Empathizing with Hitler: How Being Aware of This One Thing Can Save the World

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It’s so much more important than I ever knew. (Image/abigailleighphillips.com)

Settle down, kids. I don’t mean it like THAT.

I think I know why our relationships fail more than half the time, and how most men—even good-character guys who are easy to get along with—can be colossally shitty husbands and boyfriends.

Every day, millions of wives and girlfriends turn to the internet desperate for an answer to this question. Sometimes they find this blog and write me comments and emails asking various forms of it.

This question is at the heart of this blog’s existence and my personal search for answers because it’s the same question my wife—crying and desperate—begged me to answer during our marriage fights. It’s the same question many—maybe even, most—wives and girlfriends ask themselves about the men in their lives:

“Why don’t you love me?”

We husbands and boyfriends stand there dumbly because we’re at a total loss. How crazy is this chick right now? Why don’t I love her? I gave up (or am planning to give up) my ENTIRE LIFE to marry her, share the rest of my life and things and experiences with her, and have children with her. I say ‘I love you’ every day. EVERY DAY! How in the hell can she stand there, question my love for her, and expect me to take her seriously?!

We think she’s from another planet, and we tend to act like it. Even if we’re not being actively hostile, our inability to understand why she’s upset down deep in her bones, twists the knife even further.

She thinks we’re from another planet, and she tends to act like it, especially when she’s packing bags and moving out while we stand there like drooling oafs.

And why?

Because most of us don’t know what the word “empathy” means, or that if we worked to be as skilled at empathy as we are at driving cars, or playing golf, or whatever our primary work is, our lives would transform from shitty to awesome.

Important Things Men Don’t Often Understand or Think About

I think when we strip off all the clothes and trimmings, and let it stand there naked and exposed and broken down to its most basic form, the truth about common destructive male behavior in relationships stems from the following:

1. Men don’t know what EMPATHY is.

2. We don’t know it is the most critical skill to acquire in order to have good relationships and avoid divorce.

3. We don’t WANT to learn about it because it’s ignorantly mistaken for a feely “girl” concept that threatens our sacred identity as Real Men.

4. Behaving in ways that avoid the appearance of weakness (even though most of us secretly feel weak and afraid at times under our faking-it masks) trumps love-affirming behavior because we don’t realize our wives are actually going to leave us, and that it’s going to be way worse than our fear of looking weak.

5. Men are mostly unaware of this, like we’re living in The Matrix, and don’t see the world as it really is.

A Short Lesson on ‘Awareness’

Consider this parable from the late novelist David Foster Wallace: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’

Men Are Unknowingly Empathetic, Just Like the Nazis

I used Adolf Hitler’s name in the headline for cheap shock value and in a Moonwalking with Einstein-sort-of way, but I could have used the name of anyone who sucks. Joseph Stalin. Pol Pot. Mao Zedong. Osama Bin Laden. Take your pick.

It’s important to disassociate the concept of empathy from good vs. evil, or right vs. wrong. Two evil people can empathize with each other. One good person could even empathize with an evil person if he or she wanted to. A compassionate Jewish widower could conceivably empathize with a Nazi man who lost his wife.

Empathy is NOT an emotion. It’s not a feeling. Empathy is simply the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

“Empathy is a choice. And it’s a vulnerable choice, because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling,” said author and speaker Brené Brown in this excellent little video designed to help viewers understand the distinction between the words “Empathy” and “Sympathy.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw]

Every man who isn’t a sociopath (mental health experts say 4% of the population is sociopathic) probably exhibits empathy regularly, even if it’s only with a few like-minded people, like his guy friends.

Guys who are heavily invested in tribes (like friends or athletic and business teammates, brotherhoods, and enthusiast groups) likely behave empathetically in most interactions with fellow tribe members.

I’ve known and seen countless men who prefer to hang out with their buddies than their wives or girlfriends. It’s because there exists a MONUMENTALLY IMPORTANT connection with his friends that doesn’t exist between him and his significant other. He’s simply never been able to label it before. But it has a name.

It’s empathy.

“Empathy? Stop being a gay pussy, Matt, and start being a man,” a terrifying percentage of guys would think if they actually read this far into the post. But they usually don’t because they don’t know they need help. They don’t know they lack empathy in their most critical relationships, and they don’t know that it matters.

They just don’t know.

How do we make people aware of a nuanced concept so subtle that it escaped me for 36 consecutive years, including recently, while I was looking for it every day?

While wives Google: “Why doesn’t my husband care about me?” or “My husband is an asshole” (which this blog ranks #1 for), men want answers also: “Why does my wife hate me?”

All along, most of these men loved their wives. But because they lacked empathy skills and often never realized it was something to worry about, their wives BELIEVE their husbands don’t love them. Over time, wives retreat emotionally because it’s virtually impossible to perpetually love someone who perpetually hurts you. When she retreats, it often feels like hate, repulsion and disgust to her husband.

And sometimes it is.

Men, You MUST Understand What Empathy Is

Again, guys already do it! They sit next to each other at the bar, or on the patio table after a round of Saturday golf, and one says “Betsy is all over my ass right now to repaint the half-bath in the basement and she got all pissed off last night and this morning about us playing golf today,” and his friend says: “Ha! Join the club, brother. Val wants me to help her plan a Disney trip for us and the kids next summer that I don’t really want to take. They’re always complaining about something, right?” and then they clink their beer bottles together at 11 a.m., delaying their return home by ordering another round.


And if you can figure out how to intentionally behave and speak to your significant other (and pretty much everyone!) with conscious empathy, you will transform all of your close relationships (spouses, children, siblings, parents), and then, like MAGIC, a bunch of drama and dysfunction will begin to disappear and life will suck less, and maybe even morph toward amazing.

It’s EASY to empathize with friends who think and feel and like all the same things we do. It’s why we have all of these naturally easy relationships with people who share our interests, temperament and circumstances.

It’s DIFFICULT to empathize with people whose thoughts, feelings and interests conflict with ours.

Empathy is a life skill which requires practice and repetition. So, first we learn that it’s a thing. We wake up. We become aware of the water. We learn what empathy actually is. Then we decide whether we care. (Since your life will suck more and your marriage will fail or be defined by misery if you don’t, I hope you’ll choose to care.)

Then we get started. With a real, God’s-honest chance to change the world.

More Resources on Empathy

Thanks to readers of this blog, I was introduced to Dr. Brené Brown’s remarkable research, writing and speaking on critical ideas most men aren’t actively thinking about. But it’s only because they don’t know how life-changing it would be if they did. Brown’s work kicks ass. 

Here are a couple things to get you started:

Brown’s TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability

Brown’s online courses, COURAGEworks

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66 thoughts on “Empathizing with Hitler: How Being Aware of This One Thing Can Save the World”

  1. Excellent post. i had always equated Empathy with Sympathy before reading it. good job explaining the differences.

    1. Thank you for saying so. In terms of topic, I think this is the most important thing I’ve written. So, I really appreciate you reading it and taking a minute to fire off this note.

  2. My mother died when I was in college. My grades, hitherto a solid B+ in a psychology class that did not hand out A’s because no one is perfect, plummeted. The professor took me to his office and asked what happened. When I told him, he briefly shut his eyes, then said he could “sympathize but could not emphasize”. I have found that very helpful when people have experienced something that I have not, though I usually say that I cannot imagine what it is like to be in their situation. It seems to be so much better than saying that I understand, when of course I cannot possibly understand. But this is regarding huge life losses, not working out small (but terribly critical in aggregate) problems in a relationship. Every once in awhile I hear the magic words “I don’t understand why this is important, but if it is to you, I will do it”.

    1. That last sentence, Shannon. That’s all that needs to happen in love and marriage.

      The guy simply needs to empathize with how it feels to hurt, and make the connection between the thing that is important not getting done and his partner feeling pain.

      I used to make fun of the word “connection,” because I thought idiots used it to describe people they just met and had a crush on.

      But the word connection appears to be really important in the context of empathy. It, literally, connects two otherwise disconnected people.

      And I now believe it to be the No. 1 factor in who stays together and who breaks up.

      Thank you for reading, Shannon.

      Like your psych professor, I cannot imagine what it’s like to feel the loss of a parent. I wish you didn’t know it. I appreciate you sharing that part of you here. Very much.

  3. Brene Brown’s work DOES kick ass … reading her … and to be honest (I am NOT kissing up to you) YOUR insights has been very very eye opening for me … I have spent at least the last decade or so wondering what was going on in the undercurrents in my marriage … and, more pointedly, in these past few years, trying to figure out how such good intentions could go so horribly wrong …

    I am beginning to understand … a process which is often uncomfortable and humiliating … but has –after being willing to wade through the first excruciating discomfort — begun to feel refreshing and life-affirming … and even hopeful …

    1. Thank you, Sue.

      I try to be thoughtful and then accurately share those thoughts, and because I’m a fairly typical, average person, there is statistically a bunch of people who generally think and feel the same way.

      I think maybe that’s why some people refer to some of the things I write as “insightful.”

      I don’t know how insightful it is, necessarily. I think I’m just thinking about it and asking the right questions, and reading about it, and talking about it.

      I sometimes take the work of phenomenal writers, scholars, thought leaders, researchers, therapists, etc., and I mash it up in my head with relevant first-person stories from my marriage, and then share that.

      Much of my “insights” are simply a result of reading a few legitimately insightful books from bona fide experts who spent years figuring out whatever it is I think I know.

      Those people deserve the credit.

      It’s very cool of you to try to let me share in some of that.

  4. I’ve tried to get my husband to have some empathy at different times about a situation we’re going through. The one thing that seems to work SOMETIMES is when I tell him, “These are my feelings, and you may not understand them or agree with them, but they are real to me.” Doesn’t always work though.

    1. Right. I’m sorry Donna. We think your feelings are “wrong.” That you are incorrect to feel that way, and thus, shouldn’t.

      It’s a problem. And, in my totally amateur estimation, the top marriage killer.

      Thank you for reading.

  5. emilyvaillpfaff

    This is a wonderful post, but I’m struggling with the use of Hitler to grab attention–always a risk to bring out Hitler and the Holocaust. I think my Jewish friends might take issue with it too. But the importance of empathy and connection is golden, and you (and Brene) explain it well in the context of marriage or relationship of any kind. Thanks Matt.

    1. Right. I’ve lost six subscribers so far.

      When I was trying to think about how to help a guy overcome his “Empathy is for girls!” reaction, I wanted to demonstrate how good and bad, and right and wrong are concepts that have little to do with empathy.

      Hitler is the most famous horrible person in world history. Maybe Stalin or Himmler. I’m no historian.

      Yet, people empathized with Hitler.

      It helps draw a clear line in the sand between empathy and sympathy.

      Hard to imagine someone feeling sympathy for Hitler, EVER.

      But, if you wanted to, you could empathize with Hitler is you ALSO like stupid little mustaches, or if you both liked Riesling but couldn’t find it anywhere.

      Hitler = emotion.

      And for the purposes of helping oblivious men get it, I wanted to make it unemotional.

      It’s clear from the engagement that most people feel as you do. Perhaps I’ll change it and see if we can avoid leaving the bad taste in people’s mouths.

      Because this subject and discussion couldn’t be more important.

      Thank you for reading and sharing your headline thoughts.

      Changing it probably makes sense. Seems like a distraction.

      1. emilyvaillpfaff

        Not surprised that you lost subscribers, and not sure about the mustaches or wine; you might be digging a deeper hole. Hitler apparently was dropped on his head as a baby, perhaps more than once, and that might account–serious traumatic brain injury or perhaps CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy from repeated concussions) which we now know can cause a host of mental and physical health problems–for his abominable acts against six million Jews and five million more innocents, their surviving families and generations of their descendents. But there is no equation, only hypothetical explanation. There is no empathy, or sympathy for Hitler unless you are one of those extraordinary survivors who are able to forgive his depravity. They are the only ones entitled to suggest a human gift of empathy or even sympathy, in my opinion. In the community where I live, there is no empathy or sympathy for Hitler, and with social media equating one Republican candidate’s behavior to Hitler, it’s a recently renewed and frighteningly real concern.

      2. “There is no empathy, or sympathy for Hitler unless you are one of those extraordinary survivors who are able to forgive his depravity. They are the only ones entitled to suggest a human gift of empathy or even sympathy, in my opinion.”

        And with true respect for that opinion, I would argue it indicates political correctness taken too far, and to an unproductive point. As Matt attempts to make clear throughout this post, the usage of someone so reviled by just about every strata of human on the planet as a person toward whom any number of same can be justifiably empathetic is targeted with specific, valuable intention. Contrary to your statement, Hitler CAN be empathized with, even by those of use who consider him to be utterly worthless as a human being, those of us who consider him to be Evil Personified.

        To illustrate, Hitler was a strong nationalist, a man who so loved his country and believed in its inherent worth and greatness that within a single decade, he had taken it from ruin to the brink of global domination. Those of us who live in the United States of America are often noted (or lambasted) for our strong, even jingoistic, love of country. I recently read an article that discussed foreigners’ impressions of our country after visiting it and many of them noted that Americans put up our country’s flag EVERYWHERE; that our love of country is labelled far and wide, regardless of social class, political leaning, educational background or racial makeup. In that sense, the majority of American citizens can empathize with Hitler’s profound love of country, even if we wouldn’t dare sympathize with how he actualized it.

        I find political correctness to be a laudable goal only insofar as it protects people from abuse, vitriol and dehumanization, but when simple hot button words (e.g “Hitler”) trigger Chicken Little “the sky is falling in” reactions before taking into account to what end such words are being used, then as far as I’m concerned, political correctness has overstepped its usefulness. It appears that Matt is leaning toward restructuring the original post to avoid unintended offense, and since the “what” he’s illustrating is much more valuable than the “how”, I’ll respect that choice, if he makes it, but I just wanted to take a moment to state my own opinion that it’s a shame he’s being made to feel that he’s committed an error of good taste.

  6. Co-dependent no more

    Matt, you have the absolute most amazing timing. You could not have written this at a more critical time for our marriage. I will keep praying that my husband reads and INTERNALIZES this because it is the core and crux of what we were arguing about last night.

    I am convinced he simply does not care because has everything in black and white but fails to even TRY at critical times. I know he cares but it is sent from him to me in his love language, not mine. Again, it’s all in black and white but he won’t even attempt. I really want to believe I am worth an attempt, but my doubts and fears are becoming fact by repeated examples that speak volumes.

    Keep writing, you are this lonely woman’s life line on some days, today being one of those days.

    1. I’m sorry to read you’re going through hard days and feeling so frustrated about him not understanding — fundamentally getting in an internal core kind-of way — a lot of these things we talk about here.

      I don’t think I would have actively participated in these types of conversations four or five years ago.

      I probably would have made fun of it, then found something else to do and never thought about it again. Because so often, we make life all about us.

      We don’t learn how bad that it is UNTIL we do it enough times to break something in irreparable ways.

      Thank you very much for reading and for your kind, supportive words.

  7. Excellent, Matt!! I am also a huge fan–disciple?– of Brene Brown. We need empathy more now than ever in human history, I think–in all relationships, from one-on-one to geopolitical. Thank you for your writing! 🙂

    1. She’s a new favorite. I have a LOT of homework to do on her research findings and her two books (I have ‘Daring Greatly’ waiting to be read, and have every intention of reading ‘Rising Strong’ too.)

      She does a superb job of walking us through what connects and disconnects people RE: empathy, vulnerability, shame, compassion, etc.

      And yes. It matters in every single facet of life. But in the context of male-female romantic relationships which tends to get the majority of my focus, I now am convinced that men’s general lack of awareness about what empathy is and why it’s important is the primary contributor to our scary-high divorce rate.

      I think I now believe if I could magically give every boyfriend/husband the ability to competently display empathy toward his significant other in his day-to-day life, divorce rates would plummet.

      Which is something I want more than anything… More people to make it.

      Thank you for reading and commenting. 🙂

      1. Add “the gift of imperfections” to your list. I read it a few years ago, and have to say it was a significant lightbulb moment for me.

        1. Totally. I was reading up on Dr. Brown some more last night and saw that book which I had not realized existed.

          I was also equal parts pleased and disappointed to discover she wrote a book called “I Thought I Was the Only One (but I wasn’t)…”

          I have an in-flux list of books I want to write.

          And this concept of “not being the only one,” I think, based on my post-divorce experiences is profoundly important.

          It dawned on me just how big of a deal it was to connect with people who “get” you and report thinking and feeling the same way we do about stuff.

          We walk through life so afraid of things we shouldn’t be afraid of. And the reason we’re afraid of it is stupid.

          It’s because we GUESS incorrectly that we’re freaky weirdos because of something we think and feel that we’ve never heard anyone else talk about before. No one talks about it because they’re ashamed of it, or afraid of being rejected. We all do this in silence and carry this shit around with us, not realizing how insanely powerful and liberating and life-enriching the experience is of realing: “HOLY SHIT. I’ve spent my entire life thinking and feeling this way, and I always assumed I was weird and that no one else was like this. But now I realize that MOST people are like this! And now I can feel worthy and accepted even with my secrets. Now I can feel good enough!”

          I wanted to write that book because I think that’s an incredible gift to people. That message.

          I’m going to read Brene’s book and see if it motivates or discourages me from writing my version. Hopefully the former.

          Thanks for the recommendation, Drew. I had already added it to my Amazon wish list.

          My book stack is always stupid-big. I really should ban myself from television.

          But all of Brene Brown’s work appears to me to be must-read stuff. She has a brilliant and accessible way about her.

          Appreciate the note, sir.

          Side question: Scale of 1-10, 10 being “Dumbest Idea Ever,” what do you rate the decision to include one of, if not the, most famous evil mass-murderers in world history in my headline?

          I’m thinking about coming up with a new headline and re-sharing it next week, because I think the ideas in here are very, very important.

          1. Yeah, when I first read that book I was actually a bit concerned by the “Oprah book club” sticker on the front. At the time I was still holding on to some broken notion of masculinity that told me guys shouldn’t really be reading Oprah stuff.

            Stupid, I know – especially when I’ve never really thought of myself as a “mans man”. But it is what it is. Anyhow, I read it and the accessibility was what hit me. There’s a ton of stuff there that is SOOOO important.

            I know what you mean about reading her stuff and thinking “damn, I wanted to do that”. There was a lot of stuff that I have read in her books which wasn’t so much revelatory as it was confirmation of things I already believed going in.

            As for the idea of “I thought I was the only one (but I’m not)”, that was the whole premise behind my site. I had been writing largely the same stuff for a few years for me, just in a word document. And when I decided to finally publish stuff it was for that exact reason – I think a lot of people are going through the same things, but are holding it in and feeling really alone. I had hoped to one day have an active community like you’ve grown, where ideas are discussed and people can both learn and if nothing else just know that they aren’t alone (that’s even part of my about page). A few years in I haven’t really seen that community grow, but I keep writing anyway. I still think it’s really important stuff, and that’s one of the reasons I’m really glad to see your site having some good growth and community building. I’m trying to fight the same fight, and it’s one I fully believe in.

            As for your choice of title…

            well, perhaps not the best choice but I understand why you did it. It was definitely a risk, as there is so much negative associated with that name (my 9 years old doesn’t know anything about him other than the fact that he’s evil). Maybe change the headline to a well known fictional evil person, so there is less emotion attached. Darth Vader or Lord Voldemort maybe?

          2. Oh yeah, for a few other valuable yet less obvious book choices I would recommend “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Shwartz and “Mindset of Success” by Carol Dweyer.

            Neither are relationship books per se, more books on psychology. But I think both have huge implications for relationships.

      2. Hey Zombiedrew,

        First of all you have a great blog! I just recently discovered it and highly recommend it to everyone that reads Matts blog. Click on Zombiedrew2’s name and enter into his secret blog world about life and relationships. Lots of highly intelligent and interesting posts over there!

        Since you didn’t ask my opinion, I feel compelled to give it 😉 You mention that you want to build a community on your blog. One thing to consider is the effect of instantly seeing the comments post and the ability to respond to others comments quickly. I think that makes it much easier to build community and fosters conversation between commenters. That comment setting is a difference between Matt’s blog and yours. I think the comments settings require your approval before posting? Anyway, totally unsolicited advice that may be completely unwanted and unneeded but since Matt allows my comments to instantly post on his blog, I am firing away!

      3. Hey, if you go with a well known but fictional Gillian you can also draw a connection to the recent trend to tell some stories from the villains point of view because as my daughter, the writer, has maintained for a while now, a villain has to have a reason. They can still be wrong (and of course they are). But they can’t be empty and meaningless. The movie Malificent is a good example of a villain story done so well that I personally was won over even though I went in expecting the opposite.

  8. Fromscratchmom

    Spot on, Matt! And would you believe that earlier today I was journaling all about the empathy I had for a certain big-something-type-situation and how my trying to reach out to empathize was rejected but just now after reading this I realize another big deal something that I totally failed to show the empathy for when I knew I felt it?! And I actually tried to offer fixes instead of saying things that truly communicated the empathy I felt just like women so often that men do to them! Ugh! For that matter I’m kind of realizing some better ways I wish I’d expressed myself on the our thing from earlier in the journal even though I know it would have never made the difference as long as I was the only one who was really in it doing the work! Hey, what else can a person do after the fact, but continue trying to learn and grow? And so I am learning and growing and becoming better. Thank-you, Matt!

    1. I would believe it.

      Life has been pushing me down this Learn-About-Empathy-Because-It’s-More-Important-Than-Most-Realize path recently.

      The more I read and the more things click in my head, the more I think: “Holy shit. I’ve been writing about this for eons, but until this moment, I didn’t realize THIS is foundational, keystone-level-important material.

      I predict the ability and willingness to empathize, if measured, would be the No. 1 predictor of which marriages survive and which don’t.

  9. Matt –

    Excellent post. I’ve done a lot of reading on empathy for my work with couples and with kids who’ve been bullied. Experts describe 2 types of empathy.

    Affective empathy is the ability to pick up distress in someone. “You seem sad. What can I do to help.” or (as you’ve said before) “Babe. I can tell you’re tired. I’ve got this.”

    Cognitive empathy has predictive ability. It’s the ability to say to yourself, in advance, “How is she/he going to receive this when I say (blank)?” or “How will she/he perceive this when I do (blank)?” It isn’t “How would I feel.”

    Excellent post and really important for relationships.

    1. Thank you for sharing that.

      Would you mind sharing some of your favorite thought leaders, and/or information sources RE: empathy?

      I’m grateful you took time to read and comment.

      1. I love Brene Brown.

        I also really like Daniel Goleman’s book called Emotional Intelligence. He talks about 4 components of Emotional Intelligence: Self-Awareness; Self-Management/Expression; Empathy; and Relationship Skills. Goleman also has talks on the TED too.

        As a counselor, it provides really useful skills for couples. I also think that my male clients relate very well to it because it is more concrete and structured than some other types of therapy approaches.

        For instance, I can tell my clients that the kind of the relationship skills that they need for succeeding in business or being a good buddy are very different than the kind of relationship skills they need for being a good emotional partner and maintaining an attachment to their spouse.

    1. Thank you for reading it. 🙂

      When I shared it on Facebook, I added “I think this is sneakily the most important thing I’ve ever written.”

      I wasn’t lying.

      1. I couldn’t agree more. Empathy is a hard cookie to sell. It sounds delicious but it often feels like the cost is too high to buy it. I hope it reached the people it’s meant to…like all of us.

        1. Thanks! It didn’t.

          Using the world’s most-famous mass-murdering asshole in the headline probably wasn’t my finest moment of decision-making.

          I may re-title the thing and republish it next week with a little note at the beginning for the people who did read it.

          Always learning. 🙂

          1. Or publish it tomorrow, with a bit about how with all of your best intentions, the title was insensitive to some of your wonderful followers. Maybe add that you appreciate their perspective and that you’re always learning about things like…empathy! ?

  10. kirstencronlund

    Really interesting post, Matt. I am also a huge fan of Brene Brown and I can see how her work relates here to the intimacy of relationships. I’m wondering, though, about the difference between men empathizing with their male buddies and men empathizing with the women they are in a committed relationship with. Does the male tribe empathy require anything of men emotionally? It seems like it would be pretty easy for a guy to say, “yeah, that sucks” about the demands another guy’s wife is placing on him and not have to do anything more than that. But empathizing with your wife seems like it would almost automatically require something of you – to change your behavior in some way that puts her needs above your own. So is it not knowing how to empathize, or is a fear of or aversion to the requirements that will be the outcome of empathy? I used an example in a comment on one of your recent posts where I told my then-husband that I felt like I was being pulled by a motorboat, and that I was barely hanging on and was almost drowning – and that he was up ahead in the motorboat gazing into the horizon, unaware of what was going on behind him. I think if he had figuratively looked behind him and witnessed my distress he would have had to either a) be a total asshole by not reaching out a helping hand or b) extend himself by either jumping in the water with me or helping to pull me into the boat. Either option is uncomfortable and inconvenient so remaining ignorant is more attractive.

    Incidentally, I think that while women may understand empathy better than men (in general) and may be less afraid of speaking the language of empathy, it’s probably just as hard for them to also empathize with their partners. Especially when it requires them to place the needs of their husband above their own.

    1. There’s an oceanic divide between the effort required of a man to accidentally empathize with his buddies who think and feel just like him and share so many commonalities, and the AWARENESS, DISCIPLINE, and FORTITUDE required of a man to consciously speak and behave with empathy toward his wife who doesn’t think and feel or share as many internal commonalities with him.

      It’s EASY to empathize with “people like us.” It doesn’t require any effort whatsoever. But that doesn’t change the fact that it IS empathy. I wanted to make the point that men oblivious to the concept of empathy actually DO empathize with someone, sometimes.

      It’s DIFFICULT to empathize with people when we don’t understand them. When they’re strangers. Ask any person (I’m not one of them — I just read a lot) who has traveled around the world. You literally change on the inside once you get a taste for how other people live in a way of life that’s totally foreign to us, culturally, economically, politically, or otherwise.

      To your question: No. I don’t believe a guy who has close bonds and an “easy” or “natural” relationships with his close guy friend has to invest much emotional work.

      And when that guy lacks AWARENESS about the what empathy is and why it matters, he goes through life thinking his wife who he won’t put requisite effort into “empathetically” connecting with is just a difficult, nagging, demanding, selfish person who won’t “accept him for who he is.” It’s so easy with his buddies! And it’s so hard with her! So, she must be the problem!

      And then divorce happens all the time.

      If that same guy knew WHY it was so easy to have a great relationship with his friend, and the romantic equivalent of that with his partner required effort and empathy to BUILD all the shared experiences and mutual understand and connection that happened easily and naturally with his guy friends, and that by doing so, pretty much every part of his life would improve as a result, I think that guy would be likely to make a much greater effort.

      But like the two fish who spend their entire lives swimming around totally oblivious to the concept of water, I believe many men (and really, many people altogether) struggle to maintain awareness and mindfulness RE: these subtle ideas. These nuanced concepts that seem like insignificant, hippie, feely psychobabble to the average guy, can be extremely hard to grasp.

      Several million people read the “dishes” post, and it’s still the best example I have of how two different people can read something and take away such radically different thoughts and feelings from the same experience. Some got it. Some didn’t. Some people freaked out about the dish. Most people understood the metaphor.

      I LIVE for these sorts of self-discovery journeys today. Just five years ago? I probably shut off Brene Brown’s TED talk in the first three minutes and go back to playing Grand Theft Auto.

      It took the very, very, very unpleasant and excruciating pain of my divorce, for me to grasp the concept of empathy, and start giving a crap about this type of stuff.

      I can only conclude that it will take many other men the same type of rude awakening to feel that Wake-Up-Call motivation to search for answers.

      But maybe some can people can get it BEFORE everything turns to shit.

      That’s what I wish for every time I hit “publish.”

    1. Exactly.

      Men (maybe, “people”) often do it without realizing they’re doing it because sometimes it doesn’t require extra effort.

      When it’s so easy with those people, why deal with the unpleasantness of “difficulty” with others?

      I think men, generally, shy away from wanting to do the work to learn a new “skill.”

      Especially when that skill is a word they don’t understand that sounds like some liberal, hippie, namby-pamby effeminate garbage.

      And, no shit, THAT’s why I (probably foolishly) brought Hitler and Nazism into the conversation. To attempt to demonstrate that it’s NOT “girly” and a threat to manhood, nor is it some Celestine Prophecy-style mystical New Age whatever thing.

      There’s a thing called “empathy.” Many of us don’t know what it means nor that it’s important as shit.

      When something’s important, we should try to get good at it.

      Empathy is one of those things.

  11. Like so many others, I needed the gut wrenching “I don’t love you anymore” wake up call. And now it is all so clear to me. Unfortunately, it’s probably too late. Hopefully not. My inability to empathize with her was always the issue.

    So, I’m talking with a buddy today and I’m telling him how I have screwed up and that I’m headed for divorce. He is trying to be a good friend, I guess, and is telling me that my wife wasn’t understanding enough and is being unfair. Without skipping a beat I started defending my wife and said things such as, “These things were important to her and I didn’t listen or believe her.” I went further and built an entire case in her favor, stubbornly defending her feelings. When my buddy and I ended the conversation I replayed in my mind several of my wife’s “gripes” throughout the years and then in my mind built a case for each one defending her position. I had just taught myself how to empathize with her – defend her feelings as if they were my own. I feel so foolish it has taken so many years to learn this. All the hurt and heartache I have caused.

    1. I still get a fair amount of comments each week on that “dishes” post, and without fail, some dude who doesn’t get it says:

      “Have you considered that your wife was simply an unreasonable narcissist for demanding that you do the dishes HER way?!?! You’re better off without her, dude!”

      The thoughts and feelings I have when I see those comments are the same ones you have listening to your friend.

      He’s blind. I’m sure he’s a great guy and friend, or you wouldn’t have talked to him about your marriage. But he’s accidentally blind. Just like you and I were.

      I really — more than you realize — appreciate you taking the time to share this here.

      THIS is the story of modern-day marriage. Accidentally messing everything up.

      And it doesn’t have to be this way.

      Thank you for being here, reading and leaving this note. Wishing you well. This broken period of uncertain horribleness is the worst.

  12. Why do you refer to men as ‘they’? Aren’t you one of them? Wouldn’t you do better to reach clueless guys with your message by letting them know you’re one of them? Unless because you’re now enlightened you’re not one of them? Strikes me as curious…

    1. I suspect if you look close, you’ll find several “we” references.

      Why? Because I write hastily with scattered, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants thinking and idea generation, and ZERO thoughtful revisions.

      Someday, when I’m all grown up, perhaps I won’t slap these things up during my lunch breaks. But until then? Sloppy writing and editing will win the day.

      I don’t think there’s evidence on this blog that I think I’m somehow “above” men, or believe I’m better or smarter than anyone else.

      Must Be This Tall To Ride, yo. This blog was founded on first-person shame and inadequacy.

      You’re just being a pot-stirrer. I can live with that.

      1. You read your posts through your eyes. When some dude clicks the link his wife sends him he’s scanning to the list that says they, they, they before snarling an obscenity and flipping back over to the soft porn she interrupted. I know. I’m still married to that guy.

    2. Matt’s blog, while catered to males, is weighted massively toward a female readership, so he’s caught equally between speaking to males about what they don’t understand about women, and to women about what they don’t understand about men. It’s very likely that he subconsciously (and, yes, empathetically, oh the sweet irony) is identifying with his women readers when he speaks to their inquiries; therefore, the men become “they”. The same happens in reverse when he speaks directly to the male audience–the women become “they”. There’s nothing remotely unusual about this sort of compositional style.

      I agree with Matt that you’re simply stirring the pot and further exposing what is becoming a pattern with you of negative-minded and confrontational commentary. You’re well within your rights to challenge anyone participating on this blog, including its main author (after all, just because Matt said it doesn’t make it de facto truth), but I, as a reader, am noting a consistent throughline that you seem to hold very little Matt writes in any esteem, and your husband allegedly holds it in even less esteem, so I’m curious what drives you to continue regularly perusing it. Isn’t it said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? I in no way wish to sound unwelcoming, but is it honestly perhaps time to consider that MBTTTR may not be the relationship resource you’re looking for…?

  13. You’re right! The topics you bring up, the stuff that is so uncomfortable; is too important to not talk about. Thank you.

    It is so frustrating to find my relationship in what feels like an impossible place. I am in a place of indecision but I’ve chosen to learn as much as I can right where I am in this process. As a mother of 2 young children I often think about what I can do as a parent to give them the skills they need to navigate relationships now and in the future. To be empathetic it helps to be able to identify emotions. How empathetic are you if you don’t know about emotions?

    I recently listened to an interview with Patti Henry entitled: Raising Boys to Become Emotionally Available Men

    She talks about awareness of emotions and practicing empathy. She also talks about the responsibility of fathers to be emotionally literate examples for their sons AND the responsibility of mothers to support fathers in this. Fathers can be vulnerable and young boys see that it’s safe to be vulnerable based on how their mothers receive the vulnerability If we expect men to be vulnerable, emotionally available and empathetic – we as the women in their lives need to be open and accepting. So often we are not. This is bigger than shitty husbands. This is a dynamic that we all participate in. And those of us who are parents are creating the future participants.

    Makes me think of that Brene Brown story of the man in the yellow sweater- take a listen

    So, while I can complain about my husbands shortcomings- his lack of empathy, understanding and awareness. I can see how this comes right back around to me as a wife and as a mother because I am part of the circle who is raising young boys that will become men. Every interaction they see is another piece of their puzzle in making sense of their world and who they are as males in this society. So I ask myself, How can I be successful in helping our boys become emotionally literate, empathetic and succeed in relationships? THAT is what helps me to choose empathy and to become more aware of how I show it. They make me want to be a good example. All this….and…..I wish HE would wake up. And I have no control over that.

    If you’re looking for more Brene Brown, listen to her interview with Krista Tippet on ‘On Being’
    It’s a good one

    1. Fromscratchmom

      Thanks for the sound Clouds. I’ve been in survival mode lately and coming back to this discussion in bits and pieces. So I’ve just now listened. This is some great stuff!

  14. Hey Matt!

    Such a great post! I was in a situation yesterday where I exhibited a total empathy fail. I was so focused on my own frustrated responses that I did not consider his point of view at all. Luckily my husband was able to empathize with both of us and spoke with emotional intelligence to help us reach common empathy and understanding.

    Which brings me to my first point. I think empathy is unfortunately a pink coded word that many men will find hard to embrace. Shouldn’t be that way for all but there it is as you’ve said throughout your blog posts.

    Reframing it as emotional intelligence makes it more palatable. Who doesn’t want to be more intelligent?
    Who doesn’t want to feel they are in control of their emotions and have good leadership skills? Research shows that emotional intelligence is one of the most important skills that great business and military leaders possess. Empathy is part of emotional intelligence which also consists of knowing and regulating your own emotions. It is a skill that can be developed but it starts with seeing the need for developing it as you said.

    You’re great at finding common experiences that men can relate to like the recent post you did about your frustrations at your job. Most people can certainly relate to that experience and map it over to other relationships that are foreign to them like their wives.

    This brings me to my second point. I’m hoping you’ll give me an empathetic response. 🙂 As you know, I write all these annoying comments about how men and women are not as different as presented. That many of the things you describe are human and not really at their core pink and blue experiences. I fully acknowledge it’s important to understand nature/nuture reasons men and women see the world differently in the same way it is important to understand why blacks did whites see the world differently. But I think it is damaging to our common quest to help men do the hard work of learning empathy skills to perpetuate the idea that men and women are just fundamentally different in more ways than we are alike. I think the opposite is true and it makes it easier to empathize with someone you view as essentially similar even if the details are different.
    The underlying human needs are the same, we all want to feel respected and valued. Anyway, I empathize greatly with your own personal journey. I’m constantly humbled by my own inability to let go of my sense of rightness to empathize with others points of views. I greatly enjoy your blog and “seeing” you transform your understanding of relationships. It inspires me to keep learning and struggling to change to be a more emotionally intelligent woman.

    P.S. My personal vote for a new title villian would be Hannibal Lector. One of the interesting things about the movies was the connection between a homocidal monster and the “good” FBI agent. Another choice would be Satan. Milton Paradise Lost empathized with Satan as wanting to be his own boss even if it meant being damned. Every cubicle dwelling employee can empathize with that thought. 🙂

    1. I’ve thought through some more and now I see Satan as the clear choice! Sure you might offend a few satanists here and there but come on he’s the Lord of Darkness, the original Evil One, The snake in the garden.

      And it totally relates to your wanting to kiss off your nice bosses and free yourself from your life as a cubicle dweller. Say it with me Matt! FREEDOM! That what we all want. Or at least the ones who empathize with Satan.

      1. You’re making me laugh! Somehow, I don’t think Satan will offend fewer people than Adolf Hitler, but you might be right.

        I think I just need to come up with a radically different title that hopefully makes a human being want to learn more.

        I can’t emphasize enough how big of a deal I think this is.

      2. This calls for a scientific experiment to test out our theory! Stand up in your cubicle, pump your fist in the air and shout “I empathize with Satan!” Your fellow cubicle dwellers will kero typing as they mutter “hey, I thought you were Catholic but it’s cool, Halloween’s a good holiday, we can eat Snickers and Cheetos together on your special day to celebrate Satan.

        Now, repeat the experiment in another location. Stand up and yell “I empathize with Hitler!” People are going to pretend to type as they secretly call Human Resources and Security to take you away for evaluation.

        Just a guess. Try it out in the interest of science and tell us what happens. Trust me man, choose Satan over Hitler and don’t tell my mother I empathize with Satan.

        1. A ballsier human being would do this (not at work) just to document the results.

          I’d like myself better if I was among them. Because that’s hilarious.

          I hope you like my super-wordy response to your earlier question, Lisa!

      3. Matt,

        Have you ever seen that show Impractical Jokers? 4 guys have to do crazy, embarrassing stuff. Perfect setup for our Hitler vs. Satan experiment.

        Also, because I am procrastinating on my taxes, I left several super-wordy responses to your new post. I am particularly fond of sneaking in a Tolstoy quote so I can pretend in my mind that I really do read Russian literature instead of watching Impractical Jokers in my free time spent not commenting on your blog 🙂

    2. This is an important comment, Lisa. I think I’m going to address it in post form next week, or maybe today.

      Screw it. I’ll do it today.

      1. As someone who believes the objective truth that men and women share more similarities than differences offers limited practical appeal when, subjectively, we often strongly feel so fundamentally alien to one another, allow me to say, “Me, too!” 🙂

    3. Lisa – SO true. My husband does not want to hear ever again that he lacks empathy or that men in general lack empathy. There are other words (immature, for example) that I have to start cutting out of my vocabulary – certain words said and heard just make matters worse.

  15. Matt,

    1. That Bene short video has been one of my favorites since I saw it a few months ago.
    2. I literally said, “GET OUT!” while reading this in the driveway on my phone. Just a few days ago I spontaneously met up for a stroller walk with another new-mom friend of mine who is remarried and parenting a new child with a man who had never been married and had no kids before… I was venting about some of my journey and lessons, and she was sharing hers. She actually said, “We had a rough first year… one night he screamed at me that he could not believe I actually empathized with Adolf Hitler! and I told him that I was arguing that it’s important to be able to understand another perspective! Even if you don’t agree with it!”

    3. So. HA. You can imagine how fast I texted her the link to this last night! haha. Wow.

    It’s so true. Empathy is the skill, the answer, the cure. Thank you for this one. Bookmarked forever!

  16. Empathy is such an important skill! In addition to being important for marriage, it’s crucial for parents–this handy formula helps me remember that the first step in discipline is showing that I understand what my child was trying to accomplish with the undesirable behavior; acknowledging the child’s point of view is more likely to lead to a teachable moment than assuming that the child is just “being bad,” and the same is true for adults.

    I agree that men DO know how to express empathy and sometimes do it for one another, but I’m a little concerned that the example you gave might lead men to believe they’re being empathetic when they’re actually getting into what I call a Suffering Contest–and although most people in some situations will feel comforted by a Suffering Contest because it demonstrates that they’re not alone in suffering (which is what you meant with this example), there are other situations in which people take it as one-upmanship or not-listening.

    In your example, Guy #1 said, “Betsy is all over my ass right now to repaint the half-bath in the basement and she got all pissed off last night and this morning about us playing golf today.” His friend could express manly empathy by simply saying something like, “Ugh, that sucks. I hear you, man. I’ve been there.”

    You have Guy #2 saying, “Ha! Join the club, brother. Val wants me to help her plan a Disney trip for us and the kids next summer that I don’t really want to take. They’re always complaining about something, right?” Now, Guy #1 could hear this as being essentially the same as the above. But he could also hear, “You complained; now it’s my turn. I can’t give you even a moment of being the one who has it rough.” and (although this would be hard to get from this particular example) “My problems are worse than yours.”

    Suffering Contest conversations often take the direction of each person complaining more and more. Because nobody’s suffering is acknowledged as bad enough to deserve comfort, each person keeps piling on negative details in an effort to “win” by being the one who has it worst. Although I first noticed this pattern among my friends in college, who were 3/4 male, it’s also something that happens often in couples. For example, when both parents work outside the home and there is no established rule about who makes dinner, often they’ll spend the first half-hour they’re at home taking turns explaining how exhausted they are, each hoping to “win” so that the other one will cook.

    So I don’t think this is something that men do and women don’t. My point is that it’s important for anybody trying to get the hang of empathy to understand that it’s more about relating to the feeling than it is about talking about yourself in any detail. Does that make sense?

    1. “Does that make sense?”

      It makes 100% sense to this reader for sure! Relating to, AND ACKNOWLEDGING (after all, what good does my relating to the other person’s experience do them if they don’t have a way of knowing, either through my words or actions, that I relate?), the feeling!

  17. Thanks again for another great read Matt! When I hear the definition of Empathy, I think “Validation” – Yep …been to counseling a time or two 😉

    God bless & keep on blogging!!

  18. I will shortly be separated due to my husbands lack of empathy.
    No matter how I basically beg for things to change, it never does . I’m exhausted from years of fighting on this matter , I need to seperste from my husband to get a reality check as to why I’ve stayed so long ( 24 yrs)

  19. Pingback: 2018: A Look Back + The Year in Photos • LL World Tour

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