Why Is It So Hard To Give Empathy To My Partner?

empathy holding space parenting
Text in the image reads: Why is it hard to have empathy for my partner when I have so much for my child? With the instagram handle @DrTracyD and the weblink www.DrTracyD.com There is an illustration of a dark haired woman sitting criss-cross-applesauce with a dark haired child holding hands. She appears to be very empathetic towards the child who looks upset.

In a recent poll here in the community, over 80% of you said that you had a hard time giving empathy to your partner when it’s actually something that is quite easy to give to your children.

Click here to see all of the reasons you shared on Instagram 

I want to share that this is a common experience for many, and at the root of it, I believe this is because we hold higher expectations of adults and we lose the ability to hold loving kindness to our partner’s suffering and struggle. 

But when did this happen? Sometimes slowly over time as the stressors started to build up. Or maybe as a result of you not expressing things to your partner. Perhaps you even stopped asking for what you need. And now, that feeling of resentment and disconnection has built up in your relationship.

What is Empathy?

Let's start with what it is not. It isn’t fixing, problem-solving, dismissing, or vacuuming up feelings. It’s not arguing your viewpoint or sharing your opinions. It’s also not agreeing with the other person.

So what is it? 

Empathy is trying to view something from your partner’s perspective. It is a consideration of “the other,” and seeing where they might be coming from. It’s entering into their world and walking around in it with them. It’s seeing something from their view, with consideration of their previous experiences, their upbringing, and who they are as a person. It also includes showing understanding and kindness towards them and their struggle. It might include both words and actions that let the other person know that you hear their fears and vulnerabilities. 

Empathy is important in our partnership. It helps to deepen our connection and to improve satisfaction. It allows us to feel safe and seen. When we think of childhood, we often think of seeing our child’s pain and saying, “there, there, sweet baby. I’ve got you.” We need to hold this same tenderness with our partner. This is the essence of what it means to be human… our shared humanness and common humanity is that at our core, we all need to know that we matter, that we are seen and that we are important.

Without it, there is a risk of developing what Janina Fisher discusses as Emotional Neglect. You can learn more about preventing it with this quick read.

What Stops Us From Using Empathy in Our Relationship?

Here is a short list of some of the things that show up and block empathy:

  • Resentment
  • Defensiveness
  • Criticism
  • Mental load
  • Exhaustion
  • Burnout
  • Trauma
  • Childhood wounds
  • Comparing the empathy they give to the empathy you give

How Do We Build Empathy for Our Partners? 

Here are five things that you can start to do to help increase empathy in your relationship

  1. Shoulder to shoulder: We are often playing tennis on opposite teams. As a result, we only see the ball coming at us. In this position, we are set in viewing the issue or sharing from our own perspective. For true empathy, we must shift to playing doubles. Be on the same team, and see the problem in front of you as "we." This is, in essence, shifting perspectives. Don’t be on your side of the net. Be on your partner’s side for this moment.
  2. Be a good listener: We listen to respond. Often, instead of truly trying to figure out what is being shared, we are focused on preparing our next response. To be a good listener, notice when your mind is wandering and focus it back on what is being said. Put your thoughts and opinions to the side while you are listening.
  3. Drop your judgments and park your own beliefs: Keeping in mind that empathy is about entering into someone else’s experience, put your judgments and beliefs away. When empathizing with your partner (which should always come first as a key skill in your relationship!), you want to be in their experience rather than expressing your own. 
  4. Recognize the emotion in the other person: If you aren’t sure what they are feeling, ask questions: If you don’t fully understand what your partner is saying, ask questions. This helps you to fully understand their experience. Avoid asking questions to prove a point or to test out your own theories or opinions. Ask questions to be with your partner.
  5. Let the other person know that you understand them: This is the verbal feedback piece, that is important in your relationship.

Sometimes our early relational experiences prevent us from being able to tune into our internal sense of empathy for others. For many, they didn’t have it modelled to them or were shamed for having emotions. You can practice this skill to deepen your relationship and feel more connected with your partner. And remember, you don’t have to wait for them to learn these skills first. You can be the first person to create that change.


Dr. Tracy