May 6, 2018

Sympathy or Empathy? A Key to Sexual Satisfaction in Marriage

Gary Thomas — 

Do you have sympathy for your spouse, or do you have empathy?

It’ll show between the sheets.

Here’s the difference between the two, as described by Les Parrott, who has written a wonderful (soon to be released) book entitled Love Like That.  Sympathy means that if you are standing on a dock and see someone drowning, you throw out a life ring. I imagine ninety percent of people would do that. Empathy means that you’d throw out the life ring and then jump into the cold water to help them put it on.

It’s a lack of empathy that leads to so much sexual frustration in marriage. I have tried to help wives understand what it’s like for younger men in regards to sexual temptation and desires. I’m now in my fifties, and I can tell you there’s a big hormonal difference between someone my age and a young husband. Shaunti Feldhahn and Julie Slattery both seem to get this. The way visual cues can set a man’s brain whirring in this day and age requires a good bit of empathy from younger wives.

Having written, that, I’ve also said in many talks that “obligation sex” is a short-term strategy that doesn’t satisfy or work long-term (Sheila Gregoire has blogged a lot about this). But empathetic sex—when you really and truly care about your spouse, have compassion for their vulnerability and struggle, and respond out of love (not guilt, nor the desire to just get him to shut up already)—not only serves your spouse but builds up your own soul.

Here’s the thing: one (not the only) of the differences between “obligation sex” and “empathetic sex” is spiritual. It’s in the heart. It’s all about motivation.

The empathetic wife feels for her husband and jumps into the cold lake with him saying, “You’re not going to go through this alone, not without my arms around you to help you stay warm.”

The empathetic husband says, “I know you’re tired and I’ll do all I can to help. I also promise to make sure this sex isn’t just about me. You need to feel good, too.”

The gratitude I feel for my empathetic wife is enormous. Wives, there’s only a certain season when you can make this investment in your marriage, when your husband truly needs it most. Giving someone a piece of bread and cheese after they’ve had a full meal and aren’t really hungry will elicit a polite thanks. Giving someone a piece of bread and cheese when they’ve been fasting for three days may create a lifelong memory.

Just as younger wives need tremendous empathy for the plight and struggle of younger husbands, so young husbands need tremendous empathy for the exhaustion so many young wives feel that makes sexual activity seem like a chore. Few things try a person’s strength more than having a baby and toddlers in the same house. Add employment to the mix and you’ve got a prescription for survival-mode-thinking.

Empathy means “jumping into the lake” and doing the house work that needs to be done: changing the diaper, cleaning the toilets, making sure your wife gets some fun time out of the house time, and occasions to exercise (if she desires and values that). And when sex does happen, you make sure she feels so good she can’t, at the moment, remember anything bad.

“Sympathy” means you simply do the dishes one time, hoping that will lead to sex that night.

Good luck with that strategy, by the way.

Here’s the incredible empathy Lisa has demonstrated to me: In February, during my busiest speaking season, I came down with the flu. It was awful. During one major event (1500 people, and the church had been advertising it for months), I literally laid down on a couch until I got up to speak, and between sessions went back down and lied down again. Lisa became alarmed when she saw my face turn red and sweat beads grow on my forehead about 2/3 of the way through the last talk, but by God’s grace I made it through.

That night I started to get the chills. Lisa leaned over and held me close.

“What are you doing?” I protested. “You’re going to get sick!”

“Aren’t you cold?” Lisa asked.


She then held me tighter. “I’m going to do whatever I can to get you warm.”

That’s empathy. That’s cherishing. That’s “jumping into the lake.” That creates in a man the kind of heart that would do anything for her.

I’m still amazed Lisa didn’t come down with the flu. To be fair, she did seem to have a few “off days” but only a very mild case. Of course, she attributes this to her immediate self-prescriptive daily dose of elderberry syrup (Lisa looks at the chemical-based Tamiflu as only slightly better than a frontal lobotomy).

Empathy, like cherishing, is all about the particular. Not every husband lives with the same hormones. And there may be guys in their fifties very angry with me saying I shouldn’t suggest it changes, as it hasn’t for them. I don’t mean to put people in boxes. I have a close friend who has told me pornography has never even been a temptation for him. It’s not something he has had to defend against or fight; he just never faced the allure. So, every husband is different. Maybe sex once or twice a month isn’t that big of a deal or burden to your young husband. But if he’d prefer it once or twice a week, he won’t feel cherished when it happens once or twice a month. That’ll feel like sympathy and pity. He’ll treat the occasional act of intimacy as a life ring thrown out to a drowning man just to get him to shut up. It might almost create resentment instead of gratitude.

A cherishing marriage and a Christian marriage should call us to empathy, to jump in the lake with our spouse whatever their need may be and bring them out.

Let me state at the end here that when I write a post challenging men, it tends to get lots of shares and positive comments. Every time I write a post challenging wives in any way, my assistant (a woman) knows she is going to have a difficult time dealing with the hate mail and the hate comments. Some wives are so frustrated with how their husbands are failing, they don’t want to hear one correction about how they may lack empathy.

Out of empathy (!) for my assistant then, let me make clear that I’m not telling abused wives they simply need to have sex more often with their husbands and everything will be better. This is not a post for wives who need to be saved from their marriages. It’s a post for wives and husbands who want to grow their marriages with empathy. And when I have more space to address this, like during an hour-long talk, I stress to husbands how sex has to be about giving and putting our wives’ desires first.

This is a short (and therefore limited) blog post making one point: let’s pursue empathy toward our spouse, the attitude of jumping in the lake with them instead of just throwing out a life ring, especially when we think about sexual intimacy. It’s a matter of the heart, and it’s one of the cornerstones of a cherishing marriage.

When you subscribe to Gary’s blog, you will receive blog posts directly to your e-mail inbox. You will be one of the first to learn about the latest in Gary’s writing.

37 responses to Sympathy or Empathy? A Key to Sexual Satisfaction in Marriage

  1. An empathetic husband might also say, “I know that sex does not meet any of your physical, emotional or spiritual needs. So, I am willing to give up sexual activity to focus on your actual needs.”

  2. “Some wives are so frustrated with how their husbands are failing, they don’t want to hear one correction about how they may lack empathy.”

    It could also be that wives are just like husbands and every other sinner who walks the planet. They don’t like correction of any kind because they are rebellious and prone to reflexive self justification. The proper reaction to the hate mail is not to back down but to continue to confront the sins of both sexes equally until women become acclimated to the same amount of criticism as men get. The fact that they seem so unused to being corrected, however, would seem an indictment of how poorly they have been pastored. Properly pastored Christians expect to be confronted on their sins without immediately looking for someone else to blame. Coddled Christians think the world revolves around them and that God is there to make them happy.

  3. What about the opposite situation:
    When a husband won’t show empathy for his wife’s needs for sex?

  4. “Wives, there’s only a certain season when you can make this investment in your marriage, when your husband truly needs it most.” Sadly, that season has come and gone for me. We married very young and both of us were pretty ignorant about sex although I suspect he thought he knew how it worked. How “it” worked, but not about me. It was quick, little to no foreplay, no orgasm for 20 years for me and a lot of hurt and frustration on both our parts. Since realizing that men have a legitimate need more I have tried to rectify the situation; I have apologized several times, attempt to try knew things, initiate, etc. but, my efforts are mostly ignored or scoffed at. There is no emotional connection. I struggle with sadness at what has been lost and hopelessness for our future. Do you have any suggestions for our situation? I feel like my husband’s anger and resentment, and unwillingness to do anything other than just mechanically have sex are a roadblock to an improved relationship. We are terribly stuck. He won’t go with me for help. What can I do by myself to win his heart?

  5. As a wife of a sex addict in recovery, even I have regrets about the years of exhaustion. Sex addiction is the absolute worst betrayal and completely destroys a wife’s self esteem, sexual confidence, and heart. Sex addicts typically use the “lack” of sex or the “lack” of his wife acting like a porn star or prostitute to justify their acting out. Sex addiction starts in childhood, long before a wife enters the picture. No amount of sex from his wife, which is usually only about the addict’s pleasure and extremely self centered anyway, can “cure” this darkness. Men and women are responsible for their choices, regardless of the temptations or their unmet libido. My husband spent 20 years of our marriage paying for prostitutes and at least 25 years engrossed in porn. I didn’t have a chance to “compete” ever. His job allowed him the ability to live this double life without my knowledge. I knew something wasn’t right but couldn’t figure it out. I will beg and plead for any man or woman who is betraying their spouse to GET HELP. If you’re an addict, you can’t do it on your own. We are still together, 3.5 years post discovery, and our marriage is truly stronger than it ever has been. Lots of therapy, together and separately, reading everything I could find about sex addiction, a support group for me, Covenant Eyes on our computer and his phone and so much forgiveness of so very many deep hurts, still in progress daily I might add, have helped us survive and start to thrive. Trust is being restored very slowly and can be destroyed easily again. Sex addicts have an intimacy disorder and have no concept of empathy. They live in shame and guilt. I can’t begin to explain the heartbreaking pain this has caused. Nothing is worth putting your spouse or yourself through this. With God’s help, my husband and I have fallen back in love, enjoy each other’s company, and have a mutually satisfying and loving sex life. Not a day goes by that I don’t experience pain and intrusive thoughts because of his SA.
    I know that Gary is NOT telling a wife or husband to “jump in the water” with a sex addicted spouse. An addict is unable to be empathetic or serve their spouse because they are immersed in their addiction. Please get help if you are an addict or think you might have a problem. The devastation this causes is beyond comprehension. God can most definitely make beauty from ashes but you must make the effort to change. I wish that all marriages could experience the beauty of marriage as God designed it to be. Sex addiction is a destroyer of love, intimacy, marriage, and families.
    What Gary has written is true and loving but will not happen with a sex addict. So if your intuition is screaming, believe it.