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.
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.”
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.
“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.
THAT. IS. EMPATHY.
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:
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