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4 Ways to Cultivate Empathy with Your Spouse

Last Updated: July 29, 2021

Guest Author

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Dear betrayed spouse,

I hate to break this to you, but somewhere along the journey very well-meaning people will give you their well-meaning advice. Just be prepared.

They will tell you not to pull away. They will tell you to stay emotionally available to the spouse that hurt you. They will even tell you to stay sexually available to the spouse that hurt you.

You may feel the sudden urge to throw things at them. I understand.

What they don’t realize is that telling you to not pull away from a spouse that hurt you feels like the equivalent of telling you when you touch a hot stove, whatever you do, don’t pull your hand away. Allow your fingers to be burned and blistered and blackened by the scorching heat.

The instinct to pull away from something that hurts you is evidence of your intelligent design. The Creator programed that instinct inside of you. If you choose to override the instinct and force your hand on the hot stove, you are denying your soul and withholding the truth of your pain. A breakthrough came in our recovery when my husband saw the reality of how his porn use crushed me. If there is not some measure of pulling away, that message will be lost.

With that being said, I’d also like to add that while it is instinctual to pull away from people who hurt us, there is another instinct wired deep inside our DNA that plays a critical role in recovery–the emotional intelligence of empathy.

For the record, I want to admit that I didn’t always respond well with my husband. I yelled. I screamed. I cursed. I was ugly, cruel, judgmental, and self-righteous. And our marriage was rocky for several years. But through therapy groups, accountability relationships, and the help of experts, empathy was cultivated in my heart, in our hearts. And we were able to walk through the pain of betrayal together. Here are four ways that will help cultivate empathy in your relationship.

Learn your spouse’s history.

Part of the healing process is asking questions. Avoid asking the sordid details and focus on understanding their life experience. My husband was seven years old when he found a stack of magazines in the woods behind his house. It was hard to feel empathy for the grown man who hurt me, but it was easy to feel empathy for the little boy who lost his innocence to the porn industry in second grade.

Understand the mechanism of shame.

Let’s face it–anytime a shameful secret exists in someone’s life, it will be accompanied by a strong desire to cover it up. As I began to understand how shame works, I could acknowledge that my husband did not make a conscious decision to lie to or deceive me. He simply followed the path shame lead him down. I get it because I am familiar with that painful path. When I discovered his secret, shame made it my secret for another eight years.

Add the dynamic of group therapy.

Through group therapy, my husband realized I wasn’t crazy. I was simply responding the way most people respond when dealing with betrayal. I was consumed and overwhelmed with navigating the obstacles on the betrayed side of the recovery street. But there was one couple in our therapy group where the wife was the betrayer. One day when she was sharing, I saw the pain of her journey. I felt empathy for the suffering she faced and the work she had to do as the betrayer. Somehow, supernaturally, empathy for her translated into empathy for my husband and the numerous hazards on his side of the street.

Turn toward each other.

The trauma of betrayal did a number on my body. I experienced anxiety, chest pain, and insomnia. The doctor told me my heart was fine, but that provided little consolation. I would lie in bed at night with my heart pounding. All I could think was I’m going to die and I need someone to pray for me. The only someone around was my husband. I didn’t want to ask him to pray for me. I didn’t want to need him. I didn’t want to need anything from anybody. But I humbled myself, turned toward him and asked him to pray. And he humbled himself, turned toward me and prayed. Night after night we turned toward each other. I asked him to pray for me. He asked that God heal and comfort me. Two things happened during those prayers. My husband realized his decision to look at porn had caused another human being to suffer. I realized how much my husband truly loved me.

Pulling away is an accurate expression of the pain you feel in betrayal and your spouse needs to see your pain. But if you can find the courage to cultivate empathy along the way, you tell your spouse that even though you are hurt, you recognize they are hurting too. Empathy is a gift we pass back and forth. The more we offer it and the more we receive it, the more our heart can be mended through the very relationship that wounded it.


Lynn Marie CherryLynn Marie Cherry is an engaging speaker and the author of Keep Walking: 40 Days to Hope and Freedom after Betrayal a daily devotional that helps women find a way through the pain of sexual betrayal. She is dedicated to inspiring hope and shining a light on the path to freedom. Lynn graduated from Oral Roberts University and is a licensed minister. She enjoys sharing insight from God’s word and the world around her. Lynn and her husband David have been married for 25 years, and have two teenage boys. You’ll find her at lynnmariecherry.com.

  • Comments on: 4 Ways to Cultivate Empathy with Your Spouse
    1. A grieving wife on

      This seems very helpful on the surface. However, I have had my attempts to empathize with my betrayer husband totally backfire. Since he refuses to own that his viewing porn and emotional affairs were his choice, anytime I reached out to him or was vulnerable with him would later be spewed in my face. We currently live in a cool stand-off. He blames me for all the problems and I guard my heart and mind from the blaming. It’s exhausting.

      Reply
      • Kay Bruner on

        I’m so sorry for the pain you’re enduring, and for the way your efforts at connecting have been turned into ammunition. I’m afraid this is not an uncommon thing; when men are violating their own personal values, they create a system of belief for themselves that allows them to continue the behavior, and most often that system of belief involves a great deal of blame toward the spouse. He can’t own his choices, it’s too much to bear, so it’s your fault. I think you are wise to recognize this pattern, and create healthy boundaries for yourself. Here, here, and here are some more articles that expand the idea of boundaries, and here’s a little animation on defense mechanisms, and another on gaslighting that may also help illuminate your situation. Keep up those healthy boundaries, and whatever he chooses, YOU can choose to be healthy. You might want to find a counselor, just for you, someone who can help you process the pain and stay healthy. Peace to you, Kay

      • Maureen on

        I can relate to you, my husband is not empathetic at all, he shuts me out and won’t acknowledge the pain his porno has caused me. I am still with him in obedience to the Lord. I don’t know what the future holds for us but I do know we can pray for each other.

      • Kay Bruner on

        Hi Maureen, make sure you’re taking care of yourself in the midst of all this. Find a counselor, just for you, someone who can help you process your emotions and decide on healthy boundaries. Obedience to the Lord does not mean that you can’t have healthy boundaries; God never, ever requires us to enable abusive behavior toward ourselves. Here, here, and here are some articles on healthy boundaries. Whatever your husband chooses, you can choose to be healthy. Peace, Kay

    2. A grieving wife on

      Thank you!

      Reply

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