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 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 for the shared goal 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 in 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
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. For example, a woman observes her husband’s distress, feels concerned and anxious, and 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: Is the ability to see things from the perspective of your partner. 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 boy gets a stress headache because of his girlfriend’s poor health. Somatic empathy is a reflection of the individual’s investment in the bond and the well-being of the partner
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 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.
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 very 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 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?’
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 an award of critic of the year. 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; 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. Your partner is not open-minded – What does lack of empathy indicate?
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.
Related Reading: Dating A Narcissist? Here Are The Signs And How It Changes You
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 most basic job. At a restaurant, your partner will intentionally diss the waiter or snap their fingers at him. This behavior is an affront to your values and preferences. Such instances reflect a lack of empathy in relationships, as well as hostility from one partner’s end. 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? If yes, then you’re trying to save a relationship when partner lacks empathy.
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. We’re 7 years strong and the rest is history.”
How does empathy affect relationships? By supplementing the must-have 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.
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, ‘hat 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.” What does a lack of empathy indicate, you ask? 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.)
Since being supportive is an element that every relationship demands, emotional unavailability becomes a huge problem. During difficult periods in life, your partner might fail at lending comfort or consolation. Despite their best attempts, emotional intelligence isn’t something they excel in.
I’m sure these signs were distressing to go through, but I also know that you’ve 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. 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 say. 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 a lack of empathy, impress the repercussions of the same. Your husband might not see why being unempathetic is a problem, but he will understand that his behavior might possibly 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.
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 about 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 spoilt? 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
This is applicable in situations where you are undergoing emotional, physical, or psychological abuse. Draw and enforce relationship boundaries right away to safeguard your wellbeing. 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. You’re equipped to take the challenges head-on, and boy am I proud of you for that. You’ve got my unconditional support and very best wishes for your journey ahead.