9 Signs Of Lack Of Empathy In Relationships And 6 Ways To Cope With It

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lack of empathy in relationships

The word ‘empathy’ is thrown around quite a lot. Take a look at any talk show, panel discussion, lecture, or self-help book. Everyone is always advising the listener to be empathetic. But while we have plenty of conversations on the benefits of being empathetic, we rarely address something far more serious – the lack of empathy in relationships and the repercussions of the same.

A romantic relationship is the most intimate sphere of your life. Dating someone who lacks empathy is a very challenging task that can completely exhaust your emotional resources. You want to salvage the connection you share without letting your own needs get compromised. A hard road to walk, isn’t it? But coping with a lack of empathy in relationships is possible with a few simple strategies and a rudimentary understanding of how people who lack empathy function.

The gravity of the subject calls for a nuanced discussion and guidance from a mental health professional. To shed some light on the various facets of empathy, we have with us psychotherapist Dr. Aman Bhonsle (Ph.D., PGDTA), who specializes in relationship counseling and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.

So, what’s on the table today? We’re answering the most challenging questions that revolve around the issue – What is the lack of empathy meaning that you must know? How to tell if your partner lacks empathy for you? What causes lack of empathy in people? Why do people lack empathy for their loved ones? And how can you get through to people who lack empathy?

How Important Is Empathy In A Relationship?

Brené Brown said, “Empathy is a strange and powerful thing. There is no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of “You’re not alone”. In simple terms, empathy is the ability to share the feelings of another. It is the capacity of being able to put yourself in someone’s shoes and walk a mile. No wonder it is a crucial quality to possess; a lack of empathy in relationships is highly detrimental.

Dr. Bhonsle explains, “What is a relationship essentially? It is when two people from vastly different backgrounds convene to work toward a shared goal. They come from different cultures and upbringings, possess starkly different outlooks and value systems, and have their unique approaches toward life. Naturally, they don’t see eye to eye at all times. But they have to work together with common priorities in mind. Empathy comes into focus when they negotiate their differences while undertaking the journey of reaching the shared goal. It is the awareness of what is important to your partner.”

Let’s take the help of an example to better comprehend this. Jason and Natasha have been dating for three years. Natasha is quite religious whereas Jason is an atheist. When Natasha’s father is hospitalized, she is devastated and anxious. Although Jason is not a believer of God, he encourages her to pray because religion is an important part of Natasha’s life and has the power to comfort her. He realizes that his belief system needs to take a backseat to Natasha’s well-being – even if it means endorsing something he does not subscribe to. So, how does empathy affect relationships exactly?

Related Reading: 8 Benefits Of Silent Treatment And Why It’s Great For A Relationship

The Kinds Of Empathy In A Relationship

You should know that there are three kinds of empathy that affect a relationship’s progress. They are affective, cognitive, and somatic.

  • Affective empathy: Occurs when an individual can grasp their partner’s emotions and respond in an appropriate manner. It is also called emotional empathy. For example, a woman observes her husband’s distress, feels concerned and anxious, brings over a cup of tea to comfort him, and to get him to share what he’s feeling. Affective empathy plays a key role in lending emotional support to a loved one
  • Cognitive empathy: Cognitive refers to conscious intellectual activity. It is the ability to see things from the perspective of your partner, but more in a rational way than an emotional one. For example, understanding their state of mind even in times of disagreement. Cognitive empathy is vital for a rational yet kind approach to conflicts and rough patches in the relationship
  • Somatic empathy: Is a physiological reaction to your partner’s experience. For example, a girl gets a stress headache because of her girlfriend’s poor health. Somatic empathy is a reflection of the individual’s investment in the bond and in the well-being of the partner

Since affective empathy and somatic empathy are both driven by emotions and feelings, there’s a possibility for one to hyper-empathize. Ever seen your loved one cry, and while consoling them, you feel a strong pang of pain and your eyes begin to water? At a time when their mature support is needed by their partner, they may be wiping their own tears. Such people soon become the overwhelmed emotional partner in a relationship.   

Similarly, since cognitive empathy is intellectually-driven, it is extremely valuable in, say, a patient-doctor scenario. However, in a marriage or relationship, a cognitive empathizer may under-empathize. When your partner needs you to listen to them and be sad with them, being offered solutions for their problems, no matter how effective those solutions are, may not be the most sensitive response. 

Related Reading: 12 Ways To Build Intellectual Intimacy In A Relationship

This is why experts often use the term compassionate empathy. It strikes a balance between the two – the over-empathizing and under-empathizing. Compassionate empathy drives you to understand and feel the pain of your partner enough to make them feel seen and heard as well as push you enough to help them. It ensures that you don’t suffer empathy overload in an emotionally exhausting relationship. Compassionate empathy will help you display a healthy level of empathy not just in your marriage or relationship, but even with friends, at work, with family, or with strangers. 

Does empathy affect relationships, you ask? Absolutely. It is difficult to build and sustain a meaningful connection in its absence. Let’s move on to the signs your partner lacks empathy, signs that spell trouble for your bond – the indicators of lack of empathy in relationships. Examine your situation from a very honest and objective lens. The first step of healing is diagnosing the problem by grasping the lack of empathy meaning. But before that, let us answer this: What does a lack of empathy indicate in a relationship?

What Does Lack Of Empathy Do To A Relationship

A beautiful relationship is like a musical duet. Each partner dances in perfect coordination, one responding to the other. This happens only because the couple has impeccable timing, from a long-standing practice of effective and ongoing communication in the relationship. They have communicated and understood each other so well that one partner is able to read the other like the back of their hand. What lack of empathy does is stand in the middle of this communication channel. The partner who lacks empathy never makes an effort to understand and read their partner. The suffering partner ultimately stops communicating.

A relationship without empathy is akin to a termite-infested building. The infestation happens under the surface until all of a sudden, the building comes crashing down, taking everyone by surprise. What does a lack of empathy indicate? It shows that one partner always feels disrespected and undervalued. There is no appreciation. Everything is taken for granted. A partner who can not empathize will not be able to notice the efforts their partner makes in the relationship. 

Going to work, taking the mental load of all household chores, doing the laundry on the weekends, struggling for a promotion at work but coming back home on time for dinner, every person makes some sort of sacrifice or goes out of their comfort zone for their significant others. However, for a partner who can’t empathize, there is nothing significant here to notice. This not only creates an appreciation crisis in the relationship, there occurs a huge imbalance of effort too. This often causes frustration and stress for the victim partner. It’s not easy to be in a relationship with someone who lacks empathy.

Lacking empathy in a relationship sets a couple up for sure-shot failure. How do you expect the relationship to work if there is no respect, no appreciation, and no nuanced communication – all of which stem from empathy? When dating someone with no empathy, one can’t develop the kind of trust in their partner that says “I always have your back”. Relationships require blind faith in your partner, the one of life and death. Empathy builds up to trust, you see.

Committed relationships like marriages can’t work without merging of finances, sharing responsibility of mutual families, and parenting children. How does one do that without trust? Such a relationship is either doomed to shatter, or the victim partner has to live their entire life brushing issues under the carpet, tolerating the partner’s distant behavior, and accepting this fate. In extreme cases, this lack of empathy may even lead to emotional abuse. What about the other partner? Well, they haven’t noticed anything anyway.   

9 Signs Of Lack Of Empathy In Your Relationship 

Have things been feeling off lately? Do you think you’ve been giving too much of yourself in the relationship? Well, get an even-handed view of things by identifying these signs of lack of empathy in relationships. Note the intensity and frequency of such occurrences in your relationship. Spotting these behavior patterns in your partner should not be too difficult – these relationship red flags are easily visible.

Here’s a fair warning: you might be startled to see a few of your own tendencies in these points below. Don’t jump to denial right away. All of us lack in one department or another, and maybe empathy is your weak spot. It’s an area you will need to work on by yourself. We’re going to tackle this eventually too. For now, tighten your seat belt and get ready for these truth bombs. Here comes the answer to “How to tell if your partner lacks empathy?”

lack of empathy meaning
Lack of empathy in relationships is taxing

1. Your feelings are being invalidated the ultimate lack of empathy meaning

Dr. Bhonsle explains, “This is the most obvious sign of lack of empathy in relationships. An individual who is not empathetic will be dismissive of their partner’s feelings. Phrases like “you’re being too sensitive” or “don’t overreact, this is nothing” are put to use. They won’t be willing to investigate the emotions being felt by the other person.

“Allow me to put it this way – if a person complains of chest pain, the first response is taking them to the hospital. There’s an urgency to investigate the reason behind the physical pain. This response ought to be the norm with emotional pain or turmoil too. People who lack empathy are not ready to look into the feelings of others. It’s precisely why they make bad partners.”

The next time you voice your concerns about a misgiving, observe how your partner responds. Are they involved and interested in finding out why you feel the way you do? Or do they shrug and deem the conversation unimportant? This is how to tell if your partner lacks empathy for you.

2. You’re subjected to constant criticism when there’s a lack of empathy in relationships

It’s almost like your partner is striving for a ‘critic of the year’ award. People who lack empathy have a hard time understanding where others come from. They are quick to judge and harsh to criticize. Moreover, they’re less tolerant and forgiveness in relationships is not their forte. Needless to say, such an attitude is very draining for those around them.  

Say, you returned home after a long day of work and made yourself a cup of coffee. Exhausted, you sat on the couch and accidentally spilled some in the process. Your partner instantly chides you for your carelessness without acknowledging your fatigue. Neither do they offer to clean it up for you. In their mind, you made a mistake and they were right in criticizing you.

Furthermore, they’re harsh in their feedback as well. If you ask your partner how that black dress looks on you, they could casually say, “It looks very mediocre”. And they’d be perfectly unaware of your jaw dropping on the floor with shock and anger. The phrase ‘razor tongue’ suits them quite well.

3. What does lack of empathy indicate? Your partner is not open-minded

There’s a default setting in their head that makes them think that they’re right all the time. They sincerely believe in the validity of their opinions and decisions. As a result, they might be inflexible in their ways. Your point of view may be noted, but theirs will take precedence in implementation. But this raises an important question – Why do people lack empathy for others? What does lack of empathy indicate?

Dr. Bhonsle makes things clear, “There are two reasons behind a lack of empathy; an upbringing where you were brought up without empathy, or an upbringing where you were sheltered excessively. Any childhood that lies on either of these two extremes can shape individuals to become unempathetic. Gender stereotypes also play a role; men who lack empathy today were instructed along the lines of “boys don’t cry” as kids. They are now dysfunctional adults who struggle with relationships.”

How to tell if your partner lacks empathy? They’re entitled. Used to having things their way, they are often inconsiderate of what people around them want. And an unwillingness to compromise is a huge relationship mistake.

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4. There are deliberate instances of disrespect

Dr. Bhonsle says, “Making intentional choices that hurt their partner or stand in stark contrast to their values and beliefs is a trait of people who lack empathy. It’s very, very deliberate – the motive is to irk the other person. There’s a certain sense of malignancy behind these actions and you have a problem at hand that requires urgent attention.”

This is the lack of empathy meaning you MUST know. Your partner will cross you very knowingly for the most trivial things. For example, you’re a very polite person who believes in thanking people for the job they do. At a restaurant, your partner will intentionally diss the waiter or snap their fingers at them. This behavior is an affront to your values and preferences. Such instances reflect a lack of empathy in relationships, and are a show of hostility from your partner. Pay attention to these warning signs of toxicity.

5. How does empathy affect relationships? Your partner tends to overreact

Anger management is very important in relationships. If people just voiced their thoughts without a second thought, society would descend into anarchy. Unfortunately, this is precisely what people who lack empathy do. Their knee-jerk reactions are excessive and loud in nature. This is how to tell if your partner lacks empathy – they overreact. When there is a lack of empathy in relationships, the response is not in proportion to the event that has taken place.

This sign is an offshoot of being critical and disrespectful. At their core, abusive and unhealthy relationships also lack empathy. Toxic individuals overreact when they face an inconvenience, but downplay their partner’s problems. Think back to the last fight you had. Do you remember telling your partner to calm down? Back then, did you think that they were blowing things out of proportion but were trying to see their point of view anyway? If yes, then it’s clear that you’re trying to save a relationship when partner lacks empathy, and gosh, you must be tired.

6. There’s a lack of appreciation with people who lack empathy

You simply cannot build a healthy relationship without gratitude for what your partner brings to the table. An absence of appreciation is a precursor of constant arguing and fights. When there is a lack of empathy in relationships, people don’t acknowledge each other’s efforts and sacrifices. Need I explain how disastrous this is?

It all boils down to the entitlement of the unempathetic partner. A reader from Texas wrote, “I could sense that something was going wrong for a while but didn’t know how to put a finger on it. My actions went unnoticed and I felt very inadequate. It seemed like nothing I did was enough. After having a good think (and some help from my friends), I realized that my partner was the problem. Men who lack empathy aren’t self-aware, but I decided that he must do better. After many, many conversations, we’re 7 years strong, and the rest is history.”

How does empathy affect relationships positively? By supplementing the must-have relationship qualities that make a connection stronger. Consequently, a lack of empathy in relationships hampers trust, honesty, gratitude, kindness, love, and friendship. It has a ripple effect in the long run.

infographic on lack of empathy in relationships
9 signs of lack of empathy in relationships

7. Your problems are taken lightly

What’s the word I’m thinking of? Gaslighting. Trivializing their partner’s problems is a toxic trait of women and men who lack empathy. They tend to think that problems occur because people ‘deserve’ them (and this is what causes lack of empathy). My cousin, Ryan, firmly believes that people invite problems for themselves. And he also thinks that he could have handled those problems better. A belief in one’s competency is great, but this is a stretch for sure.

If you ever go to your partner with a problem, their first question probably begins with the words, “Why did you – ?” Because they’ve automatically assumed that the fault is yours; you are wrong in feeling the way you do. Your phone crashes – “Why did you not change the model when I asked you to?” A co-worker provokes you – “Why did you let him get inside your head?” There’s an underlying tone of “I told you so” in each response. Do you grasp the lack of empathy meaning now?

8. There’s a lack of accountability Signs of lack of empathy in relationships

Even the smallest of companies have a grievances department or a customer care number. And we’re talking about a relationship here. Accountability is a must for conflict resolution and healthy communication. It is not possible to lead a happy life when your partner is in constant denial about their mistakes. Not only do they refuse to apologize, but they also invalidate the premise of your complaint. Their motto is “What you feel has nothing to do with me”.

Dr. Bhonsle says, “There’s no scope of working on the relationship without the individual assuming responsibility for their actions. They have to understand that their decisions affect others in the vicinity. There is a cause-and-effect relationship in motion. Without this cognizance, they will continue to make self-centered choices.” So, what does a lack of empathy indicate here? It suggests an inability to view the interconnectedness of actions and repercussions.

Related Reading: Responding To Gaslighting – 9 Realistic Tips

9. Your partner is emotionally unavailable

Recall the concept of affective empathy. It is an individual’s capacity to read others’ emotions and respond in an appropriate fashion. People who lack empathy are not good pillars of emotional support. Firstly, they don’t understand what someone is feeling; they might mistake sorrow for anger. And secondly, their responses are not exactly correct. (Men who lack empathy crack jokes at the wrong moment, for example.)

Since being supportive is an element that every relationship demands, emotional unavailability becomes a huge problem. During difficult periods in your life, your partner might fail at lending comfort or consolation. Despite their best attempts, emotional intelligence isn’t something they excel at.

We’re sure these signs your partner lacks empathy were distressing to go through, but we also know that you must have gained a lot of clarity. Congratulations on completing the first step of troubleshooting! We can now proceed to the next step – dealing with lack of empathy in relationships. It can be infuriating to date someone who is frequently dismissive and critical of you, but you can opt to heal together for a better future.

6 Ways To Cope With A Partner Who Lacks Empathy

This is a true test of patience. When a couple is lacking empathy in a relationship, there is no quick fix solution. But if you want to make the relationship work, you’ll have to control your temper around your partner. A drastic change never occurs; people have to put in the work to save a relationship when partner lacks empathy. As they say, slow and steady wins the race.

Dr. Bhonsle elaborates, “Doing the hard work will pay off. You can teach empathy to an individual. The surface level practices are listening better, thinking before responding, being more tolerant of new ideas and ways, etc. On a deeper level, and it takes a little time, the individual’s mindset is worked upon by resolving issues of the past.” Here’s presenting the 6 ways of coping with a lack of empathy in relationships.

1. Communicate with your partner

I know this sounds like a very basic thing to do. But many a time, a person stops trying to fix things with an unempathetic partner. They just give in to the way things are. This is how people remain locked in dysfunctional relationships for years with one partner compromising their needs and desires instead of conveying their feelings in a rational and assertive manner.

Dr. Bhonsle says, “You’ll have to communicate in a diplomatic manner. If you go about this in an emotionally-driven way, your partner will dismiss you again. Be undramatic with your approach. If you can’t explain the problem which lies in the lack of empathy, impress upon them the repercussions of the same. Your husband might not see why being unempathetic is a problem, but he will understand that his behavior could lead to a separation between you two. You can get through to him by explaining the consequences of his actions.”

2. How to cope with a lack of empathy in relationships? Don’t blame yourself

It’s easy to start finding faults in yourself when your partner gaslights and criticizes you. Hold your ground and don’t turn against yourself. A partner or spouse’s emotional baggage is not something you have to take the blame for. Maintaining your emotional equilibrium is extremely important in such a situation. If you fail to preserve your emotional/mental health, the circumstances will start to chip away at your self-esteem.

To be in a relationship with someone who lacks empathy is no easy feat. Being taken for granted, always giving, your efforts unacknowledged and unappreciated, a relationship without empathy can frustrate you to no end. Give yourself credit instead. But don’t allow that pride to become toxic or drive you to putting up with emotional abuse.

unhealthy relationship

3. Combat a lack of empathy in relationships with empathy

Mehmet Oz said, “The opposite of anger is not calmness, it’s empathy.” In moments of rage, try to understand that your partner is a product of their experiences. Relationship counseling will teach you the same. Their unempathetic approach is a direct result of what they have experienced in life. While this does not give them a ticket to misbehave or be inconsiderate, it serves as an explanation for their conduct. Once you comprehend what causes lack of empathy, you will be more willing to support their efforts as they unlearn.

4. Never take things personally

The first step of looking out for yourself is not taking your partner’s words personally. Their actions or speech are not a reflection on you. The origins of their conduct are not associated with you. Be very clear on this front; the minute you start to let negative commentary affect your life, you will undergo a (terrible) makeover. No one should change the fundamental aspects of their personality because of a lack of empathy in relationships.

5. Seek professional help to save a relationship when partner lacks empathy

Dr. Bhonsle says, “Relationship counseling is a good space to work on an individual’s unempathetic approach. You can address a lot of questions there, like: Why do people lack empathy? Are they living in a state of bitterness? Were they brought up in an intensely competitive environment? Or were they born with a silver spoon in their mouth, privileged to the point of being spoiled? A lot of communication between the partners can flow in a healthy manner when a mental health professional is present.”

Many people have walked the road you are on. Lack of empathy in relationships is deeply hurtful to live with. You and your partner can heal together by seeking professional help and emerging stronger. At Bonobology, we have a panel of licensed counselors and psychologists who can guide you. We are here for you.

6. Enforce boundaries

When dating someone with no empathy, prepare to prioritize yourself. This is applicable in situations where you are undergoing emotional, physical, or psychological abuse. Draw and enforce relationship boundaries right away to safeguard your well-being. If you think that your partner’s lack of empathy poses a direct threat to your safety, consider walking away from the relationship. Two people have to be willing to save a relationship when partner lacks empathy.

And here we come to an end of this comprehensive guide on lack of empathy in relationships. We’re sure you’re equipped to take the challenges head on, and boy, are we proud of you for that. You’ve got our unconditional support and very best wishes for your journey ahead.

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