This past Thanksgiving was wonderful, as usual. We got up, packed the car, and headed an hour west to Eric’s stepbrother and sister-in-law’s house. As has become our tradition, we lounged some, cooked some, ate until we were stuffed, cleaned up, and played games. This year we played The Crew and decided we are huge fans of it.
After we finished our last round, Eric and our sister-in-law sat down to complete some tasks on a game they play together online. Expecting it to take about thirty minutes, I sat on the couch and watched a show with my brother-in-law. One show ended, and we started another. An hour passed. Then another hour. Between the first show and the last, I changed from an understanding spouse to an angry, frustrated spouse.
Finally, I walked into the kitchen where they were playing and reminded Eric that I had to work the next day. The response I wanted was, “Oh, you’re right. I am sorry! I forgot that.” The response I got was less expressive and not effective. I went back to the couch, quietly fuming. He knows I must work tomorrow. How could he be this selfish? I would not do this to him.
In graduate school, I remember a counseling professor telling us to think of something we would never do. After giving us a few moments to ponder, he said, “When we think of something we would never do, we become judgmental of others who do it.” Clearly, being judgmental is not helpful in a counseling situation, and not in marriage either. By thinking, “I would never do this to him,” I found him guilty of being a poor spouse and elevated myself as morally superior.
Is it true that I am the better spouse? No, we both have our shortcomings. Am I the more empathetic spouse? Yes. And because I am more empathetic, I struggle with judging Eric when he does not show empathy. So, perhaps I lack empathy towards his lack of empathy… (hmm…).
For some, knowing what others need and how they feel is as natural as blinking; yet, to others, the thoughts and feelings of others are a mystery. Eric has a large array of giftings – figuring out systems, problem solving, coaching – but empathy is not among them. Because of this, he has to be intentional about showing empathy. He cannot count on waking up in the morning and knowing what to do from an empathetic point of view. He has to practice; and, before he practices, he has to be aware that he needs to practice.
Are you like my husband or like me? Do you have to work hard to understand what your partner needs or do you have to show patience towards your partner when he or she does not seem to understand your needs? Either way, there is some work to be done.
To those for whom empathy does not come naturally:
- It is in our best interest to learn what our partners need. We cannot assume that a quiet person is a content person. The “Hey, sorry, didn’t know” defense does not work long-term in relationships. We need to keep learning about our partners and noticing tells which communicate, “She is not okay” or “He is not ok.” Learning to understand our partner is important for ongoing communication.
- We can keep actively learning what our partners need by asking questions and encouraging them to speak up when something is bothering them. Instead of showing frustration when your significant other is not forthcoming, encourage him or her to speak candidly – then step back and give them time and space to do it. Empathetic people are often sensitive people and they do not want to risk upsetting their partners by communicating their needs or (especially) their anger. Sensitive people can easily think, “What if I tell him what I need, and he gets upset? It is easier to stay quiet than to risk him getting angry with me.”
- Shake it off and try again. Did you miss the mark? Please do not give up. Empathy is a skill which you can develop. If you failed to be empathetic this time, apologize (please apologize), but then keep trying. The worst way to respond is by giving up. Your naturally empathizing partner will forgive you if you show you are sorry and desire to improve.
To those for whom empathy does come naturally:
- We cannot always assume our partners know what we need. The stereotypical female response, “If he loved me, he would know what I want,” does not work well. Men and women are different by design and we must communicate our needs (often explicitly, if we want to be understood). Before we ever left for our Thanksgiving festivities, I should have talked to Eric about a time by which we needed to leave so I could get home in time for good rest for work the next day.
- We need to remember our shortcomings. Our partner’s transgressions against us are not more egregious than our own. As is said, “Don’t become judgmental because someone sins differently than you do.” It is true Eric did not empathize with my needs when he stayed late on Thanksgiving; however, I am ill-tempered when stressed, I withhold my true feelings to keep the peace, and I procrastinate in keeping our home tidy. Before jumping on our high horse, we need to remember our own failings for perspective.
- When our partners make strides towards showing us empathy, we need to acknowledge them and show our appreciation. Eric loves a clean kitchen and, because he loves a clean kitchen, he is quick to thank me when I clean it. Why? Because he wants to encourage a repeat performance (and because he genuinely appreciates it). If I cleaned and he never thanked me, I would eventually resent it. When Eric makes efforts outside of his normal proclivities to actively show me empathy, I need to let him know that I recognize his efforts and thank him for caring enough to expend the energy.
The relationship dance is a tough one. Just when you think you have figured out the steps, you realize there is more to learn. The longer you are together, the less often you encounter surprises, but they still pop up occasionally. Empathy is deeply nourishing to a relationship, and you never regret honing those skills. You can empathize with your partner better by studying his or her personality traits, preferences, emotions, fears, talents, and shortcomings. The more we learn about each other, the more understanding we become.
Do some extra noticing this week. Ask questions. Encourage real talk. Withhold harsh responses to confrontation. Be honest about your needs. Be compassionate about your partner’s needs. Ask God to fill you with more love, more grace, and more empathy for each other.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4, ESV)
How will you remind yourself to show extra patience and/or empathy to your partner this week?