Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand their emotions, experiences, and struggles. Having empathy helps you to connect with others, acknowledge their emotions, and leads to meaningful conversations, the ones where you feel lighter in the heart. However, not everyone has this powerful trait of empathy. These people completely missed out on the lesson and are, therefore, not able to relate to people on a deeper level. Others are completely on a different level – they are over-empathetic, which basically means they feel others’ emotions to an extent that it feels overwhelming and can affect moral decision-making.
Learn why hyper-empathy can be bad and how to overcome it here.
One of the main components of empathy is self-awareness, as stated in a paper by the University of Chicago. So, even when there’s a temporary identification between the target and the observer, there’s no confusion between the self and the other. A blur of the line of self because of empathy for others can be toxic and needs to be managed.
Although our focus for this blog is the lack of empathy in relationships, wherein one individual fails to put themselves in the shoes of their partner and lacks or misconstrues the emotions they’re feeling at any given point of time. There are ways to develop empathy though! But, first, let’s understand the different types of empathy, signs of lack of empathy in relationships, and finally, ways to deal with them.
Further Read: 7 Secrets To A Happy Marriage
Understanding Different Types Of Empathy
Cognitive empathy, also known as “perspective-taking”, is basically putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand their perspective of the situation and comprehend on an intellectual level. This type of empathy doesn’t necessarily engage with emotions but has a more rational and logical process.
Suppose you’re facing a difficult situation in a workplace and you’re sharing the experience with your spouse, he/ she might understand the situation logically and practically, but might be unable to relate or resonate with the emotional toll it’s having on you. Or the emotional empathy is on a very smaller scale than the one you’re experiencing. It’s the same way in which a doctor understands the ordeal of a sick patient but responds to it mostly with brainpower.
Cognitive empathy is essential in some scenarios like negotiating in a business scenario or solving a problem at the workplace. It might be important in dealing with acquaintances who you don’t want to get attached emotionally to yet want to perceive and respond in an empathetic way. Cognitive empathy helps in building quick connections without draining you emotionally, quite unlike the next one on the list – emotional empathy.
Emotional empathy is exactly what it sounds like. It’s when you feel empathy with the other person on such a level that you start experiencing their emotional and mental states completely. In short, you feel the feelings the other person is undergoing. Emotional empathy is actually deeply rooted in a human’s mirror neurons. We start emotional empathy as children when our mother smiles at us and we smile back. It also happens with someone who is really close to us. Let’s say your sister is having a hard time dealing with her breakup and she’s having a breakdown, you might choke up a bit as well. This can happen in relationships when you and your partner feel deeply emotional in a moment, like when you see each other at your wedding when you have a baby, or when you’re recounting a sad/ happy experience and the other one cries sad/ happy tears for you.
Emotional empathy can be both good and bad:
Emotional empathy is good because you can quickly discern people’s emotions and react appropriately. It gives them a safe space to open up and makes them feel lighter with you. This is a good trait in someone with a caring profession like a nurse. People with emotional empathy often have a great many friends who confide with them whenever they need someone to lend an ear to a tough situation. Partners of someone who has emotional empathy also seldom have any complaints about the other person not understanding their situation or perspective.
Emotional empathy is bad because when someone feels the emotions of the other person so deeply that they become overwhelmed with them. This can lead to hyper-empathy, empathy overload, and toxic empathy. These people tend to blur the line between self and the other. They become overloaded with emotions and tend to feel depressed, emotionally unstable, and go through emotional burnout oftentimes. In relationships, these people are overwhelmed on a routine basis by their partner’s emotions to a point where their mood starts affecting theirs, which can create problems in the relationship.
Compassionate empathy is usually considered the most appropriate kind of empathy. It draws a healthy balance between cognitive and emotional empathy, especially when it concerns people who’re the closest to you. Compassionate empathy is when you feel the other person’s pain and perception of the situation while being moved to help them in any way you can. For example, your partner is distressed about a situation with his father, and you not just relate to their emotions but offer to help them by speaking to their father on their behalf, offering helpful advice, or just diverting their mind to a bigger perspective – because that might be what they need at the moment.
Compassionate empathy is associated with people who have high emotional intelligence. They don’t sway to either side: more thinking and logically tackling or more feeling and less practicality. It practices a healthy loving detachment, where we balance mindfulness with compassionate caring and righftul action.
Signs of Lack of Empathy In Relationships:
#1 Your Feelings Are Being Invalidated
This is one of the most obvious signs of the lack of empathy in relationships. Non-empathetic partners will often disregard their partner’s feelings by saying terms like, “oh, you’re being too sensitive”, “don’t you think that’s a bit of an exaggeration?”, etc. This doesn’t just happen rarely in the relationship. Because then you might discredit it as a difference in perspective or understanding they might not be in a place at that particular moment to feel empathetic. No, this type of scenario happens often and on a regular basis – no matter how big or small the situation is that you’re facing.
Worse yet, they can also act in inappropriate ways at times. They may joke about or make fun of your emotions. Or can act chirpy and indifferent when you just expressed feeling stressed or sad about something. Someone who is empathetic will never behave in this way or disregard your feelings altogether.
#2 There’s Constant Criticism
People who lack of empathy have a hard time understanding where other people are coming from. They constantly judge, ridicule, and criticize anyone around them, including their partner. Say, for instance, you wake up every day and prepare breakfast for everyone, and one day you didn’t because you were too tired. They will not leave this one time to taunt you in some way and eventually discredit all the other times when you did prepare breakfast for them. It’s also a given that there’s a lack of appreciation for their partners. They will quickly forget the sacrifices and compromises you’ve made in the relationship, making you feel very inadequate and a numbing feeling that you aren’t doing enough.
Non-empathetic partners also blame their other half for any trouble they’re facing at the moment. They’re big believers in saying, “I told you so”, and “if you wouldn’t have done that, you wouldn’t be facing this problem”.
#3 They Disregard Your Problems
Women and men who lack empathy tend to disregard others’ problems as too small or think that they’re the ones responsible for them anyway. They also tend to gaslight their partners by stating that the problems in their relationship are because of them and not anything that they did. When you share your problems with them, they will be quite indifferent to your feeling. For those who already have low self-esteem, being with low empathetic partners can cause them to further go into self-doubt and self-blame for everything that’s going wrong around them.
#4 Lack Of Accountability For Their Actions
Behind the lack of empathy is the belief that they are always right. People with low empathy often suffer from a lack of self-awareness and introspection. This means they rarely think about how their actions have affected other people and themselves. It’s obvious that two people in a relationship will make mistakes or hurt someone else. What’s worse is the person who has made the wrong choices doesn’t take accountability for the same. Those who have low empathy often never take accountability for their actions. Accountability is the backbone of conflict resolution and healthy communication. When the other person is in constant denial of their actions, it’s impossible to lead a happy life with them.
Besides not taking accountability for their actions, low-empathetic individuals also tend to blame their partners for whatever’s going wrong and might invalidate the premise of their anger or distress. Unless they see their mistakes, they will continue to make self-centered choices which will affect you and the relationship.
#5 They’re Emotionally Unavailable
Empathy entails reading the body language and moods of people to know their emotional state at the time. People who are low on empathy aren’t very good at picking up these signals and when they do, they often mistake them for something else. For example, mistaking anger for sorrow and acting reactively for the signal, instead of giving the other person space to express themselves emotionally. Life is full of ups and downs, and during the difficult times, this type of partner will just add to the emotional drainage rather than lend some emotional strength. Despite their best attempts, their insensitive attitude and inappropriate comments can lead to a struggle in personal life – which can be completely uncalled for when other problems are already piling up.
7 Ways To Develop Empathy In Relationships
#1 Communicate With Your Partner
The first and foremost step to resolving any conflict in a relationship is to talk about it openly and in a rational manner. Now, having a conversation with a non-empathetic partner can be tricky because of all the reasons we just described above. You will have to communicate in a diplomatic manner. Don’t just tell them directly that they’re non-empathetic. This is a direct judgment, which no matter how truthful can hurt and make them sway away from a fruitful conversion. Instead, tell them in an undramatic way the repercussions their actions have on your and the relationship.
There’s a possibility that you might encounter some resistance from them when you have this conversation, but that’s okay. If they really care about you, they will make an effort to communicate and talk about their feelings. Many times, the way a person reacts can be linked back to their childhood or some other kind of trauma. It’s their job, however, not yours, to mend those broken pieces and become empathetic human beings. This conversation might be the first step toward becoming that individual.
#2 Don’t Blame Yourself
When someone constantly puts the blame on you, criticizes, judges, and gaslights you, it’s easy to start putting the blame on yourself and feel like you’re not enough. Anyone who suffers from low self-esteem and goes into a relationship with a non-empathetic person can feel the brunt of these emotions the worst. Maintaining your emotional cool with someone who has low empathy is important. This way you can maintain your emotional equilibrium and see the circumstances for what they are, rather than how the other person is making you see them.
#3 Develop Self-Awareness
Self-Awareness connects you to your core and makes you realize who you’re as a person, how your actions can affect others, and how their actions can affect you. It also brings you closer to your behavioral traits and individuality. It’s one of the first components of the self-concept to emerge. Developing self-awareness can help you draw a line between self and the other person’s behavior. In fact, those who have low empathy can benefit greatly from building self-awareness. When you and your partner both practice self-awareness, it opens the way to healthy communication, better conflict management, and a stronger connection.
If your low-empathetic partner is unaware of the concept of self-awareness, then introduce them to it and ask them to practice it. Better, practice it with them. Some of the ways to develop self-awareness are to meditate, journal your thoughts & feelings, question your opinions & beliefs, pay attention to what triggers you, identify cognitive distortions, and ask people you trust for feedback.
#4 Listen To Them
The basis of lack of empathy in relationships is not listening to your partner. Sometimes, both sides can have resistance to listening, causing a lack of empathy in the entire relationship. This can also be the result of a push-pull mechanism, which is when one partner lacks empathy and the other person reacts to their inconsideration and retaliates in the same way. Know that listening is different from hearing. You don’t just hear their experience only to react and say what you want to say, but understand what they’re saying before you respond. It’s better to not criticize or judge at any point. And tell them that you expect the same from them – the same understanding and empathy as you’re showing them.
#5 Enforce Boundaries
When someone who is low on empathy hangs around you all the time, they tend to bring and lend a lot of emotional barrage on you. Unless you sort the issue, it’s best to enforce some boundaries so as the other person doesn’t affect you to a level where your mental health is compromised. This can be done by clearly putting down what’s off-limits in a conversation, what you need from a relationship, when you need your alone time, and what’s unacceptable and you aren’t afraid to walk away from it.
#6 Manage Your Expectations
It’s always wonderful to imagine that people would change the way they are quickly and treat us well. That’s not always the case though. If someone who suffers from low empathy hasn’t accepted the same yet or isn’t even close, then you should know that the journey to develop empathy isn’t an easy one for these individuals. Even if they accept the same, it doesn’t guarantee that they will change their ways. Avoid heartache by having realistic expectations from other people and managing your expectations accordingly.
#7 Seek Professional Help
Seeking the help of a professional is a good and safe space to help gain more perspective and reality into an individual’s empathy levels. You can address a lot of questions about why someone lacks empathy. Have they been raised by parents who lacked empathy? Or were they raised with a silver spoon in their mouth and feel entitled to this day? Or have they had very traumatic experiences to make them close the path down to their feelings? A lot of communication can flow in a healthy manner when a professional is present. So, seek a couples therapist as soon as possible when you’re struggling with a lack of empathy in relationships.