“Empathy is truly the heart of the relationship.” – Carin Goldstein, LMFT
Can you talk to him about your feelings, hopes, goals and dreams? Does he listen and respond empathically? If he does, wow!
But if he doesn’t, don’t necessarily rule him out. Many men tend to jump in with a solution or a judgment when a woman wants only to be heard, because they are, um, men. Typically, the male brain is wired more for problem solving and less for communication about feelings than the female brain.
Empathy Can Be Learned
If he’s basically nice, he can probably learn to show more empathy. You might tell him, gently, before venting, that you would like to be heard and understood, not “fixed.” When he does listen thoughtfully, tell him how much it means to you that he’s really there for you. Your compliment is likely to inspire more of the same from him next time. So, do remember to keep telling him you value him for listening.
You might wish he could read your mind, but you cannot expect him to. This is why it is so important to tell him, again gently, what you need.
You can also teach compassion by example. When you respond empathically to him, you are being a role model. The more you do this, the more likely he’ll catch on and respond similarly to you.
Empathy is a trait also worth cultivating in your relationship with yourself. I’ve noticed that many of my therapy clients first need to learn to increase compassion for themselves before they can become more understanding toward their partner.
When Our Own Needs Interfere
At times, our needs and issues can block us from being totally receptive to another’s. Our challenge is to put ourselves aside for long enough to allow space for the other’s self-expression.
It’s useful to give each other some slack. Suppose he makes a judgmental remark. Your feelings may be hurt, but don’t strike back. Instead, center yourself, perhaps by taking a few breaths and remembering that his comment probably says more about him than it does about you. You needn’t take it personally. He may well have picked up a habit of becoming critical when feeling stressed because he grew up in a family with lots of blaming. Depending on how severe his issue is, you may want to tell him that you’d like him to respond with more acceptance and see how that goes; or you may decide he’s not for you.
Sometimes It Takes a Woman
Sometimes it takes a woman to respond with the sensitivity you crave. I don’t remember who hurt my feelings about what, but I recall telling my usually empathic husband. He said something like, “Let it go. It’s no big deal.” He was trying to be supportive but I couldn’t let it go.
Then I talked to a female friend. She looked at me and said: “Bummer.”
I felt understood. My angst melted away. But don’t blame my husband, or his gender. Just recognize that we have different strengths. Vive la différence!
Do look for empathy in a potential marriage partner, but not for perfection. If your “diamond in the rough” needs a bit of improvement, he may well be willing to grow in this area. If he’s healthy emotionally overall, he probably has a store of empathy, deep down inside, that can be mined.