What if your spouse acts the part of empathic listener (but really isn’t)?


You’ve had a bad day. Your spouse comes home and you proceed to tell them about your difficult, frustrating day. When you finish telling your tale of woe, your spouse says the following (with appropriate feeling)

Wow, that really was a tough day. I’m sorry it has been so hard for you. Why don’t you take it easy and I’ll handle…[whatever menial task you would normally do right now]

Normally, this validation would feel quite nice. But what if you knew that your spouse didn’t really feel the warm fuzzies they were trying to send your way? What if they were only saying what they thought you wanted to hear?

Would you still feel loved because of the effort they made? That they wanted to “fake it ’til they make it”?

A recent This American life radio episode covers this very issue. The fifteen minute episode tells of a man with Aspergers who needed to learn how to love his wife and did so by observing and mimicking others who had better social skills. At one point in the show, the interviewer asks his wife if it matters to her that her husband doesn’t feel the empathy he is trying to convey.

Her answer? No.

What would your answer be?

4 Comments

Filed under love, marriage, Psychology, Relationships, Uncategorized

4 responses to “What if your spouse acts the part of empathic listener (but really isn’t)?

  1. Wow, that is a very interesting post! I think the fact the He is trying to make her happy, especially if it doesn’t come naturally, shows more love than the expected emotion behind the response would. The determination to try to override his automatic emotional or emotionless response and give her the reassurance she needs at the time is important to her. As I think it would be to anyone in a relationship. Not that he is gushing with emotion about it. Thought provoking isn’t it? I feel something profound just entered my understanding. Thank you & Blessings to you!

  2. chewing taffy

    I think this kind of effort is a big part of what makes marriages work. It’s a given that we don’t always “feel” like listening with empathy or taking on a chore for our spouse, or having sex, or whatever…and yet so much of marriage is a choice to act in a loving way toward our spouse. When my husband has had a long day at work, and comes home and finds me overwhelmed with three kids and some kind of crisis…and steps in and lovingly listens and gives me a break? Yeah. That absolutely counts. I think it counts MORE actually. We can all be “kind” and loving during the honeymoon stage…but when real life kicks in and it’s all less romantic and there’s no real payoff for being nice? Yeah. Those sacrifices go a long way in making a marriage last!

  3. Cobus

    I am daily in that situation – I am the person with Aspergers. Interesting post – it make it seems if the caring is not real, just a learned response. I deeply care for and love my wife. I would love for these type of responses to flow naturally – but sometimes I just have to think about it to fully internalize what was said. When that happens my feelings of compassion and care for my wife are stronger than most – I really want to care for her and make things better. In fact – I will gladly let it be at the expense of myself even if I am equally tired. Unfortunately conversation moves to quickly, and I have to focus on facial expressions etc to make sure I read the situation correctly. So – I give the response I have learned not because I am not genuine or care – but because it is most likely the right response, while giving my feelings and emotions time to catch up with reality.

    • Cobus, I am the spouse in the scenario, hubby is HFA (I also have strong traits, no dx though). I knew it when he courted me, I knew it was part of the package deal, and I had had enough life experience by then (late-30s) to know that you can’t change a person but rather you must accept them as they are. We’ve had a *LOT* of problems through the years, mostly because we were both “damaged goods” when we came to the marriage and we foolishly added the stress of trying to blend to families (while both extended families were less-than-supportive of our relationship). In our early years he followed the same pattern he always had with his extended family and ex, do the best you can and not worry about it tomorrow because from his perspective each incident is isolated from everything else. I felt hurt a lot and as is my dysfunctional nature, I pouted. So I coached him on how to respond, somehow believing that if he said/did the “right” things, it would make everything “better”. That didn’t help because, as you said, he was only going through the motions and it was easy for me to detect. At some point we stumbled upon a solution that works for both of us and I can only conclude it was an inspiration from God. If I am hyper-emotional and from listening he knows I’m not upset with him, instead of trying to guess what to do, he bluntly asks me. The one thing that I cherish more than anything else in the world is hearing him ask, “What do you need from me right now?” Depending upon the scenario, the answers vary: “To be held while I cry”, “To be left alone for awhile. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to interact again”, “For you to defend my honor”. But the moment he asks that question, I know I am the center of his attention and that he’s intent on doing what I *NEED* at that given moment, even if he has to be told, rather than his having the ability to read my mind.

      Even if spectrum-ness wasn’t part of the deal, God wired men and women differently. It’s unfair for me to assume hubby will behave in our relationship the way I do just as it’s unfair for him to assume I will behave like a man might. And after all this time, I’m finally learning my own lesson. Just a few days ago he was befuddled by something at work and called me to unload. After he had finished venting, imagine my surprise when I heard myself asking, “What do you need from me right now?”

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