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

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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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.