I have a partner who is struck by life problems emotionally much more deeper than me. Whenever a setback or tragedy occurs, my partner cries about it and is sad for a long time. Although I have empathy for him and I express it, I cannot make myself terribly sad about it and wallow in self-pity. I accept the cards I have been dealt in life and try to move on.

Because of my mentality, even if I express my sympathy, it is often not enough. My partner often complains: "I wish you also were sad, that would make me feel better. Why aren't you as upset/sad/angry about this as I am?"

Maybe my partner needs me also to be sad to normalize his own sadness. I don't know. I am not sure what to do, because I follow a Stoic philosophy (which also means I do not show extreme jubilation when something good happens, which my partner also finds strange -- but in this case doesn't complain).

So my question is: How do I deal with situations in which my empathy is not enough?

  • 3
    You might want to focus on a specific example or two, and tell us how you tried to express your empathy. This question may be too broad to answer in general.
    – NotThatGuy
    Nov 1 '17 at 0:12

Some background - I'm not a classical Stoic but I come from culture that might be casually described as stoic. My wife calls this the "mountain man mentality", and has said more than once I can be robotic. She swings the other way - she is tenderhearted, easily wounded, more reactive overall. This is speaking from personal experience then, no more or no less.

When she's upset, mostly she just wants to know I'm listening. I have to fight my urge to try to problem solve her situation and just listen, tell her I understand, and commiserate with what she is dealing with. This helps her feel connected. It's important to point out, I'm not being dishonest with her or myself when I react this way. I care about her. I'm going to be on her side, that's part of our commitment.

And so to your question, I'd say it isn't about empathy. It's about commitment to your partner. That doesn't mean you have to sit and cry with him, or be as upset as him, but you need to make sure he knows you care that he's upset and you need to do that in a way that he will understand. It might not be as complicated as you think - put an arm around him, listen, tell him you hear what he's saying. Ask him for feedback once things have calmed down. Hopefully he'll appreciate that you're working on it and that you care enough to work on it.

Relationships can be and often are work. There aren't a lot of silver bullet solutions to problems, just lead bullet solutions, and you need a lot of lead bullets to get it done.


Look, I'm with you. I am also a fan of the Stoics -- have a copy of M. Aurelius' Meditations stashed away for when I need it. ;D

The first thing to do is ask yourself this: Does your partner's approach work for him? If it does, there may not really be a problem here, or at least not the problem you think. That is, it's fine for people to be emotional. For many, it helps them to cry, or mope for a while. Like ... draining a wound, almost. Not my approach, not yours, but it can be made to work.

So what is the problem? Well, both of you are making a mistake, which is thinking that the other person's approach is unsuitable. I'd recommend that you two have a conversation about this.

Important note -- Do not have this conversation while partner is in the midst of a bad mood or grief. This is a "deepening our understanding of one another" conversation.

You might open by saying you've noticed that the two of you deal with grief or bad news or disappointments in different ways. You want to understand better how he thinks. And you want him to understand you better, too. How did you come to become a stoic? You might ask about this notion that partner would feel better if you were sad too; why is that? This could be quite illuminating. (I wonder if it's because he maybe feels inadequate or weak somehow, given that many societies hold male stoicism as an ideal; there's not enough information to know) You might also explain that you do feel joy and sadness too, but express it in different ways, and that your main concern is that you want your partner to be happy.

Now I do recommend that partner read the Meditations. But then again, I think everyone should...


You can't possibly pretend to be terribly sad or so. You might want to let him know that you truly understand his situation and feelings and assure him that you will be there for him.

Everyone has different characters. Some people might be emotionally weak and some people might be emotionally strong. You can explain to him (when he feels better) on why you behave such but the most important thing is to assure him that you truly understand him and will be there for him.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.