Empathy or sympathy? The key to understanding the difference is focus.  Whose feelings are the subject of focus?  Whose experience is the subject of the interaction?  Yours?

SYMPATHY:    When you hear distressing news from a friend such as a death in the family, what’s your response?  Chances are your response is one of sympathy if the news triggers an uncomfortable feeling inside of you.

AN EXAMPLE OF SYMPATHY:  When you hear of a friend’s loss, do you imagine your own similar loss?  Do you get a quick sense of how you would respond if faced with the same tragedy?  Would you feel bad?  Sad?  Do you respond to your friend by telling him how you’re feeling as a result of hearing of his emotional pain? Do you say something like “I’m sorry”?

AN EXAMPLE OF EMPATHY:  Or, when you hear of a friend’s loss, do you imagine what your friend feels?  Do you jump into his shoes, knowing how important the lost figure was to him, and imagine how he’s feeling?  Do you search for clues to his state of mind in his face and body language?  Do you use your intuition to sense how your friend might be feeling?  Do you say something like “I can imagine you must be feeling a little lost without your father?  I know how close you were”?

UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCE:  In starkest terms, empathy tends to be focused much more on the other.  Empathy requires that we stand in the shoes of the other and imagine how the other feels.  Empathy requires that we look at things through the eyes of the other.

SYMPATHY:  On the other hand, sympathy does not require this sort of work.  Sympathy tells the other how we feel.  It tells the other how we feel about their distress or pain.  Sympathy communicates the following message: “I’m having a reaction to what you’ve told me.  I feel close to you, sorry for you, sad for you.”

MARITAL PROBLEMS AND FAILURE OF EMPATHY:  In a healthy marriage or relationship, the partners look to one another for compassion and understanding.  We want our partner to understand how we feel.  We don’t want our partner to describe how he’s feeling.  This is the difference between empathy and sympathy.

-Does Your Partner Recognize How You Feel?
-Do You Practice Empathy in Your Relationship?
-Can You Recognize What Your Partner Feels?

UNHAPPY RELATIONSHIP:  Does your relationship or marriage include the kind of understanding and recognition that only empathy provides?   If not, then you and your partner may not be seeing all there is to see of one another.  You may have blind spots—areas of pain that don’t feel understood.

IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE:  Why is it important to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy?   In a struggling relationship or marriage, frequently the problem is that the participants don’t really see each other.  Each partner misses the other’s need for attention, acknowledgment and recognition.  You each may think that sympathy is appropriate, but in the end, it can fall short and feel unsatisfying if it leaves you feeling invisible. The partners don’t see the clues, don’t see each other, and end up focusing on themselves.