I learned the art of empathy the hard way.
When I left the house for work the other day, my wife kissed me on the cheek and told me she would be praying for my day. About 10:00, I turned my phone on after being in my morning appointment and saw a text from her that read, “I love you and I’m so proud of you! Thanks for working so hard to provide for our family.” Those texts never get old. They give me fuel to persevere and finish my day strong.
*Wife Tip – your words have so much power to influence your man!
I finished my last appointment and I couldn’t wait to be home. I love what I do, but there’s nothing like coming home to my family, a good meal, and some rest after a hard day at work.
As I was driving home I realized the last time I heard from Star was her text at 10:15. I decided to give her a quick call to check on her. No answer. She was probably busy cooking dinner and didn’t hear my call. I continued home, pulled into the driveway, and went inside.
The house was silent, but something wasn’t right. There wasn’t a smell of dinner cooking, and it looked as if nothing had been picked up or tended to all day. The house was a wreck. On top of all of it, my wife was missing. I tentatively went in to our bedroom and saw my wife in the bed with her phone blocking my view of her face. She didn’t give me any eye contact, greeting, or a simple acknowledgement of my existence.
“Hey!?, are you ok?”
Still, no answer.
Finally, I got some eye contact but she looked different. VERY different from when I saw her earlier that morning after giving her a kiss. Her eyes had a darkness to them. They were the same color, but…different. Darker. Almost a “scary” dark (BTW…this darkness is a playful term that Star has labeled herself with and that we both use as a funny, albeit somewhat accurate, way to describe her bad days.)
I’ve seen this look before and I’ve learned that I have a choice to make. A VERY important choice to make. I’ve learned that the choices I make in response to this look can make or break an evening, a day, or even in some extreme cases…several days.
Her darkness surprised me in the early days of our marriage. It caught me off guard. I often thought to myself, “Who kidnapped my wife and replaced her with someone else?”
What happened that day, and what has happened on other days, is my wife had a proverbial no good, very bad, bad day. Things just didn’t go her way. These “bad days,” or in some extreme cases, seasons, can be triggered by a variety of events with a wide range of severity:
- She had a rough day at work.
- She had an argument with her Mom/Dad.
- Kids have been fighting all day and they’re making her want to pull her hair out.
- “Homeschooling” didn’t exactly go as planned.
- Her closest friend accused her of something behind her back.
- You said something insensitive.
- She discovered a way you broke trust with her.
One of the most significant lessons I’ve learned (and am still learning), is the art of how to respond when my wife has one of these days. And notice I said “art,” because this is truly an art. There isn’t a formula. I wish there was! If there was, I’d be rich. I promise. What I’m talking about is learning the art of showing empathy.
Here are 4 principles to get you started (although I’ve written this in the context of a wife having a bad day, husbands have bad days too and these principles can be applied both ways).
Understand The Circumstances That Caused The Pain
It’s hard to deal with something that you aren’t aware of or that you don’t understand. Although this isn’t the only step to expressing empathy, it lays a foundation to respond with wisdom.
Ask a variation of this simple question, “What happened?” and listen to her answer/ask more clarifying questions until you understand the source of the hurt.
**PRO TIP – She might not know why she’s having a bad day. Don’t let your inquisition turn into interrogation in the absence of information. Resist the temptation to explain the bad day. Not a good move (see #1 below).
Understand the Emotion Around The Pain
Once you understand what happened, seek to understand what she’s feeling in response to what happened. It could be as simple as asking the question, “How are you feeling?” (don’t be surprised if they falls out of her chair when you ask her this. It might actually be a good sign). Keep asking and keep listening until she’s done sharing.
Ignore Your Intuition
This is where it gets really difficult. At this point you likely have much insight into why she’s struggling, and you probably have a list of solutions you are eager to share. PLEASE DON’T DO IT! I know this will require ignoring every “fix It” bone in your body, but it’s not the time.
Proverbs 12:15 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man but in the end it leads to death.” Your next step will seem clear to you and feel right, but trust me…it probably isn’t!! Stay away from responding with any form of the following (thanks to Karl Elkins for sharing this list with me 23 years ago. It has saved me a TON of pain).
- Facts, Logic, Reason – Explain why they’re struggling – Past Oriented
- Criticism – “What’s wrong with you now?”
- Comparison / Minimizing– “You think your day was bad? Listen to mine.”
- Pep Talk/ Encouragement – Christians are prone to this, “Could be worse”, “Tomorrow will be better.”
- Spiritualizing – “Well, you know that God is working this out for your good!” Romans 8:28
- Neglect – “What’s to eat?” Or, worse yet, Silence. The absence of emotion doesn’t communicate neutrality, logic, or intelligence. It actually communicates indifference and un-involvement. A spouse’s indifference can be just as painful as rage, rejection, or betrayal.
Comfort The Pain
Romans 12:15 says very simply, “…rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.” Husband, that is your target. Comfort. Not explanation, not correction, not criticism, not complaining, or any of the 6 things above. Comfort is your initial goal in response to your wife’s pain.
Sometimes your wife’s pain will be confusing. Sometimes it might not make sense. Don’t try to adjust or change her emotions, but rather acknowledge and comfort them as real. If there is any truth that needs to be shared regarding her situation or emotion, it should be done after and on a foundation of comfort.
Here are a couple simple phrases to comfort your wife:
- “I feel sad / hurt for you”
- “I don’t like to see you hurt”
- “I deeply care about and love you”
- “I am committed to walk through this with you.”
- Finally, don’t underestimate the impact of a simple hug. And, don’t let go until she does.
Mastering these 4 steps will lead you to become a master of expressing empathy. And I believe empathy leads to intimacy.
One last thought: showing empathy to your spouse is truly an art form. There are principles to consider, but you need to apply them with an intimate knowledge of your wife. Empathy can look different depending on the person, relationship, and specific circumstances. Start with the above principles, but have a conversation with your wife about what empathy looks like for your marriage.
Hans co-founded Marriage Revolution with his wife, Star, in 2010. He counsels couples in The Woodlands, TX, speaks at marriage conferences around the country, and provides leadership and direction to Marriage Revolution.