Empathy and Men vs. Women: A Common Scenario
Recently, a couple came in for marriage coaching because they were stuck in a rut. Whenever she was upset about something, she would seek emotional support from him. Instead of empathy or even reflective listening, he would cut her off and suggest a bevy of ways to solve her problem. She would get more upset as a result because she didn’t feel understood. “Why can’t you just be there for me?” she’d ask.
In our session together, he explained that he felt like he would be validating her “unproductive” behavior (i.e., being emotional without taking action) if he responded with empathy. “Why talk about it? Just fix it!” he said.
I knew he was a mechanic, so I asked him if he would ever put saltwater in an engine instead of motor oil. He was aghast! “Of course not,” he said, “Saltwater wouldn’t help anything and might damage the engine.”
The Benefits of Empathy
I explained to my client what empathy is and why it’s important and said, “Empathy is the oil for the engine of your marriage. It helps your wife feel understood so that SHE can take action and move forward.”
It was a lightbulb moment to realize that empathy can enable problem-solving and jumpstart action. From there, he was eager to learn the skill.
My husband has also seen the benefits of learning and practicing empathy. When I recently commented on how masterful he’d become with empathizing with me, he replied, “Yeah, life has been a lot easier for me since I learned to empathize. No more pressure to be the problem solver. And it feels like it’s brought us closer together, too.”
Empathy is not always an easy skill to master, though. Let’s start by debunking some myths about empathy and men so you’ll be better prepared to integrate empathy into your life and relationship.
Myth: Male Brains Aren’t Wired for Empathy
You may have heard that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” or that male and female brains function in fundamentally different ways. Men analyze, and women empathize, and that’s why men struggle to be empathetic, right? Men are logical, but women are emotionally inclined, so empathy comes easily.
Though pop psychology and the media have been quick to ascribe certain features of brain structure and function as male- or female-based, science doesn’t support this dichotomy. One study of over 1,400 brains found that our brains are a mosaic of male and female traits, and there is no male or female brain.
“Brains belong to people who have lived for decades in societies that treat men and women differently and gave them different experiences and opportunities. Experiences change the structure and function of the brain, as the many discoveries in the field of neuroplasticity show. The male-female mosaic might reflect how these brains lived.” ~ Bruce McEwen, Neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, in STAT News.
It’s Not Your Fault if Empathy Isn’t Easy
“Big boys don’t cry.” “Don’t be a pussy.” “Stop gripping and just fix it.” “You’re the man of the house now.” The predominant message is: Show no weakness. For many men, it’s been made clear that to be a red-blooded American man, the only emotions you’re allowed to feel and express are happiness, lust, or anger. And that the only way to handle a problem is to solve it, after all, a man's job is to protect the vulnerable, not BE vulnerable.
This common conditioning factor causes difficulty in a relationship when a woman wants a man to “let her in” or to be open, sensitive to her feelings, empathetic, or show his softer side. Who wouldn’t construct armor with the above scenario?
Even well-intentioned parents and partners can unknowingly reinforce masculine stereotypes. For example, a male friend of mine struggled with depression in college, which caused him to fail several classes. His mom and dad sat him down, told him they expected better of him and that he needed to “man up” and “get his life together.” Instead of opening the space for honest dialogue, their reaction shamed him and caused him to shut down emotionally.
Life experiences shape how your brain works. So, if you’ve never experienced empathy yourself (whether you’re a man or a woman), or were shamed for showing fear and sadness, your brain has no foundation for being vulnerable or expressing empathy.
The good news is that social conditioning and traditional models of masculinity don’t have to deter anyone from emotional literacy. You can learn from it and master the skill of empathy.
First Step to Developing Empathy: A Desire to Learn
Have you been told that you don’t listen, you’re too close-minded, or uncaring? Maybe your partner is asking you to change your habits. Whatever it is, the sheer fact that you’re reading this means that you are open to learning a new way of relating to your family and others in your life. That’s fantastic!
As a husband of one of my clients so aptly said, “Although empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, empathy could also be imagined as the ability not to be self-absorbed. Attempt to think of the feelings of another from their perspective rather than how you would feel if put in a similar situation.”
Empathy requires some amount of openness and vulnerability, and the first step is to simply have a desire to learn. By acknowledging that you have room to grow, you’re saying that you desire to be a more effective partner, family member, or even colleague.
Related reading: Teaching Men to Be Emotionally Honest
Take the Next Step
Increasing empathy can strengthen relationships, open the way for effective problem-solving, and give you an edge in the workplace. To learn more about the types of empathy and for a step-by-step guide on how to learn and practice empathy, we invite you to download the Real Empathy, Real Solutions Self-Coaching Workbook.
For personalized support, contact us at support@Heartmanity.com to learn more about our coaching programs and marriage coaching.