How does empathy – the ability to vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another – positively influence a marriage?
Two years ago, I published my first book, Blues to Bliss: Creating Your Happily Ever After in the Early Years.
I wrote it for the imperfect bride married to an imperfect groom, who longs to create the marriage of her dreams but struggles to cultivate the needed mindset.
The overarching theme for Blues to Bliss is growth – the idea that a wife can change the dynamics of a difficult marriage as she learns do marriage as unto Christ, instead of unto husband.
Today I want to look at one thought, straight out of Introduction, where I am talking about our pre-wedding days and how God began to teach us to love sacrificially and die to the flesh.
“Just like salvation, it is when we come to the end of ourselves that God can truly take over and help us. Any true relationship must head south a.k.a “die” before it can live.
Serious and deep challenges, if they do not make us bail out, usually make us run to God for answers. They grow us, help us give up our little rights and self-righteous ways. It is when we end that God comes alive in our own hearts and relationships.
After the wedding, one of the things that struck us most about marriage was the permanence of it. “Until death do us part” is a very long time indeed! Which is why, at a light bulb moment, we stood amazed at the many people, waddling and sashaying down the aisle to get married “because they fell in love!”
Considering that marriage is the biggest cure for the “in-love” syndrome (the day you get married is the day you get cured, how about that), it’s a frightening thought that we’d get married for love alone.” from Blues to Bliss, Creating Your Happily Ever After in the Early Years
It is pretty easy to talk about the “dying to self” when it is all speculative. Yield your will, give sacrificially, listen when you’d rather talk, love when it’s not coming back the way you want is wonderful in theory.
Until the day it jumps out and demands to be walked out.
Individually, we understand the journey from theory to practice – what it takes to love sacrificially. We are intimately acquainted with the tears, the effort, the maturity, the stench of death on our nostrils as we learn to die.
We know how hard it is, and how much it takes God to transform or remove ingrained habits and old mindsets. We understand ourselves.
But often that is where it all ends; understanding for self.
But it was never meant to end with self.
We are supposed to take that experience and turn it to empathy for our husbands*(See note at the bottom of the post)
As a newlywed I desired empathy from my husband and God – after all, I had never been a wife before, and the learning curve was steep! Yet I never understood that I was to extend the same grace to my husband that I received from God.
I could spot it from a mile away, where he needed to step up and love me better, help out more, listen properly, give up something for my sake.
But when it came to the understanding that it was hard for him to die himself, the same way it was hard for me to die to myself? I checked out.
Lack of empathy is a problem for most newlyweds, in part because such intimate considerations were not part of their single life, and also because of ignorance and resistance to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit.
So we have a situation where on the one hand, a spouse is always calculating the distance their beloved needs to travel, but always failing to take into account the energy and sacrifice involved in that journey.
On the other hand, the beloved spouse is also calculating the distance they need to travel to become a better spouse, but they go ahead and include understanding (empathy) from their mate in their calculation.
Their assessments fail to agree. And the clash begins.
I believe God created us to desire empathy from a spouse who first needed empathy from God.
“Any true relationship must head south a.k.a “die” before it can live. It is when we end that God comes alive in our own hearts and relationships.” from Blues to Bliss Creating Your Happily Ever After In The Early Years
God allows us to taste (understand what it takes) self-death not so we can grow fat with knowledge, but so we put that experience to practice.
If He has entrusted you with a revelation, the chances are that you’ll need that revelation somewhere else. Not to beat someone over the head with it, but to come alongside them and love them to freedom, as God loved you to freedom.
Tommy and I went through a rough start so that we could use our experiences for good. It would be hard for me to write a growth-oriented marriage book and blog if I never walked the extra mile in my marriage.
It would be hard for my husband to encourage newlywed guys if he never faced deep discouragement as a newlywed husband. But God saw what was ahead and allowed hardships to come our way so He could in-work empathy and understanding in us.
A marriage without empathy is a marriage filled with walls, frustration, rebellion and two hardened hearts. But a marriage bathed in empathy is a place of refuge, softness, willingness and joy in spite of imperfection.
People find it easier to change when someone believes they can and cheers them along. On the other hand, people struggle to change when compassion for their current condition is lacking.
Husbands work harder to change when they feel loved and accepted, in spite of their mess. But when there’s no empathy and understanding for where they are, they don’t feel incentivized to change.
How can a wife train herself to show empathy to her husband?
A few ideas.
1. Get with God.
The Bible says,
“And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. Ezekiel 36:26
Only God can change your heart and your mind.
And He is quick to help us in this area when we ask. Have you ever prayed for patience and immediately got tested? That was God answering your prayer. He is faithful to respond to all prayer. So take a step today. Ask Him.
2. Accept that empathy will always feel hard
Discerning your husband’s sacrifice/growth, especially in areas he’s still imperfect, will require maturity, and a whole lot of mellowness, on your part.
I don’t think God means that once we embrace empathy, it becomes easy to shower it on our spouse. It might get easier, with time, but never comfortable. That is why it is a sacrifice.
So accept that there will always be discomfort and don’t beat up on yourself when empathy feels hard.
Just do it: speak kindly anyway, be patient, go the extra mile, cover him where you can, overlook minor irritations, pray for him as you do yourself.
3. Always take personal responsibility
Just like kindness, empathy is not the all-in-one cure for all marriage struggles or the single miracle ingredient for a happy marriage.
It’s one of the many tools in God’s marriage toolbox. (for example, you are not to ignore sin, abuse or chronic addictions in the name of empathy. Please read the following articles for more ideas 5 Guidelines For Setting Limits with a Difficult Spouse. Divorce: When a Wife Feels She Has Done Enough. When You Don’t Trust Your Husband)
However, the health of a marriage starts with “me” and just because a spouse is failing to give 100% doesn’t excuse the other from their responsibility. That “responsibility” might look different depending on your specific situation.
But often in marriage, we are not released from doing our part, even if our spouse has checked out.
Empathy is simply the ability to experience the feelings and thoughts of his current condition and then using that knowledge to inform and illuminate your next step.
4. Walk it out
And this is the big one. Cos its easy to read a blog post like this and think about how much your husband needs to see it, or how much someone else needs to read it.
But there’s a reason you are reading this blog post, not them (though you can pass it along.)
I believe this is where God lives; where the greatest transformation takes place. Sacrifice and empathy are the sweet intersections where God moves mightily in our marriages, and great growth takes place within us.
I hope you take time to think about how empathy can become central in your marriage today.
Sometimes, God needs access to one heart, not two. But many times we are waiting for our spouse to go first. Yet God is waiting for one. You can be the one.
Tired of the fussing, fighting and distance? Want to restore joy, healing and happiness to your marriage? Or maybe you just want to love better, create the marriage of your dreams, God’s way. My book Blues to Bliss: Creating Your Happily Ever After In The Early Years will set you on that road. Buy it here Amazon Paperback I Kindle I Barnes & Noble I PDF I UK/Europe PDF . Or Click here to go to the book page.