“Why can’t you care about how I feel?”
My wife, Erin, was in tears as she stormed out of the bedroom. Not a great start to our evening together.
She’d already been crying in the bathroom when I got home from work. I asked Erin what was wrong, and she told me that she’d fought with a friend. Erin had apparently, and accidentally, done something that hurt her friend’s feelings. The ensuing conversation between them hadn’t been pretty, and it left Erin hurt and confused.
“It sounds like one big misunderstanding,” I said. “Why don’t you call her and explain again what you were trying to say?”
Nailed it! I thought to myself. Problem solved!
Erin looked at me, obviously frustrated. “Why does everything with you need a solution or need to be fixed?” she asked. “Why can’t you care how I feel?”
And that’s when she walked out.
Of course, I care deeply about Erin and how she’s feeling. It’s just that when I hear that she’s in pain, my brain instantly wants to fix that. I want to solve the problem.
But that’s not always what Erin needs.
What did she need? The answer was right there in the Bible. I found it when I was preparing for a talk to a group of husbands. The event coordinator asked that I use 1 Peter 3:7: “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.”
As I studied the passage, I realized it contains the key for husbands to better love their wives: being emotionally responsive.
Dr. Sue Johnson, a marriage expert who founded Emotionally Focused Therapy, believes that emotional responsiveness has three main components that can be summed up with the acronym ARE: accessibility, responsiveness and engagement.
Accessibility means being available and open to your spouse’s emotions. Most people want to be deeply known, and part of that is feeling comfortable enough to share your innermost feelings. This is the essence of intimacy. That’s not always easy, given the distractions of modern life. Kids, careers, smartphones and countless other things can keep us from seeing our spouse’s emotions clearly.
That wasn’t my problem: When I found Erin crying in the bathroom, I understood that something was wrong (I’m very perceptive) and I made myself accessible to her pain. Where I messed up, though, was in the next letter in Johnson’s acronym.
Responsiveness is being affected by your spouse’s emotions. People don’t just want you to see their pain. They want you to care, too. Responsiveness is all about empathy. When the apostle Peter writes, “Live with your wives in an understanding way,” the word understanding implies more than comprehension, it suggests being empathetically aware.
Sympathy is when you feel bad for someone. When I found Erin crying in our bathroom, I felt bad for her — I could see that she was hurting. But empathy is much deeper than sympathy. Empathy is when you feel bad with someone — you imagine what that person is feeling and place yourself into his or her emotions.
There’s an old saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This is exactly what Jesus modeled after His close friend Lazarus died. When Jesus found Lazarus’ sisters deeply grieving, he took time to emotionally respond to them. John 11:35 simply says, “Jesus wept.” This has always fascinated me. Why did Jesus “waste” time crying? He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, after all! Armed with the world’s all-time best solution, why did Jesus first empathize with the family? I wonder if part of His lesson was empathy — the importance of connecting with people’s pain.
When I offered a way to fix Erin’s distress, I missed the opportunity to hurt with her. When you deeply connect with someone’s heart, it sends a clear message that he or she matters. Deep emotional connection says, “You are valuable to me.” And this is the last part of Dr. Sue Johnson’s model.
Engagement is the cherry on top. As you open your heart and empathize with your spouse, you have an opportunity to provide a final touch — literally. It’s the tender touch when he’s hurting. It’s looking deeply into her eyes when she’s talking.
Engagement stems from seeing your spouse as a priceless treasure. First Peter 3:7 describes it as “showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel.” Was Peter just being misogynistic, suggesting that women are the weaker gender? Absolutely not! He isn’t saying that women are “less than” men or that they’re emotionally, intellectually or spiritually “weaker.” But he was writing in a time when women had few rights: In ancient Rome, wives were considered their husbands’ property. They couldn’t control their finances or own property. Peter was also acknowledging that women are, generally, physically weaker than men: He’s telling husbands that their wives should be protected and treated with honor — to stop viewing them as property and instead see them as fellow heirs to the kingdom of heaven. They are treasures beyond measure.
The apostle Paul uses the same word vessel to refer to all of us in 2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay [vessels], to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” The vessel may look humble, but what’s inside is limitless.
Erin is an amazing wife, mother, author, speaker and counselor. She is capable of doing anything that she feels called by God to do. When I think about Erin, I want to view her as a treasure. Honoring Erin in my thoughts influences how I treat her.
After Erin left the bathroom, I followed her to apologize. When I caught up to her in the kitchen, I simply put my hand on her shoulder. She is the most important person on this planet to me, and I blew the opportunity to help her feel valued and cared for.
“I’m sorry for trying to fix your conversation,” I said.
“It’s OK,” Erin responded, hurt still lingering in her words.
“I really want to hear about the interaction with your friend,” I told her. “How did that make you feel?”
We ended up having a great connection. I didn’t try to fix anything. I just remained open and present. I let myself experience what it must have felt like to be misunderstood by a close friend. Holding her hand as we talked created a special type of intimacy that I’m so grateful to experience with my wife.
I now understand what the apostle Peter was saying and why connecting emotionally is the key to a great marriage.
Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author or co-author of several books.
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