Sometimes, my wife, Susan, doesn’t need or want me to do things for her or fix things for her. Sometimes she’d rather I just feel things with her. That’s what empathy is all about. Empathy deepens a marriage through a shared understanding, perspective, or experience. I realized the importance of empathy from, of all people, an NFL coach.
As I shared in my book All Pro Dad, Coach Jim Caldwell, at the time of the Indianapolis Colts, once shared with me what he considers to be two critical components of leadership. The first one, expertise, didn’t surprise me. But the second one did: empathy.
Applying it to parenting, he said, “You must have empathy in both parenting and coaching. Whether it’s one of my players or one of my children, as a leader, I have to be able to put myself in their shoes. Being a coach has made me a better parent and being a parent made me a better coach. Having kids taught me how to empathize with others.”
Through the years, as I’ve thought about Coach Caldwell’s words, I’ve become absolutely convinced that he’s right—and that it applies to marriage as well. Empathy involves both the head and the heart. If you recognize the need to better empathize with your spouse, consider these three A’s to feel empathy:
- Awareness — Be aware of what your spouse is feeling and what’s behind that feeling.
- Agenda — Set aside your own agenda and focus on the needs of your spouse.
- Action — Take action on meeting the needs of your spouse.
Let’s unpack each one of those a bit more.
Being more aware of your spouse’s feelings starts with being observant around him or her. You can’t read minds or hearts, so you have to observe and ask and listen.
- Read your spouse’s nonverbal cues, like facial expressions.
- Make an effort to intentionally notice what’s going on in your spouse’s world. Busyness is not a badge of honor or an excuse for not noticing things.
- Avoid making assumptions that whatever emotional struggles your spouse has are all about you. Your spouse could be upset about something at work or the kids. When you assume the worst, you sometimes bring out the worst in your spouse.
- Ask questions and then listen carefully. Many times, I’ve asked Susan about something and even as she’s answering, she sees that I’m not fully listening. I might hear what she said, but I didn’t listen. There’s a difference. Here are some listening tips based on your different styles of communication.
This is about being selfless instead of selfish. It’s about putting your spouse’s needs before your own.
- Deprioritize your plans. If your spouse is struggling and you have plans, making their needs a higher priority than your plans speaks volumes to them. You can’t be selfish and empathetic at the same time.
- Resist the urge to fix things. Sometimes your spouse needs to hear you say, “I love you and I care about you” more than a game plan for how to make life better.
- Set aside your agenda, even if it’s inconvenient. I remember having my Saturday all planned out and thought it would go just as planned. So, when Susan wanted to share how she was feeling with me, I got frustrated and let her know she had infringed on my plans. I learned very quickly that my reaction was not only selfish but also didn’t do much to build intimacy in our relationship.
- Hold your schedule loosely. Being late to church, a kid’s practice, or a dinner reservation may be a small price to pay to really connect with your spouse. If you choose your schedule over your spouse, you might bulldoze your spouse’s heart in the process.
Find something you can do for your spouse that shows that they are your priority and that you understand them.
- As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Certain things we can do tend to be especially effective at filling the chambers of a wife’s or husband’s heart.
- Actions speak louder than words, but attitudes speak louder than actions. Whatever you do for your spouse, do it with a cheerful attitude.
- Do things with pure motives. If I see Susan heading into a jam-packed week and I say, “Hey, let me go the store or do laundry for you,” but I do it to get something in return, that’s not loving well.
How has your spouse shown empathy for you that meant a lot? Share your experiences in the comments below!