Deeper Empathy in Marriage: What’s the Secret?

In marriage, it’s crucial to be able to empathize with one another. We like to think about it as trading places–taking a walk in one another’s shoes. Empathy is the key to a happy, successful marriage…but what is the key to empathy?

We like to think of self-awareness as the number one secret to achieving empathy in marriage. Being aware of your own emotions, and able to look at them objectively, allows you to step outside yourself and pay closer attention to what your spouse is feeling or going through.

When you lack self-awareness of your emotional state, you get sucked into your own feelings. More than that, your feelings dictate your actions and reactions. This could lead to angry outbursts and destructive behavior, which prevent effective problem solving and lead to long-term relationship damage.

Without self-awareness, you don’t have the ability to objectively register your feelings, then be attentive to your spouse’s. Let’s look at three major obstacles to self-awareness, and how to overcome them so you can exercise the empathy your marriage deserves.

1. Letting your emotions take the wheel

Some people struggle to get in control of their emotions. Instead, their feelings control them. We like to describe this as becoming engulfed by your emotions.

Think of it as if you’re in a vehicle, and your emotions are driving. Depending on your inner landscape and your external circumstances, those emotions can change drastically from one moment to the next. Rather than being able to navigate and direct the vehicle yourself, you’re too busy hanging on for dear life because your emotions are tossing you this way and that.

No matter what emotion is controlling a person at any given moment, it can become overwhelming. During a disagreement, that can be detrimental to your ability to solve problems together.

2. Suppressing your emotions

Suppressing your feelings is equally as destructive as letting them control you. Stuffing your feelings down only pressurizes them, keeping them hidden from you. This keeps you unable to identify what you’re feeling, or why.

There’s a funny thing about stuffing your feelings deep inside, too: eventually, they’re going to pressurize and explode. If you want to avoid lashing out at your spouse because you’ve tried to hide your feelings for years, it’s time to start getting more self-aware.

When you suppress your feelings, you also risk coming across as indifferent to your spouse’s concerns. Even though you may be keenly affected by something that hurts your spouse, for example, your emotional suppression could lead them to believe you don’t care. Get acquainted with your feelings so you can support your partner in theirs.

3. Resigning yourself to your emotions

When someone is resigned to how they’re feeling, that means they might acknowledge their emotions…but that’s where self-awareness ends. They know they feel, but they just accept that they’re “just going to feel this way”, then they give in to whatever emotion it is.

Being resigned to your emotions indicates that you don’t believe you can do anything to change what you’re feeling. But you actually do have power over how you feel. You can shift from a negative feeling into a positive one. None of us have to be victims to raging emotions.

Take control of your emotions through self-awareness

Getting self-aware enough to acknowledge your feelings, then view them objectively, is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your spouse. Once you’ve gained self-awareness, you can then cultivate the radical empathy your marriage so desperately needs.

If you need a guide to cultivating better empathy for your spouse, check out our book Trading Places. It’s a roadmap to walking in one another’s shoes–an essential skill in every happy marriage.

How do you manage your own emotions? What about your partner? Do you struggle to practice self-awareness? Let us know in the comments.


  • Pleas Williams says:

    Thanks for the article. I try to be empathetic but see I really need to work on 2 and 3 to become more successful at it.

  • Charles Collins says:

    Dear Les and Leslie,
    This article truly gets to the heart of the matter, and a deep understanding of this truth brings marriages to the intimacy level that is, sadly, so rare. Thank you for working so diligently to provide the environment for people to grow into the intimacy of marriage that God intended.
    In a ministry in which we work, one of the processes we use is one that helps people recognize this concept and come to a recognition of what is at stake, rather than getting stuck in reaction.

    Identify the challenge: What am I facing?
    What is going on in me at this moment?
    What am I thinking?
    What am I feeling?
    What am I desiring? (What deceptive desires are at play? What deep desires are underlying in me? How are these connected?)
    What is truly at stake here?
    How can I discern what is at stake in our larger story, rather than getting caught up in what seems to be immediate?
    What is the cost, or result?
    Of reacting? (now, and 5 years from now)
    Of responding in love and grace, focusing on our larger story, and what is important for our entire lives? (Am I building our intimacy, or causing it to crumble?)

    Both of you have done so much to shore up marriages into the intimate, continually growing, connections God intended.
    Thank you

  • LaVon says:

    What simple yet remarkably deep insight. It only makes sense to walk in my husband’s shoes first, I cannot be empathetic if I don’t take myself out of the equation. Because of the”me-me” glasses that I like to wear…even though they are smudged with falsehoods and self ambition, it is hard to see from his perspective.

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