Ignoring empathy with our emotions can be an enemy to our marriage.
Many years ago, my husband Carey and I had no clue what to do with each other’s emotions. He would get rattled about something around the house, and I would get angry about his feelings, and then we’d both be irritable or worse. Our chronic focus on how the other person was feeling, and reacting to it, was making us miserable.
I so longed for a marriage that felt better on the inside than it looked from the outside. But that wasn’t our reality, back then, for all kinds of reasons, including how we were mishandling emotions.
During those rough years of our marriage that I described, the fruit of our marriage was missing. I wondered whether I’d signed up for a lifetime of misery.
Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you’re in or you have been through struggles in your marriage that leave a bad taste in your mouth. Is there too much tension or a chilling coldness? Are you wondering who is this person I said “yes” to? Do you feel ‘the two become one’ is more like a business deal?
Our 32-year marriage now is a refuge from harsh realities and a source of joy, but it wouldn’t have been without the power of the Spirit, personal growth, and a laying down of personal pride. We needed to pay attention to how we were handling our own and others’ emotions because failing to do so responsibly was making us feel disconnected.
Taken from the most erotic book in the bible, wisdom about growing romantic love says this: “Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards…”. A middle eastern audience would instantly recognize foxes as representing a real-world threat to a staple in their diet.
This imagery is likely not new to you. You understand that there are many potential threats to a loving, satisfying marriage. Of these threats, this pitfall of emotional disconnection stands out in my dealings with couples through my family law practice.
By taking some very practical steps you can rid your romance of emotional disconnection and grow in soul-satisfying love.
You Have an Emotional Life, but is it Healthy?
Emotions are not obstacles to work around – they are signals to pay attention to. Emotions are tools, but allow them to take the lead and they turn into foxes.
Your feelings and those of your lover are important. Who of us can be wholehearted and fully alive without a healthy emotional life? Who can truly love when the feeling of love is repressed along with all kinds of other emotions?
Our emotional lives are not designed to be ignored, denied, or powered through, but rather, integrated as part of ourselves. Real love needs to be at the core of who we are as Christ’s followers. As lovers of Jesus, He tells us that we have one overriding commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
The apostle Paul addresses emotions when he says, “Love must be sincere….Be devoted to one another in love.”
Feelings are sometimes thought to be irrelevant. Psychologist and relationship expert Dr. Karyn Gordon recently said that people commonly don’t really know the difference between thoughts and feelings. If you’re like I was, you tend to skip over emotions, deny or ignore them, or even tell your partner they’re wrong to feel the way they do.
I’ve learned by experience that there’s a far better way.
Love By Creating a Safe Space for Feelings
When I worked as a pharmacist, I attended a lecture by a respected palliative-care physician on bedside manners. His advice carried a lasting impact:
By responding and reacting to your patient’s emotions, even if you only say a few words, you will come across as being warm and caring. If you skim over them and don’t respond, you’ll be perceived as cold and indifferent. For example, when your patient goes through the emotional shock of their diagnosis, don’t ignore their emotion. Respond to it. Say something like, “It’s so difficult to get this news. I feel for you. It’s normal to cry…”
If you respond and react to your patient’s emotions instead of ignoring them, you are forging a closer relationship.
The same is true of your marriage.
When your spouse is venting after a ding on their car or a tough exchange at work, do you share their frustration? Will you enter into their feelings with them, even for a moment?
Empathy creates connection.
You’re not responsible for your spouse’s feelings, and you can’t control them. Each of you needs to do your own work toward emotional well-being.
Decide to make your relationship a safe space for each other’s emotions. Note: I’m not advocating for uncontrolled anger or worse, rage. If there are excessive emotions or frequent or overwhelming triggers, then seek professional help. Also, please reach out for help if you’re in a situation that is actually harmful or a threat to your well-being.
Want Better Fruit in Your Marriage?
Although there are many potential next steps, here are a few suggestions to help you brainstorm:
Take an emotional audit of yourself for a few days. Pause at least 4 times during the day to check in with yourself on how exactly your body feels. Chest tight or spacious? Are shoulder muscles tense or relaxed? And so on.
Commit to personally growing in your emotional health. Read The Voice of the Heart by Chip Dodd to learn more about how to grow in contentment and harness your ‘negative’ emotions for the gifts they are.
Work on creating a safe emotional space in your marriage. Focus on bringing your partner more empathy. Debrief alone and with your spouse about whether it was safe to express how you really felt after a disagreement.
Emotions (even the ‘negative’ ones) come bearing gifts if you pay attention to learn what they’re trying to tell you. Growing in how you handle feelings is a way to erect fences around the vineyard of your marriage. Protect, guard, and nurture your emotional lives, and later, together you’ll drink fully of love.
 Song of Solomon 2:15, New International Version (NIV)
 Deuteronomy 6:5 NIV
 Romans 12:10 NIV
 Smart Family Podcast Episode 71: Dr. Karyn Gordon https://smartfamilypodcast.com/episode/sfp-071-helping-your-kids-develop-self-leadership-self-confidence-and-a-growth-mindset-with-dr-karyn-gordon/
 Toni Nieuwhof, Before You Split (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Multnomah, 2021), 66.
 See my article, “Is Your Marriage Unhappy or Harmful?” https://toninieuwhof.com/is-your-marriage-unhappy-or-harmful/ Chip’s book is found here: https://www.chipdodd.com/books
Toni is passionate about helping couples and kids to love being home.
She’s a family law mediator, former divorce attorney, author, speaker and co-host of the Smart Family Podcast. She has been married to leadership expert, author, speaker and former pastor Carey Nieuwhof for over 32 years.
Toni has served the sick and vulnerable over the years by combining her professional acumen as pharmacist and lawyer in various roles in hospitals and other organizations. Toni did this while building strong family ties at home, investing in her marriage and nurturing their two sons.
She has spent decades serving the community through the church Carey and Toni founded, and has been a mentor to many. Her heart is full when she spends time outdoors with Carey, their family and anyone else who is drawn to the aroma of their backyard BBQ.
Find Toni’s free articles for couples and more at https://toninieuwhof.com/