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The Importance of Empathy in Relationships

Men, Why Empathy in Relationships Matters and How you Can Step it Up

Posted by Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT • April 4th, 2012 • 

A recent article in is titled, “Women Happier in Relationships Where Men Feel Their Pain.”  Those of us in the field of relationship therapy have known that empathy is a cornerstone of a healthy, connected relationship.  However, men and women actually want different emotional payoffs from each other.  The study by the American Psychological Association demonstrated that, men like to know when their partners are happy while women want the man in their life to know when they are upset.

According to Shiri Cohen, PhD and author of the study, “It could be that for women, seeing that their male partner is upset reflects some degree of the man’s investment and emotional engagement in the relationship, even during difficult times. This is consistent with what is known about the dissatisfaction women often experience when their male partner becomes emotionally withdrawn and disengaged in response to conflict.”

Empathy doesn’t come naturally for everyone and there are many reasons for this including attachment trauma and other challengingfamily of origin experiences where you weren’t modeled empathy.  Men are often not socialized to be empathic to the degree that women are.  The bottom line is that if empathy is a struggle it can be practiced, learned and integrated into your relationships.  Iftrauma is part of your story, you may need to begin with empathy for yourself before you can demonstrate it outwardly.

What is empathy?  Empathy is the ability to recognize another person’s beliefs and emotions; to not only put yourself in another person’s shoes but respond to their needs.

So men, we’re looking for behaviors that demonstrate empathy to your partners so they feel your emotional engagement.  Let’s look at some of the ways you can do this:

  • Follow up and ask her about something that was bothering her.
  • Ask her about her day.  Listen for the emotional content under the facts and dig deeper with her.
  • During an argument listen without interruption and validate her feelings.
  • Recognize that she is separate from you and is justified to have separate feelings and desires.
  • Refrain from always having to be right.
  • Let her see you practicing empathy in other areas of your life.

The presence or lack of empathy shapes all of us from our earliest attachment relationships with our parents or primary givers.  It’s an important skill to hone in all of your relationships.  Men or women can struggle with empathy.  It’s also important to note that the study findings also show that the more men and women try to be empathetic to their partner’s feelings, the happier they are.


Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT is the creator of The Toolbox at, with tools for marriage, relationship and emotional health.  She is the author of The Premarital Counseling Workbook for Couples and The Marriage Refresher Course Workbook for Couples, both in her Therapy-At-Home Workbooks® line.

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