Marriage Advice From A Christian Perspective

The Power of Empathy

  • Sandy Coughlin Contributor
  • 2009 29 Jan
The Power of Empathy

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 1 Corinthians 13: 6 - 7 

I carry a secret weapon with me 24-7. I sleep with it, shower with it, run with it, and carpool with it. I even travel with it, making it through airport security unseen.  I slip right through with no alarm systems beeping at me, with this weapon at my side.

This secret weapon is called empathy, and I’ve learned to keep it with me at all times. The word “empathy” means identifying and understanding another’s situation, feelings and motives, and I’ve learned to use it daily in my life.  I’ve found that my marriage particularly benefits from a daily injection of empathy!

This weapon helped me through a rough patch with my husband in our early years together.  What I had thought was “quiet strength” in my husband was actually a form of passivity.  And little did I know there was a name for it – a Christian Nice Guy (CNG) Syndrome!  Not knowing what a CNG was, and having never seen any information on this subject, my first reaction to a passive husband was frustration and confusion.  Sure I could pay the bills and run the household, but I wanted this new marriage to consist of togetherness.  My husband’s overly mellow temperament (expressing few opinions), unwillingness to put up a fight, and unwillingness to convey any negative emotions started to take a toll on us as a couple.

But let me back up.  My husband had amazing qualities when we first married, and to this day I’ve never looked back, as I’m charmed by his love, humor and intelligence.  But what I did not realize was that the at-home problems of his youth impacted him even as a grown man. 

My husband lived under the radar of life.  He felt that if he lived life “safe,” that his problems would be few. Unfortunately this affected the intimacy between us. It’s not that we did not experience any intimacy, because we did.  But we both yearned for a greater form of it. Intimacy is a choice wherein you have to be available, present, and vulnerable with one another.  It’s not always comfortable, and with my husband being the nice guy that he was, it was easier for him to often not “show up.”

For example, I’d ask my husband what was on his mind and he’d reply, “Nothing.”  He was not clear with his wants and needs and would often give me the silent treatment.  This made me walk on eggshells, because I never really knew what was on his mind!  What I didn’t know was that he didn’t feel safe with me.  I either didn’t listen, or I’d turn around and attack him when he did try to open up.  I had a strong personality, and in turn felt like he should be able to handle my words!  Little did I know that attacking, nagging, coercing, and shaming pushes a CNG further into his nice guy ice cave!

After a few years of dealing with our issues, in an unexpected manner, God got a hold of Paul and He got a hold of me.  We were both ready to do soul work.  I learned that my responses to my passive husband were a part of the problem.  As I learned to be more supportive and understanding of my husband’s negative past, I started employing my secret weapon.  EMPATHY.

When I began to understand that passive people are made from life experiences, and that people are not born passive, I started feeling more for my husband and became more empathetic toward him.  My respect for him was strengthened as I became increasingly able to see his struggles in a healthier light.  My respect was enhanced even more once he started being more open and honest with me.  My husband began to exert his will and express his feelings.  I took what he said more seriously, prayed for him more, and became warmer toward him in general.

Yes, empathy became my secret weapon.  I talked less and listened more.  I created a safe environment for my husband and held my tongue. Empathy became liberating for me as I became a mirror of reality in my husband’s life.  I no longer corrected him, coerced, nagged or shamed.  I felt for him and listened.

As I’ve learned to carry this weapon of empathy around with me at all times, I’ve grown to be a woman of goodwill.  Our marriage has become more harmonious, happier, trustful and safe.  A situation that once was “married but not engaged,” has become more intimate and supportive, and we now have a marriage where we have learned to lift each other higher than we ever could go on our own.

Maybe you’re feeling the need for more intimacy—and empathy—in your life?  Try my secret weapon and see if it works in your marriage!

Posted January 29, 2009

Adapted from Married but Not Engaged (Bethany House, 2006).


Sandy Coughlin is mother of three and wife to Bethany House author Paul Coughlin (No More Christian Nice Guy).  She is also co-author with Paul of Married but Not Engaged (Bethany House, Aug. 2006), which helps wives to achieve greater intimacy with their husbands, and is the author of the popular hospitality blog 4 Reluctant Entertainers. You can learn more about Sandy and her family at To learn more about a Christian Nice Guy (CNG), visit Paul’s website,