How to Back Your Empathy with Action

Empathy is more than just taking an internal walk in your partner’s shoes. Instead, real empathy requires action. Without action, empathy won’t go very far in your relationship. As James D. Parker said, “Empathy alone matters little if we fail to act.”

Empathy is transformative. It helps us see, hear, and understand one another like nothing else. And, when properly cultivated, it inspires action. We must back our empathy with action if we want to show our spouses how much we truly love them.

So how can we back our empathy with action? Let’s dive in.

1. Set aside your agenda.

We have to set aside our agenda in order to cultivate true empathy. That means listening to understand your spouse, rather than listening to reply. It also means setting aside your natural desire to get the upper hand in a debate or a fight.

When we’re driven by agenda, we’re unable to fully hear what our spouse has to say. Their true heart is lost in our desire to prove our point, and we’re unable to truly see them. And if we’re blinded by our own wants and desires, we won’t really be able to show them love or take a willing walk in their shoes.

If you really want to back your empathy with action, then setting aside your agenda is the essential first step to doing so. Simply noticing your spouse’s emotions or feeling with your spouse is internal to you. If your agenda drives the interaction, then that’s where your empathy comes to a screeching halt.

Once you’re able to truly act in your spouse’s best interest, that’s when your empathy becomes externalized and leads to positive change for both of you.

2. Be receptive and perceptive to your spouse’s needs and experiences.

Now that your agenda isn’t standing between your empathy and your action, it’s time to make things happen. Here are some of the habits you can put into practice in order to back your empathy with action:

  • Listen to understand your spouse
  • Visualize yourself in their shoes
  • Notice your spouse’s actions, reactions, and responses
  • Work to better anticipate their needs
  • Try to fulfill those needs before he or she needs to ask you
  • Feel emotions with your spouse
  • When you know what your spouse needs, act to help them right away

Action is the first step we can take in demonstrating empathy. Without action, empathy becomes a tool we use to manipulate our spouse. As long as we internalize our empathy and only use it when it benefits us, it can’t help our spouse in any way. The key is turning empathy into outward action.

Trading places with your spouse truly begins to pay off when you act with empathy. Like Bertha von Suttner said, “After the verb ‘to love,’ ‘to help’ is the most beautiful verb in the world.”

3. Show your spouse how much you really care.

Care is the ultimate demonstration of empathy. We like to say that care can easily go unnoticed until it’s gone from a relationship. Once it’s gone, though–and once spouses have stopped caring about one another–the relationship is headed for destruction.

It’s impossible to have a functional marriage, let alone a happy one, without care. We show our care by being present for our spouses, acting in empathy for them, and letting them know they make a positive difference in our lives.

Care is directly tied to empathy, so let your spouse know how much you care for them through your words and the things you do for them. Even better, work together to demonstrate mutual care for one another. The intentional action of acting on your empathy will pay dividends in your relationship in both the short and long terms.

How do you and your spouse back your empathy with action? Let us know in the comments section!


  • Gary H Thiemann says:

    My wife Amy is much better at being empathetic and acting to care for others (including me) than I am. I will work on being more proactive in showing my care and concern – It’s an objective of mine in maturing in my faith and discipleship. Lord, I can do better and I want to do better. I want to be a better man by showing care and empathy to my spouse and to others. You showed the ultimate compassion for us in your sacrifice on the cross. Like Paul said in 1 Corinthians, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

  • Carlo Furlan says:

    Dear Parrotts, thanks so much for your work to strengthen marriages. (We’ve been to a conference and I think my wife took a class at SPU). I had to write because I was just preparing a sermon on the Lord’s prayer and interspersing thoughts on racial reconciliation. I have seen the word “Black” in so many titles that it was my first thought at a glance. I read your blog then with one part of me thinking about my marriage, and another thinking about empathy for our Black brothers and sisters and how to connect that with action. I thought there were some great crossovers there. Thank you!

  • Julie says:

    I can tell my husband is acting out his empathy when I’ve shown signs of stress/overload and he comes over to gently scratch/stroke my back–he’s not prone to touch, so I know he’s making a conscious effort to stroke my back right where I carry my stress. I’m grateful for his listening ears and his soothing touch, especially since I know it doesn’t come naturally to him! On the flip side, he knows I feel empathy for his desire to lose weight and get healthier because I’m willing to get up earlier to cut up a big container of veggies and fruit–and another container of oatmeal with fresh fruit–for him to take with him to work so he has a healthier breakfast and snack than the sweet junk he’s prone to grab. He’s appreciative for help in his goal to get healthier. That’s a challenging goal to take on all by your lonesome!

Leave a Reply