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The Skill Men Need Most to Make Marriage Awesome

First, we learn it's a thing. We wake up. We become aware of the water we constantly swim in. We learn what empathy actually is.
04/27/2016 03:44pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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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: "Why doesn't he love me?"

We husbands and boyfriends stand there dumbly when she asks this directly 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 my resources and life experiences with her, and chose her to be the mother of my children. 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 act like it. Even if we're not hostile, our inability to understand why she's upset down deep in her bones, further twists the knife.

She thinks we're from another planet, and acts like it, especially when she's packing bags and moving out while we stand there like drooling oafs.

Why? How?

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.

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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, 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 empathy because we ignorantly mistake it for a feely "girl" concept that threatens our sacred identity as Real Men.

4. Avoiding the appearance of weakness (even though most of us secretly feel weak and afraid sometimes under our faking-it masks) often trumps love-affirming behavior because we don't realize or believe our wives will actually leave us, or that it will be much worse than our fear of looking weak.

5. Men are mostly UNAWARE, like we're living in The Matrix and don't see the world as it really is.

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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?'"

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Men Are Already Empathetic, and Just Don't Know It

To fully grasp the concept of empathy, it's important to disassociate it from good vs. evil, or right vs. wrong. Two evil people can empathize with each other. One good person could empathize with an evil person if he or she wanted to.

Empathy is NOT a feeling or emotion, though the ability to empathize is rooted in emotional awareness and emotional intelligence.

Empathy, simply, is 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 illustrating the difference between "Empathy" and "Sympathy."

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Every man who isn't a sociopath (mental health experts say 4% of the population is sociopathic) likely exhibits empathy routinely, but isn't aware of it as it's happening, because maybe he only experiences it with a select few like-minded people, like guy friends or his sibling.

Guys heavily invested in tribes (like friends, teammates, brotherhoods and enthusiast groups) likely demonstrate empathy in many interactions with tribe members.

Many men would rather hang out with buddies than 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.
It's empathy.

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"Empathy? Stop being a gay pussy, Matt, and start being a man," some percentage of guys will think if they actually read this far. 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.

While wives Google: "Why doesn't my husband care about me?" or "My husband is an asshole," 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, their wives BELIEVE something else. Over time, wives retreat emotionally because it's virtually impossible to love someone who perpetually hurts you. Husbands mustn't succeed in understanding their wives' emotions in order to see the benefits of empathy. Simply TRYING to can save many relationships.

Emotional retreat is a common red-flag precursor to marital affairs and/or divorce.

We Must Understand Empathy, Then Develop the Skill

Again, guys already do this! They sit next to each other at the bar, or by a patio table after a weekend round of 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'S EMPATHY.

And when we learn how to intentionally behave and speak to our significant others (and pretty much everyone!) with conscious empathy, we transform our close relationships (spouses, children, siblings, parents). Then, like magic, a bunch of drama and dysfunction disappears and life sucks less. Sometimes, it morphs toward amazing.

It's EASY to empathize with friends who think and feel like us. It's why we have all of these naturally easy relationships with people who share our interests, temperament and life 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.

First, we learn it's a thing. We wake up. We become aware of the water we constantly swim in. We learn what empathy actually is.

Next, we decide to care.

Then we get started. With a real, God's-honest chance to change the world.

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More Resources on Empathy

Thanks to my blog readers, I was introduced recently to Dr. Brené Brown's remarkable research, books and speaking on critical ideas most men don't actively think about. I think that's mostly because we don't know how life-changing it would be if we did. Brown's work kicks ass, and she might just be the world's thought leader on empathy.

Here's something to get you started: