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.

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

  1. I really wish I had read this post a year ago. I thought I was doing right with my sympathy sex and my husband thought an occasional sympathetic dishwashing would do the trick. And here I am, after 15 years of marriage, dealing with the aftermath of my husband’s affair last year. He needed to really feel wanted by me sexual and he didn’t. I get it— now— it’s just beyond sad that we had to learn the hard way.

  2. Gary, great post! But I’m reminded of 1 Cor. 7:2ff. ”Lack of self-control” involves both men and women. In fact, in a minority of marriages men lack sexual interest and the wife’s interest is always high. So those men need empathy!

  3. Gary, one of the very private joys of my marriage is the secret “code” my husband and I have created for our intimacy. (I’m guessing most healthy couples enjoy this, and the inside jokes and code are very precious to us.)

    We are definitely going to get lots of mileage out of your “jump in the water” word picture!!! Even more so because he served in the Navy. LOL


  4. I love all of your blogs, quite honestly, and this one did not disappoint. A very good perspective that I feel is in line with scripture. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. It’s so easy to think about pleasing self first. But as is in most cases, when esteeming others is the focus, we never come up short. If we want to learn and grow, we will seek and we will change. Thank you for challenging our hearts. #grateful #evolving

  5. Thanks for making me think about empathy – seems that at my age (60/70) sex becomes just doing what he wants to do, when it should be about sharing…

  6. As a woman 😉 I will say thank you for this post.

  7. Wonderful post, Gary. This “jumping in the water” response is only possible when we cherish our spouse (and their struggles) rather than have contempt for them.

    The timing of this particular marital struggle (when young moms are exhausted and young husbands are struggling with their highest libido) is such a difficult one. Someone HAS to go first.

    Young wives, I challenge you: GO FIRST, and then remain humble about it. Spend time with Jesus praying for your attitude and your husband and your attitude toward your husband. Ask Him to fill you with compassion and desire. Look for ways to bless your husband.

    Love begets love (in an emotionally healthy marriage). He will notice and you will have started an upward cycle of outgiving each other.

    Thank you, Gary, for noting that your post (and my comments) do not apply in abusive marriages.

    • Sarah, thanks for giving such wise advice to younger wives. I don’t know your age, but you’re living out Titus 2:4 in an admirable way.

  8. Allison McIntosh May 7, 2018 at 4:19 am

    Gary, thank you for your wisdom and for not only teaching it, but living it! This post is fantastic…and even though I’m super convicted and challenged, I’m inspired…I’m a wife of 14+ years with a second grader that we are privileged to home educate, and a three year old as well…my husband has to travel a lot with his job…and honestly fatigue can be overwhelming at times…but I can say without a doubt, that when I actively choose empathy over sympathy, even when I want nothing more than to curl up and crash at the end of a very long day, week, month, etc., I not one time regret leaping into the water! Thank you brother!!!

    • Allison, that was my wife’s experience in every way: homeschooling with a husband who traveled a lot. Your response brought a lot of joy to my heart, as your situation is the kind I feared might unleash the fiercest backlash. Thanks for being open to gentle conviction. And I can say from personal experience that your husband will long remember and treasure the attitude you’re expressing.

  9. As a woman who just celebrated a sixteenth wedding anniversary, and leads marriage ministry, I love the way you explain this concept! I always find myself having to explain that choosing not to turn my husband down has nothing to do with religious rules or that he owns me or that I’m an object or anything of the sort. I simply find that marriage becomes wonderful when we have the attitude that if I CAN do something, anything, for the man I love, then I’m happy to do it. And he of course does whatever is in his power to please me. Of course you’re speaking to healthy marriages, not abusive one’s. This was a good post.

    • Jaime,

      I love this. Your words, “I simply find that marriage becomes wonderful when we have the attitude that if I CAN do something, anything, for the man I love, then I’m happy to do it. And he of course does whatever is in his power to please me” summarize this entire post so well. Thank you for sharing.

  10. I applaud what you have written. There are always exceptions to every piece of advise. But as a woman I think you are spot on. My regret now being a wife in her 50s is that I wasn’t more empathetic. I was busy being angry that my husband didn’t do the things you encourage men to do: the dishes, the cleaning, a night out of fun, a sweet prayer, etc. However, I changed my thinking after reading several marriage experts also point out that sex is glue for marriages. I decided to make enjoying my husband sexually my goal for the good of our marriage, to glue us together. And we are noticing benefits. And this is after 25 years of marriage. I still want my husband to be more romantic and take me on moonlight strolls. But even if that doesn’t happen I still have the time with him between the sheets. And if I look at it as his gift to me, instead of what gift I’d rather have, I become grateful.

    • Laura, that’s a difficult balance to maintain, but you’ve taken the wise first step. I pray your husband will respond with empathy of his own. In the meantime, praise God for the benefits that have come from your unilateral changes. The marriage may not be “fixed” but it does seem to be getting better, and for that we thank and praise God.;

  11. I wonder though, is it even possible for a non-empathic person to learn empathy as a adult? Isn’t this sort of ability to feel yourself in another’s shoes learned in childhood? My husband had a very bad childhood where no one ever showed him empathy, and he grew up into a man who is quite heartless – towards me, anyway. I have been hoping and praying for so many years that he would learn to care about me that way, that he would care if I suffer, that he would want to help me when I was sick or sad, but it has never happened. He continues to be eternally self-focused and only feels annoyance when I am sick because then I am less useful to him. He feels extremely hard done by if circumstances require him to do any work around the house. Him cooking supper when I have the flu is out of the question. Keeping his word to me is out of the question if it inconveniences him in any way. My feelings are not a concern. Because of my experience with this type of man, I feel strongly that a man or woman who grew up to be this uncaring cannot change. Trust me, I’ve tried everything. I’ve read “Loving Him Well,” as well as Leslie Vernick’s book. He will never change. I need to accept that and live my life the best I can. And I doubt anyone who has no empathy would change after reading a blog post like this. Why would they want to?

    • Edith, I just paused to pray for you. I encourage you to find a good Christian counselor to get some insight into your husband and marriage. Remember that Jesus is the Lover of Your Soul who is Faithful and True (Rev 19:11). His love is perfect and everlasting! These truths encouraged me greatly during my (abusive) first marriage, and I hope they encourage you as well.

    • Edith,

      Great questions that are beyond my pay grade. I would hope empathy could be learned, but I’ll have to ask those of you who have studied this to chime in here. I’ll try to solicit some feedback from those who are more qualified to respond.

  12. Thank you Gary for this well written article on a ‘sensitive topic’. Half way through reading this, I was going to comment that it extends well past early adult life so am glad you made mention this can happen. After 40 years of marriage, I am not tempted to find someone else… but you hit the nail on the head when you noted the ‘spiritual’ difference between obligation vs. empathetic sex. My wife doesn’t fully appreciate that – and I take blame because in my younger, it was far more about the physical aspect. I have however always tried to fulfill her needs – again, you are spot on that men need to do all they can to make it pleasurable for and about her. I sincerely believe God created sexual intimacy to be enjoyed by both husband AND wife – and in doing so to bring them closer to each other as well as to Him. Again, the spiritual component of it.

    With aging, changes inevitably occur. We face the rather common problem that her ‘hormonal drive’ has declined. But as in everything, challenges can actually become blessings if we turn to God for help. This allows the spiritual component to grow – even in the face of physical changes. (Aside: The younger generation may find it hard to believe that a couple’s sex life can become better with age. Maybe not for everyone, but it is possible.) Though not a counselor or professional in this field, I would venture that how well a couple adjusts sexually with aging may significantly impact their empty nest/later years. Those, who with God’s help, navigate it well, will continue to grow stronger. Those who do not are in danger of drifting apart. I suspect this is likely one reason why gray divorce is so prevalent.

    To readers who disagree, I am only sharing my situation and viewpoint. It is not my intent to be boastful, pretend to have all the answers or make anyone feel bad. Every person and situation is unique. God Almighty, the creator of marriage, is eagerly waiting to help us to flourish in our relationships. In seeking His help and through following Jesus, we reveal to a troubled world what Christian life is about. Not perfect, but redeemed – living to serve and glorify Him.

  13. Gary, this is a terrific post…but there is at least one exception,and I’m living it.

    I have pancreatic cancer, and it’s going to kill me, though I’ve given it (and am still giving) the fight of my life. I’m four years past my sell-by date, which is beating some long odds.

    But a lot of empathy is not hat is needed here; I ant to see her making the best plans she can make for a future without me. I need to see that she’s going to be OK,and that she has friends and a support system in place now, and not try to develop that after the funeral.

    I’m not saying it wouldn’t be nice for me to have that empathetic connexion; this is a very painful descent, and it can be extremely lonely (I’m now property-bound, have difficulty speaking, and live in a rural area…the Internet my only real comms). But that which would be nice for me would act to my wife’s detriment.

    I’m not trying to steal her right to grief, and sacrifice it on the altar of stoicism; there will be time for tears, and they will flow. But I’ve seen a spouse holding too close, swept down into the gyre of death, and it can do a lot of damage.

    Today my wife is at a baseball game, with friends that will hold her up when the time comes. And I’m OK.

    • Andrew, I’m so, so sorry. This is overwhelming. It’s not my place to correct anyone in your situation. But do please allow your wife to grieve with you through this. There will be time for her to “move on,” but let her wait until you’re actually gone to do that. Receive her empathy as a generous gift and thank God that while you are going through a terrible battle, he’s given you a true wife who won’t leave you to face it alone. God will be there for her afterwards. I admire your desire to look out for her even in the face of your own suffering. That tells all of us a whole lot of good things about you. But don’t deprive your wife of demonstrating the same selfless love.

      Look, I don’t want to “lecture” a dying man, so I truly hope this didn’t come off this way. I just want you to receive as much comfort as God provides for you through these trying days, especially the kind of comfort that can only come from a loving, empathetic wife.

  14. Gary,

    Thank you again for making God’s heart perfectly clear about what it looks like to cherish and serve each other. I have found that when I have served and cherished my precious Lord, by serving and cherishing His precious daughter, the real intimacy that I have with Him makes the intimacy that I have with her so much better and fulfilling. When Holy Spirit brings my wife to me, completely, that is the best intimate sex ever. My intent is not to manipulate my wife, but ( as you say) jump in head first to be one with her. If I really seek to serve her in the way that speaks to her soul, it seems that then her soul becomes beconed to respond to my expression of love with her expression of love. It is FULL and complete and way better and deeper than a symPATHETIC response. You see that the end of that response is pathetic. I want more than that and so does my wife. For her to want to serve me, she needs to feel that I have truely served her first. I am the priest of my home. Just as Jesus is our priest, and gave Himself first to His bride, I am called to serve. Lord Jesus, help me to love more like you do. Thanks Gary.

  15. The explanation between the 2 really makes sense. The other thing that really highlights is the fact there is only a season or specific timing to show empathy and knowing that timing is very important. This helps a lot, Gary – thank you!!

  16. This could not be more perfect! I’ve been incredibly sick this pregnancy and dealing with a lot of unexpected stresses. My husband has done a phenomenal job stepping up and taking on the roll of meal maker, grocery-getter, laundry-doer, etc etc. All while working a laborious 50+ hr a week job. But I’ve only been tossing him the life ring when I’ve gotten annoyed with his asking for sex. Thank you for sharing this. It broke my heart in a very good way!

  17. It is possible if a person is self focused in this way that they are struggling with triggers (that what goes on in the bedroom is harming them even though intended to be tender). I learned early on that I could pray even about our love life and God would literally put me in the mood and help me move toward my husband, leaving us feeling both more loved than we would have if I had just wanted him to get it over with. Long before past traumas were dealt in my life, God helped me survive marriage and prevented us from imploding because we were willing to pray and be vurnerable. Empathy is feeling what it must be like to be you and that ability comes from God, which is why prayer produces empathy.

  18. Thank you for the article, such good advice in the age of sexual temptation thrown at young people more than ever in history. There is grave misunderstanding today about temptation and forgiveness when affairs or slips occur. I’ve read many testimonies from men who have strayed, do you believe there is a link between exposure to pornography and the commitment they have toward their girlfriend or wife?

    • Debbie,

      I do. And studies back it up. I can’t fully cherish my wife if I’m cherishing other women or even women “in general.” Cherishing is all about the particular. The sexual response in marriage and the corresponding release of oxytocin literally trains a man’s brain to find his wife more attractive than other women. The sexual response OUTSIDE marriage (including pornography) does the exact opposite.

  19. This is really good. I’m the kind of wife, in the bedroom, that jumps in after hubby. My mom taught me to take care of my husbands needs (I’m assuming she learned it from her mom, but she may have just read it in the Bible). I’m blessed with a loving husband who has always helped around the house and helped with the kids. Now that we’re nearing 50, it has changed…some…, but he still has needs and I do too, we create an environment that takes care of us both. When mentoring couples and speaking at retreats, we use our story (it’s been a tough one) to inspire couples to make love TO one another. It’s not always easy, and life gets really busy, but sex is the only thing that, as a married couple, is different in our friendships. If it isn’t a top on your priority list, what’s the purpose of the friendship that’s any greater than a friendship with someone else? Sex keeps us connected, one. I’m grateful there are Godly people who approach this subject even though you know it will be met with frustration. Just know that frustration is about them and their marriages. We need more sex talk in the Christian world!

    • Thanks, Chandra. I hope other readers will read your testimony and apply it. That’s a great distinction between friendship and marriage, and how even when age changes things a bit wise couples make sex a priority (as long as they are physically able).

  20. Great article but what would be your suggestion if the husband was addicted to sex? He needs it daily and it takes a hour at least for him to climax due to a traumatic brain injury years ago?

    • Danielle,

      I’m not sure what you mean by “addicted to sex.” If it’s a true addiction, counselors usually suggest a period of abstinence to break out. Throw in the traumatic brain injury, and I think you need to solicit the advice of a professional, not a pastor/writer. I wish I could be of more help here.

    • I was under the impression that wanting sex with your spouse was God’s design and should never be considered an “addiction,” which is a word I believe has been overused to the point of rendering it meaningless. Once a day may seem like a lot, but it is certainly not unheard of. It sure beats some of the alternatives that other women here have described.

      As for the brain injury, I agree with Gary that this is above all of our pay grades.