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…

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 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.

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.

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