Today I'm going to tackle the topic of empathy in marriage. Most of us crave empathy when we're venting about stress in our life because we don't want to be fixed. We don't want to be told what to do. We want our partner to empathize. We want our partner to come alongside us and see things from our vantage point to feel like a unified front against the trials of life. Marriages who cultivate empathy are going to experience much closer emotional connection, which often leads to closer physical connection too. So, becoming empathetic has a lot of benefits for your relationship.
What is empathy in marriage?
Empathy in marriage is putting yourself in your partner's shoes as they vent by remembering all the variables that make them who they are. Empathy is seeing a situation from their vantage point considering their unique history, values, temperament, needs, and dreams.
There's two types of venting in marriage. The first type is when you have something negative to say about your partner. When you have something negative to say about your partner it's essential to use proper conflict resolution in marriage skills, such as the Reunite Tool, to minimize them feeling attacked. The rest of this article will give you tips on the second type of venting, which is about stress in your life.
Empathy in Marriage Tips
The first step to becoming empathetic and learning to empathize is called two birds on the same branch. This concept is by John Gottman and he is considered the godfather of marriage research. What this concept means is when your spouse is venting imagine they're on their branch looking at the topic from their vantage point. But when you hear it, you're on your branch looking at it from another angle and so the first thing out of your mouth is correction. You point out the flaws in their thinking and counter their perspective. You challenge their vantage point. You counter them because you are looking at it from your branch. Doing so ruffles their feathers because what they want you to get off your branch, flap your wings, and land on their branch and try to see the topic from their view. One time I did this very wrong. I was out to dinner with my wife and she was venting about a conflict she was having with a friend of hers. She was going on and on about the negative feedback she received from this friend and the whole time I'm listening to this I'm on my branch thinking her friend is right because I feel the same way towards my wife at times. I tried resisting it coming out of my mouth but before I knew it out it came, "I agree with your friend because you do do that." Understandably, my wife got upset because I was taking her friend's side rather than hers. I was not seeing the situation from her lens and trying to come over to her branch. I was defending her friend, which was the wrong thing to do. That's what we do when we're on our branch. We counter our spouse, we challenge them, we push back and invalidate their perspective. We tell them they're wrong. The ideal thing to do is flap your wings and get off your branch and come over and land on their branch. When you do this there's a couple of phrases I want you to master. One is, "I can see how you would feel ___ because of ___." The second phrase is "That makes sense that you would feel ____ because of ____." Shorter empathy statements can include "that sucks" or "that sounds horrible" or "no wonder you felt that way." Those are empathy statements. Those are the types of statements that will make your spouse feel like you get it, you understand, you care, and you can see where they're coming from.
Now, the challenge with those comments is a lot of times what they're saying will not make sense to you. A lot of times you won't be able to see where they're coming from. So how can you still make those empathy comments without feeling disingenuous? You have to redefine what empathy means. Empathy is not trying to see something from your perspective and only then resonating with your partner. That's not what empathy is. Empathy is when you literally kick off your shoes and walk over and put on their shoes and consider who they are. When you consider the situation from their perspective it will start to make sense why it made them feel what it did. That's how you can empathize regardless if you agree or not. If you think you only can empathize if you agree with your partner, you're rarely going to be able to empathize. And that's where a lot of people get stuck because they can't see their partner's perspective because they are looking at the situation from their lens not their partner's. It's a muscle that will strengthen with practice. The more you work it out, the stronger it will get. The results can be very powerful.
The second step to becoming empathetic and developing deeper empathy in marriage is taking turns asking one another the following questions during a calm, neutral time. These questions will provide rich information on who your partner is, why they are that way, and how they experience the world as a result. Write down the answers to the questions and review them often to stay mindful of how your partner is wired. Doing so will help you empathize more naturally.
1-What was most difficult and hurtful for you growing up?
2-What were the main values you were raised with?
3-What are your top values as an adult?
4-What are your top insecurities as an adult?
5-What stresses you out the most?
6-What are your top marital needs?
7-What are your top hopes and dreams for the future?
The last piece to becoming empathic and cultivating empathy in marriage is you are not allowed to give advice in response to your partner venting unless they ask you for it. Unsolicited advice will make them feel frustrated and unsupported. Empathize with them instead.
Conflict Resolution in Marriage
Emotional Intimacy in Marriage
Take my FREE Relationship Audit Quiz here to see how healthy your relationship is.
What are some other ideas for becoming empathetic and improving empathy in marriage?
Wonderful Carol! Great point how empathy is needed for forgiveness to follow. Glad to hear this article has provided some helpful next steps.
Dr. Wyatt, you’ve been in our house for months as we’ve worked through the most difficult time in our long marriage. Feeling empathy is essential before offering forgiveness, and I’ve been stuck. Your article provides the explanation and activities I have needed. Thank you…thank you…
Hi Christina, thanks so much for the positive feedback on my article! Yes, those questions are helpful because they allow us to see the world from our partner’s vantage point, which increases our authentic empathy.
Thank you, Dr. Fisher, for this very insightful article. I love reading your material because you address each issue in a very direct and helpful way….I tend to remember what I read and then I want to put it into action! I printed out this article because the questions were so good…and so loaded. I can imagine that my husband and I could spend an entire evening on just one question alone.
Thanks Kathy, glad you found the article on empathy helpful!
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