Empathy, Sympathy, and Marital Conflict

Why Sympathy Doesn’t Work and Empathy Does.

When our spouse is pleased with us… happy…connected then empathy is a breeze. But particularly if you’re male, it’s more challenging to display empathy when our partner sees us as a source of sadness, pain, or frustration.

Men sometimes attempt to inspire their gloomy partners by marginalizing their partner’s negative thoughts and feelings as the real problem. We want our spouse to feel better, but we attack their feelings as “the enemy.”

If our partner could just see their pain the way that we see it, it would all be so much better. So we buck up and become reasonably “sympathetic.”

That’s the rub with sympathy. Sympathy is merely a quick cobbling of an understanding of how your partner feels but skipping over the more challenging work of experiencing the feelings together.

It’s sometimes hard for some men to sit with feelings. So in their benign impatience, they discount their partner’s feelings as a way of managing their own sense of powerlessness and mounting anxiety.



The art of being empathetic instead of sympathetic has four key components:

1. Start With A Differentiated Stance and a Beginner’s Mind.

A Cup of Tea
Nan-In, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

The professor took a seat on the largest pillow and talked endlessly about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then, as the visitor continued to prattle, Nan-in kept on pouring.

The professor, noticing the overflow, blurted out, “It’s too full. Please stop pouring!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in whispered in his ear, “you are too full of your own ideas and opinions. How can I show you true Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

So please empty your mind of all the preconceived ideas about your partner’s unhappiness. Including notions of your own culpability. When you focus on how you may or may not be “responsible,” you are caught up in the perils of judging and evaluating.

This critical mindset focuses on notions of responsibility and blame. Defense is not a good play right now. Careful noticing and curiosity is a better stance. A differentiated stance permits you to be open curious, and fully present to what your spouse is feeling, without carrying the weight of your “responsibility.”

2. Forsake the idea of Finding “The Truth.”

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and right-doing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.” Rumi

In every relationship, there are two realities. When the focus is on cause and effect, and assignment of blame, it’s hard to reach the place where feelings are discussed and shared. Your partner is upset for a reason. Can you imagine being them and feeling what they feel without getting defensive? It’s not easy. But it is possible.

3. Remember the Vulcan Mind-Meld.

Here is where listening with great attention is paramount. Gottman tells us that empathy differs from sympathy. Empathy is a deep experience of what your partner is experiencing. What your partner needs is not a “reasonable” understanding of their position following quickly by your counter-argument.

They need to feel “gotten.” Understood. Validated.

Dr. Gottman ( I’ve long suspected that he is a closeted Trekkie) tells us that to attune to your partner requires the ability to experience their feelings on such a level that you almost “become” your partner.

Gottman describes empathy as emotionally connecting so deeply that experience is viscerally shared. Not just understood.

If you’re having trouble climbing down into their foxhole, start by being curious about what your spouse is feeling.

Just be curious. Ask questions. Engaging them might feel like running into a burning house, but it’s only your defensiveness that will melt away.

4. Summarize and Validate.

Validating your partner’s perspective doesn’t require you to shred your own perspective. Your point of view is not diminished by validating your partner’s. Empathy displays your curiosity of why they have those feelings in the first place and their vulnerability that lies underneath.

“Validation is such a fundamental component of attunement that summarizing without it is like having sex without love.”  Dr. John Gottman

Men, behind each of your wive’s complaints, lies a deep pool of vulnerability, longing, and aspiration. As you become aware of this, you will find it easier to choose empathy. Taking your partner’s complaint personally, and reactively defending will not make things better.

Empathy takes mindful practice. It’s also worth noting that the research shows that empathy is a two-way street. Empathy is a mutual process. It’s easier to wax empathetic if your partner tends to do the same for you.

Empathy is the bedrock of marital satisfaction. And mindfulness is the quarry.


About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

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