Empathy is one of the defining characteristics of emotional intelligence.
To have empathy, you must put yourself in another person’s shoes — to feel what they are feeling and seek to understand their perspective.
You must be willing to step outside of your own needs and feelings in order to be present and engaged with someone else.
Empathy calls for patience, active listening, intimacy, and selflessness. It requires a generous and giving spirit and a true desire to sit with someone in their most difficult moments or share in their most joyous accomplishments.
Some people are naturally empathetic, but most people need to learn and reinforce the skills of empathy.
To do that, we must recognize it’s value not only in our relationships, but also in our own personal growth. Practicing empathy expands our understanding of ourselves and others.
It connects us to the human condition — the suffering, the joys, the sorrows, and the longings we all share. It draws us closer to the people around us and frees us to be vulnerable and authentic with them.
We need to practice empathy in all of our personal and professional relationships, but the one relationship in which empathy was essential is your marriage or love relationship.
A successful marriage requires a deep and abiding communion and closeness between the two people. Love and intimacy thrive on the empathic connection within the relationship.
Why is empathy so important in your marriage?
It helps you resolve conflict and misunderstandings, as you are more willing to see your partner’s perspective and understand their feelings.
It gives you insight into the deepest recesses of your partner’s emotional world, allowing you a fuller experience of the person you are married to.
It shows your partner that you love him or her enough to be fully engaged and present, bring you closer to one another.
It strengthens your ability to be compassionate and non-judgmental with other people in your life.
It allows you to distance yourself from your own petty grievances, frustrations, and demands when you are focused on your partner and his or her needs and feelings.
As Daniel Goleman, author of, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ
Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.
For a marriage to thrive, both partners must embrace the value of empathy and practice it willingly. You and your spouse should be motivated to learn and continue to improve your empathic skills.
But what if your spouse isn’t willing to learn and practice the skills of empathy?
How do you cope with a lack of empathy from your spouse?
If you are an empathetic and compassionate person, you might find yourself working double-time to be there for your spouse whenever he or she needs you. But sadly your spouse sucks up all of your emotional energy without offering any in return.
You drop everything when your spouse needs you. You listen with compassion and love. You reserve your judgments and opinions, and allow your partner to fully express his or her feelings.
Your partner’s pain causes you great pain. You suffer when he or she suffers.
But your spouse rarely reciprocates. In fact, he or she might view your emotions as trivial, overblown, or irritating.
Your husband doesn’t pick up on your facial expressions or moods, because he is too absorbed with his own concerns. Your wife doesn’t take the time to ask you probing questions or attempt to understand the pain behind your bad mood.
Perhaps your spouse views your problems or worries as less important or painful than his or her own. Rather than seeking to better understand you, your partner uses the opportunity to vent and compare his or her own problems.
Sometimes an otherwise loving and well-meaning spouse can lack empathy out of ignorance or awareness. Your partner may not be naturally empathetic, and may not understand what empathy is and why he or she should practice.
Perhaps your partner never witnessed an empathic relationship between his or her parents and never learned the skills of empathy.
However, it’s possible that you are married to someone with narcissistic tendencies. This kind of person is too self-absorbed, controlling, manipulative, and insecure to offer you what you need in the relationship.
These are two different situations that require different coping skills.
Let’s begin with the narcissistic spouse who lacks empathy.
It’s important to recognize that narcissists aren’t motivated to change their behavior. Why should they be as long as they are getting their needs met?
This person doesn’t care about improving the relationship or better understanding you by stepping into your shoes. He wants you to inhabit his shoes at all times. She wants you to meet all of her needs and be available for her without having to expend any emotional energy in return.
A true narcissist uses you to boost his or her self-esteem and will rarely view you as an equal — much less a priority.
If this is your situation, trying to get your spouse to show more empathy is an exercise in futility.
Your best bet is to accept that you won’t get your emotional needs met by your partner or experience the tenderness and compassion you desire. You’ll need to find empathetic surrogates who can fill the painful gap and learn take care of your own emotional longings.
Here are some ideas to help you cope:
When you need emotional support and empathy, don’t continue trying to make your spouse understand you or offer you the compassion you require. Your spouse’s continued selfishness will only make you feel worse and undermine your self-esteem.
Stop bending over backward to be present and available for your spouse in the hope that he or she will reciprocate. Your partner will continue to be an emotional vampire, draining you of the energy you require to tend to your own emotional needs.
Develop or strengthen your friendships and relationships with other adult family members. Find a few people with whom you feel safe to share your inner feelings — those who have shown empathy in the past. Be sure to reciprocate when they need you and your understanding and support.
Find a caring, supportive therapist who can be there for you during really difficult or painful times. Your friends and family can’t provide all of your emotional support, and since your spouse is emotionally unavailable, you will need someone who can fill in when you feel overwhelmed.
Practice self-compassion by paying attention to your own suffering and pain and offering yourself love and kindness. Mentally step outside of yourself, as though you were your own best friend or loving spouse, and give yourself the empathy you would offer others.
Unfortunately, as long as you are in a marriage with someone who is unable or unwilling to show you empathy, the ideas above won’t help you create a more loving, intimate, and empathic connection with your spouse.
You will either have to accept a one-sided relationship with a selfish spouse and cope the best you can, or make the difficult decision to move on and seek a relationship with someone who doesn’t lack empathy.
If your partner does show a willingness to be more empathetic and caring, then you have more to work with and a real opportunity to strengthen your marriage.
Try these steps with your spouse:
Ask your spouse to read this post about empathy so he or she can better understand what it is and why it’s such an important skill for your marriage.
Tell your partner exactly how you need him or her to be more empathetic. Do you need more active and attentive listening? Less judgment? More warmth and affection? Sometimes you need to be direct rather than hoping your partner will intuit what you need.
Give your partner more insight into your inner world and why you feel and respond the way you do. Your partner may not realize why something causes you so much worry or pain or what might trigger these feelings unless you verbalize the deeper reasons.
Talk to your partner about your own body language and what it means. Think about how you react physically when you are frustrated, hurt, or sad. What are your expressions? How do you hold your body? Help your partner learn to read the physical signs of your emotions so he or she can respond with compassion.
Ask your partner to avoid judgments, unsolicited advice, or personal opinions when you are expressing your feelings or worries. An empathetic partner should listen with open compassion and tenderness and validate your feelings, even if he or she doesn’t agree with them.
Show more empathy toward your spouse. One of the best ways to teach empathy is to be a good model of it. Show your partner the kind of empathetic behaviors you want him or her to show you.
Acknowledge and praise your spouse when he or she shows empathy. Let your partner know how much his or her efforts mean to you and how they bring the two of you closer. Everyone responds well to positive reinforcement.
It may take some time and patience before your spouse improves the skills of empathy so they become automatic. You may feel frustrated and irritated when he or she reverts back to less compassionate or selfish behaviors and words.
If empathy isn’t a natural trait for your spouse, manage your expectations about how quickly your partner will master these new empathetic behaviors.
Continue to reinforce how much you need empathy from your spouse and how important it is to the health of your marriage that he or she keep working on it.
Over time, your partner will experience the joy and contentment of drawing closer to you by being more selfless, compassionate, and fully present in your marriage.