his way to empathy, but I can’t. Some nights he does. Some nights he doesn’t. And you won’t always find your way to empathy, either. But that’s okay. That’s not the point. The point is that we begin to try.

Because empathy isn’t just for therapists, it’s for all of us.

Questions: What makes it difficult for you to empathize? Share your experience in the comments section at the bottom of this post.           

Free eBook: My new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available for free to new blog subscribers. Just click here to subscribe, and your subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also available for a low price on Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Blessings, Kelly

Preview: My next post will be this Friday, March 8, and the working title is, “Winners Anonymous: Breaking Our Addiction to the Extraordinary.”

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Disclaimer: Kelly's writings represent a combination of his own personal opinions and his professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with him via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Kelly does not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accepts no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Deborah

    Good article. I’d like to see one on your perspective of how to draw boundaries in our empathy and compassion. I seem to get so caught up in another’s needs, that I completely negate my own.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hi Deborah, That’s a good call. My next two marital posts are actually going to deviate from my usual themes and focus more on these ideas of boundaries. Specifically because we need a balance to all this, as you point out. I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts!

  • Kelly

    Love these marriage posts! (feeling so convicted) Thanks Kelly for sharing!

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Kelly!

  • Jennifer Koski

    “We will have to be willing to lose, because it will feel like losing. It will feel like our partner’s needs are being met before our own. But there is no other way.”
    The greatest thing about this? It only *appears* to us as a loss before we choose it – but that’s exactly opposite of the truth. Once true compassion & empathy arise in us genuinely, we realize that we never lost anything at all, and in fact, all the love and understanding we give comes right back to fill us – and more – so much more!
    (But if the empathy is merely postured, it *will* feel like a loss the whole way through.)

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jennifer, I love this. The experience of giving genuine empathy can feel like it’s own reward, too! And we give it not demanding to receive it back, but trusting we will find places in this world that we will. Thanks, Jennifer.

  • Sue O’Donnell

    It’s hard to find the energy … Empathy takes a lot of inner strength.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, it does, Sue. Reminds me of what a friend said recently, we have to be receiving it from somewhere in order to give it. Otherwise, we run out of gas.

  • Sarah

    Hello Kelly,

    I have been wanting to write to you for a long time now. I wanted to thank you for your blog, your marriage manifesto and all that you have been doing for couples. I don’t use much social media, but I am always forwarding your posts by email and people really appreciate it. I would like to thank you because your words have really been helping people and myself, of course. And I wanted you to know that I am writting from France and forwarding your posts to Belgium, Japan and Brazil, where people are really enjoying it too. Thank you. And thank you for being honest about your own vulnerabilities and marriage. It’s refreshing and inspiring!



    • drkellyflanagan

      Sarah, Thanks so much for reaching out and sharing this. It is amazing to me to think about how interconnected we are all by technology. I’m grateful for your encouragement and so glad to hear the blog and the book have been helpful!

  • Jennifer Newell

    “Because even for psychologists, empathizing with the people we love is so hard to do. ” I so appreciate your honesty. It is good to know that this is a struggle we all have in our relationships.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Jenn. A little more about being a psychologist and a human in tomorrow’s post!

  • Deb P.

    What makes it difficult for me to empathize… too much is exhausting. I would like to feel like I get about as much empathy as I give especially when I need it. Also, it helps to know how someone wants that empathy displayed to them. I would be interested in a topic on showing it to kids.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Deb, Great ideas. I have something like this about kids in the pipeline, probably the next month or two. And you and Sue share a similar sentiment: it may be that empathy can only be given to the extent that it’s received!

  • Ginger

    Thanks for this – inspires me to do better at “going first” 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Ginger!

  • Lisa Bartelt

    The going first is definitely a barrier for me. And it does feel like losing. Whew. This post hits really close to home. And that’s a good thing!

  • Jill

    I have a hard time empathizing because I don’t usually have a lot of respect for whatever the problem is. It usually seems so petty or childish to me that I get angry that its even a problem.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jill, I think that’s a common pitfall. I think they key is moving past the specific problem to empathizing with the feeling that problem caused for the person. The “How to Find the Promised Land” post unpacks this a little bit more.

  • billcoffin

    And since it’s not easy/natural many of us benefit from training in empathy and other skills available here or here

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Bill. Love to have these tangible resources!

  • Trish

    What makes it hard for me? Ego, caught up in my own needs as the dominant force that erroneously believes enslaving myself to satisfy myself will somehow quiet the beast, or worse like your supposed to do it!
    Not knowing that’s just a big illusion that I even exist as an ego, like a child, believing all appearances as real, especially the appearance of me, and what I think is the appearance of you, like we’re really separate, haha. We’re not, that’s why empathy is so transformative, it shatters the illusion of separateness. But ego is easy, empathy takes effort. Thanks for your posts they really help. Thanks for your effort!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Trish! Just read a fantastic book about overcoming ego: “Immortal Diamond” by Richard Rohr. Less ego, more empathy…a good motto!

  • sally

    my problem unfortunately is that i do not love my husband. i got married on the rebound (after being very much in love with my former fiancee) and i did not give myself time enough to get to know my current husband. now i am stuck in a marriage in which i feel no love (and no hate either). i can’t get out because i have kids and i don’t want them to go through the ordeal of divorce. i feel really stuck sometimes

    • drkellyflanagan

      Sally, I am sorry to hear about your situation. Unfortunately, in this medium, I cannot provide personalized advice or guidance. I would STRONGLY encourage you to seek an individual therapist to work through this with. Best to you and your husband.

    • Kathy

      I’ve been where you are. Here’s what’s gonna happen. Right now you may think you’re in control and that your husband will hang out indefinitely tolerating your lovelessness, but he won’t. One of you will fall into an affair, probably him because you totally do not expect it and are doing nothing to protect yourselves from it. Don’t kid yourself. Your husband feels your unlove. You can try therapy, but at a minimum, you must make up your mind to find things about your husband to be grateful for, and express it to your husband every day! Otherwise your attitude and your marriage will get worse and worse. Your marriage isn’t going to stay static until your kids grow up. It will either grow in love or die a tortured, sudden death. You really do have a choice. Believe that and good luck!

    • Kathy

      And one more thing. Divorce does not have to hurt kids if it is done peacefully. A bad marriage was way more damaging to my older kids than divorce was to my younger children. You have to be honest and make up your mind to be all in or all out. The half way hell is damaging to ALL. It’s living a lie.

  • 8StepListen

    Empathy is easy when the experience is common or readily visible. I gasp when I see someone trip or fall. It’s natural and happens without thinking.
    Things quickly become tricky when you don’t share the same experience, or you can’t immediately determine what the other person is upset about.
    It took me weeks to figure out why some women like to buy shoes. Women’s fashion is complicated and the shoes can make or break an entire outfit. When it works, it’s like an artistic creation. The woman feels good and looks good. When it doesn’t work, the woman is self-conscious and feels like a fashion disaster.
    I have to remember this when I want to go home but my wife wants to drag me to another shoe store.
    Jennifer Koski is right. When you make the effort to understand other people’s actions (even if you don’t share the same experiences), you gain wisdom, and the power to create lasting compromises.

    • drkellyflanagan

      So cool to hear about the time and effort you put in to empathizing, and to hear about the fruits of that labor. Thank you for sharing!

    • Katherine

      What a nice husband you are!

  • Abbey

    I am writting in from Nigeria,and must say I loved reading this particular article.

    Down to earth and correct, with surgical precision (in my own case at least).
    I have always enjoyed you writeups, and the “Marriage Manifesto” was a blessing, forwarded it to a friend as well.

    I find it hard to empathise with my wife when I am already unhappy with her about something that has not been resolved before the time in question.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you so much for these kind words. And I think you are right on: it can be really hard to empathize when we feel like there is an unresolved injustice in the relationship.

  • Priti

    Sometimes, my hubby and I start competing for empathy and engage in a debate to convince that the other has it easier! I guess sometimes, we just need to consciously make an effort to go first. Somewhere I read that when my husband returns from work, instead of offloading right away, I should give him space to re-align. I give him that now…close to half an hour and he appreciates it and is re-energized to take on our son to a park for some son-dad time and I unwind that time! Great post!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Priti, I love the way you have been thoughtful and adaptive in your marriage. The image of giving him space and then him being more free to engage is a beautiful vision of the dance of marriage. Thank you!

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  • emma

    I’m really concerned about my husband. He tries to be positive but is always angry, if I’m sick he gets angrywith me and won’t help me unless i am in almost tears, we have two small children and he loves them to bits but really lacks empathywith them too when they can’t makea decision or are sick etc. I’m really struggling and don’t know what to doijust want the same love back

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  • AC

    I get the idea of this, and it makes sense. I think it’s important to really work at empathy in a relationship, and make a conscious decision to do so in tough situations. i have a question though. What if this partner you are supposed to be empathetic to has been emotionally and physically abusive, and looks at your empathy as a weakness he/she can use against you to hurt you and get what they want? Do you still be empathetic? it’s important to protect oneself in a situation like that, can you be empathetic to them and still do that? how?

    • Justbee

      I’d like to know the answer to that as well.

  • S.W.

    I came across you post/site when I typed in “What is Empathy” among a slew of others. However, yours stood out and the comments (I read them all) as well to compel me to comment.

    I’m a business owner and I think very logically, not so much emotionally, however, my wife is the exact opposite. She gets flustered so easily. She shuts down in the blink of an eye if something goes wrong or not her way. She cries, sometimes. And it can be over very little things… in my opinion, again thinking logically and rationally about the situation or how she may be feeling.

    So, it has put a strain on our marriage since she says, I don’t listen to her feelings. We are in counseling now and we’re working on our inner demons and our egos and our feelings. I’m trying to be more empathetic, it’s extremely tough, but only with her. Not my clients or my business partners. It’s the strangest thing and it really is tragic.

    I’m putting forth the effort. I believe she is as well to work out her over-sensitivity to situations or her blow outs and crying. She is working on empathy towards me as well. Our counseling also said it’s going to take time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. I can’t get my six-pack abs back overnight either. Patience was stressed by our counselor and I have been showing great patience, but tonight we were practicing our empathy and our “Speaker, Listener” conversations and our “Taking a break” to calm down our mind and body if empathy was getting ready to be passed out the door. She called for a break and I respected it and shut up (meaning I stopped talking to show I was being patient). It gave me time to calm down too. But, then I called for a break and it completely backfired. She kept coming at me. Empathy was out the door. And I felt trapped. As if I painted myself into a corner. Then she began crying and I didn’t know where it came from. I asked her for patience and understanding and respect for my break in a calm manner/tone, which I felt we both needed again, much like I provided her. I then felt resentment, as if I shouldn’t have practiced what we were trying to work on. I’m not practicing more patience in trying to understand the change for her is also going to be very hard to grasp and accept and then ultimately gain control of. I’m not mad at her. I’m not mad at myself. I handled the situation in the likeness of how our counselor recommended we begin to approach and implement into our marriage.

    Empathy is definitely a 2 way street. And I agree it is also unidirectional. Only now I see it because that’s the way it has to be. Otherwise, it’s a battle for who’s right and who gets the last word. Empathy is going to be a lot of hard work. Empathy is a change in mental processing of your own information intake and how to perceive it from your partner/spouse. It is going to be A LOT of patience because no one, including myself, enjoys ‘change’ or even seeks ‘change’.

    Thanks for your posts and sharing unbiased insight. Your examples aren’t gender specific, rather couple specific, unlike how many of your colleagues write. It’s not always the guys fault or the guys not being empathetic enough, or at all. Looking forward to reading your eBook next.

    – Shawn

    • S.W.

      Sorry, saw a typo near the end of my 4th paragraph… **I’m NOW practicing more patience in trying to understand the change for her is also going to be very hard to grasp and accept and then ultimately gain control of.

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  • Single 15

    What would you think of if your boyfriend forwarded “Empathy is hard. By
    its very nature, empathy cannot happen simultaneously between two
    people. One partner must always go first, and there’s no guarantee of
    reciprocation. It takes risk. It’s a sacrifice. So most of us wait for
    our partner to go first. A lifelong empathy standoff. And when one partner actually does take
    the empathy plunge, it’s almost always a belly flop. The truth is, the
    people we love are fallible human beings and they will never be the
    perfect mirror we desire. Can we love them anyway, by taking the empathy
    plunge ourselves?” this part of the article to his former girlfriend who he claims to have no more feelings for?

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  • Amy Romance

    I can usually empathize with friends and family, but with my significant other– well, that’s a whole different story. I guess you could say that I don’t want to go first. But it is much more than that. I’ve been so emotionally hurt by him that sometimes I just feel like he should suffer or that I shouldn’t have to help him because he doesn’t deserve my compassion or empathy… After reading this article, I hope I can change to be a better partner as well as a person.

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  • Nonya Bznezz

    What makes it difficult you ask? The same thing that makes it easy. I came from a broken home, suffered through sexual abuse as a child, entered adulthood with no clear focus of what direction my life would, let alone should, go. I had many challenges throughout my formative years, and indeed being a soldier more that faced me as an adult. The whole time somehow I knew people succeeded in life, people found happiness, really happy people found contentment with where there life was and the course it was headed. I knew this, and I knew I wanted that too. So after many years of bumps and hard lessons learned I’m for the most part there. I graduated from a trailer park to owning a home, I have a fantastic wife and great kids. The actions that happened in the past a faded memory.
    It’s going through this that makes it easy to empathize because I know where the bottom is. Where it becomes hard is when you know someone who can’t connect, and continue to let their past hold them down, or worse start patterns of greater self destructive behavior. After I while I have to disconnect. Mental note for any young readers on here. A way that helped me develop into a stronger more confidant man, was finding an older patient mentor. Someone successful, who was patient enough and caring enough to help guide me. Set the example if you get my meaning.