The 5 Empathy Fails in Marriage (And How to Avoid Them)

Empathy is the foundation of any authentic connection. It’s the bedrock of togetherness, the fuel of compassion, and the mortar of grace. We must hone our ability to feel it and to give it. But empathy can be elusive, for at least five reasons…


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Dusk is closing in when I arrive home from work and walk in the back door.

Some nights, all is well when I get home—my wife is happy and the kids are smiling. But some nights, my wife is tired and worn thin after a long day at work and the onslaught of demands for food and attention. Some nights, my oldest son is anxious and fretting about homework and standardized testing. Some nights, my younger son is distraught about the inevitable injustices of a middle child. Some nights, my daughter will settle for nothing less than a Daddy mirror—a father who will show his interest by reflecting all her energy and joy.

Some nights, everyone wants a little empathy and, some nights, I don’t want to give it.

Some nights, I get home, and I want someone to notice how tired I am, to soothe my anxiety, to correct the injustices done to me, and to mirror me. I could embrace my fatigue, fear, anger, and neediness as common emotional ground and I could reach out and connect in the midst of that shared experience.  But, some nights, I don’t.

Because even for psychologists, empathizing with the people we love is hard to do. And it’s particularly hard to empathize with the person we’ve promised to love for better or worse, for at least five reasons:

  1. I don’t want to go first. In any relationship, both members need empathy. But at any given moment, empathy is unidirectional—it 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.

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. Our partner’s needs are being met before our own, and our ego doesn’t like that. Yet, when our egos lose, our hearts win.

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 may need to stop 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.

I wish I could tell you I always find my way to empathy with my family, but I can’t. Some nights I do and some nights I don’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.

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*This post is adapted from an archived post.


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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+.

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20 thoughts on “The 5 Empathy Fails in Marriage (And How to Avoid Them)

  1. Thank you for this Wednesday morning reminder to recommit to losing first, getting it wrong and trying again anyway, being uncomfortable because that’s where the people we love are — and there’s no better place to be than truly present with them — and knowing there’s no fix for any of it, because this is the good stuff in being a family. You have a gift for making hard work and inevitable times we will fall short feel invigorating.

    • Shel, thanks for this! You reminded me that when my middle son was around two, we would stop in the midst of really sublime moments and say together, “This is the good stuff!” Maybe the hard work is the good stuff, too. : )

  2. I so look forward to every one of your posts. I know that sometimes you struggle with the vulnerability that sharing your writing requires, but just know that there is at least one person out here…(and I’m sure many more) who is exceptionally grateful that you share so much of yourself and your personal journey and struggles with your family in order to illustrate these concepts.

  3. My problem in my first marriage of 27 yrs was lack of empathy with my wife. I would always try and fix her problems instead of just listening and empathizing with her. I am still working on this every day with my new wife of 10 yrs. It is easier the second time around but it is still not easy for me and I do fail more times than I care to admit.

    • So much appreciate your dedication to working on yourself. Failing a lot and admitting it is far preferable to failing once in a while and never admitting it!

  4. Thank you again, Kelly, for a great post. It is good to be reminded (sometimes many times!) of how we need to keep trying even after we keep failing and forgetting. I needed the reminder. I could so relate to no. 2 because that is where I am with my husband lately on many things. It was good to be reminded that I don’t have to agree with him, I just need to be there with him in his struggles and efforts. It’s so darn hard sometimes though! It’s good to be reminded to keep trying. Thank you again!

    • Jenny, that’s probably the toughest one for me, too. Good for you for continuing to try! Thank you as always for your kind words and encouragement.

  5. I love this…. I always tell my husband to just “listen” but don’t solve.

  6. My marriage is in trouble. I can empathize with my wife but want to work to improve, but she has given up. Not sure of the next step. If I empathize with her then it’s over, but not sure how to get her to empathize with me.

  7. >at any given moment, empathy is unidirectional—it can only flow in one direction at a time.

    If I’m really getting it, and connecting with how another person feels, that feeds me too. It doesn’t seem one directional to me.

  8. The thing that’s hard is when it seems to be one-sided. Love as an ideal tells me I shouldn’t care, but love as a human reality tells me that “Damn it, I’m tired of being the one who always sees it *your* way. How about some empathy come *my* way once and awhile?”
    Here’s what makes it hard: Is that real? Or am I being over-sensitive and childish? Both?
    So, as I see it, here’s the path forward:
    1. Look at that love ideal I mentioned. Probably something there that can change without the world ending. I’ve been confused before about what love is, there is no reason to think I won’t be again.
    2. Let my partner know exactly how I feel. I want it my way sometimes, and that is perfectly acceptable
    3 Be willing to “take the hit” for wanting to be me.

  9. Wow. Thank you for your writing. I am struggling with empathy in my marriage. I feel it is so one sided I do my best to be there for my wife and 9 year old son but I sometimes wish I could get that back from her and him. The not finding solutions and just listen is really tough, I am in IT so I am “programmed” to find solution for any problem given to me. Sometimes try to talk to her about it just turns to a fight and her upset at me. So many times its Darned if a do and Darned if I don’t so which is the less painful. Answer keeping it in.

  10. If it is one sided, how would you know the difference between that and narcissism? And if narcissism is there on a clinical level, Is that even possible to heal?

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