“Before we had kids, I felt like my partner and I really understood each other, but now it’s almost like we live on separate continents . . . ?”

With good reason, many parents say they wish their partner sympathized more with their situation. But the other side of the coin is also often true: that the other partner wishes he or she was understood more. Since one of the best ways to receive more understanding and consideration is to give it, let’s take a moment to explore empathy for a partner. We’ll draw on our experience as parents and our conversations with parents to suggest how it may be for your partner to be a parent; this is a composite, written in the first person, a generalization of someone who will not fit their partner in every way.

  • Now I’m a parent – as profoundly as you, I love the child we have made together. We have many of the same feelings, like happiness when the baby first curls her tiny fingers around one of our own. Yet since I probably spend less time with children than you, it is quite possible that I feel less sure of my skills. Feeling awkward or inept is uncomfortable for many people and makes it hard to ask for help. Maybe I’ve asked you what I could do and been told I should already know. Maybe I’ve tried to dive in and help and then been told it’s all wrong. I pick up your underlying attitude about my parenting skills, and the way many parents talk to each other about their partners is quite disdainful. I may experience you squeezing me out of the parent role while complaining that I’m not involved enough.
  • Tugged in different directions – I show my love for my children and you in part by stepping up my efforts as a provider. Yet that tends to draw me into working longer hours when you wish I’d put more energy into our children and home. Unfortunately, my workplace may not care much about the needs of my family, so I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.
  • I’m probably more engaged in child-rearing and housework than my own parent was. Nonetheless, if you are like most partners who care for the kids, you’d still like more involvement and help, so I feel uneasy and resentful that I’m not coming up to the standard of what you want in a partner.
  • Married to a parent – I am awed at your ability to make a baby and deeply grateful that you have enabled me to have a child. I probably appreciate your sacrifices more than I have been able to say.
  • I’m also worried by any fatigue, depression, or other health problems that have developed since you became a parent. But when I offer well-meaning suggestions, like you getting more exercise or using more child care, there’s a fair chance you get irritated, because you want empathy rather than problem-solving, think my idea is impractical, or feel I’m trying to make you give less to our kids. After a few rounds of this, maybe I stop trying to help you.
  • Where did my partner go? – I love my child incredibly, but my relationship with you is still a priority in itself, not merely as a framework for raising children.
  • I feel keenly the loss of the attention, energy, affection, and love you have shifted from me to our child. It can easily seem to me that you regard me as little more than a means to your ends. One parent said: “I go out in the world like a caveman who brings home the meat. I drop it at her feet, she says ‘thanks’ and goes back to our daughter.” It’s like I’m not in the room. And this shift in a parent’s attention away from his or her partner is made painfully concrete by the disinterest many have in sex.
  • Does my partner understand me? – I cannot make my partner understand me, but I can try to understand them and have empathy for a partner: that much is in my power. I could ask them about the description of a partner just above. Or I could simply observe them for a while without any assumptions, wondering how it feels to be them deep down inside.
  • Since you give understanding to our children all day long, you might have “empathy fatigue.” So it may take a conscious decision to bring understanding and have empathy for a partner. But if you do, I will notice your interest and appreciate it and be more empathic with you as well. And when the two of us have a better idea of the feelings and wants of each other, we will be more able to solve problems together.

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This article about empathy for a partner is adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.