Updated: Jun 2
In my many years as a therapist, I have noted that one of the defining factors that causes distress within couples is the lack of empathy.
Often, I see couples who were once happy together become jaded and resentful. They move into an overwhelming negative place where they begin to feel that the one person who is supposed to understand them the most, is the person who understands them the least.
Rejection and abandonment take the place of safety and security. Where both partners once used to make each other feel good about one another, without the oxygenation of empathy they now each feel bad about themselves. This becomes a vicious cycle the couple gets locked into when both partners become emotionally reactive to one another and lose the ability for empathy.
Of course, the issue of empathy is not unique to couples. It is also relevant to communities and cultures, as demonstrated in our society right now. There are nationwide movements that assert and encourage empathy for citizens seeking justice who have historically experienced systemic racial discrimination and disparities.
Social psychologists have long researched the phenomenon of an “in” group and an “out” group in societies. People may identify positively one group that they perceive as the “in” group while disparaging another group that they perceive as the “out” group.
We see political divides each year and with each election cycle. Fractious parties often argue over “how” to move the country forward while discounting one another as “anti-American” or extremist. They use inflammatory language and often shame or demean groups and individuals, not just their ideas.
Without empathy we lack the glue that holds us together— not just political parties, couples or groups, but all humans. Empathy is the healing ingredient that binds us together. That empathy, mixed with a dose of compassion and a tablespoon of validation, creates a harmonious recipe for a communal table where everyone can gather, partake and contribute.
The Importance of Empathy
In understanding why empathy is important, we first need to distinguish between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is when you feel for someone, but you don’t necessarily feel with them. Sympathy is standing outside the person’s perspective and saying, “I feel your pain.”
When someone stubs their toe, we have sympathy for them. We understand how they feel because we’ve been there, but we aren’t necessarily feeling with them. Sympathy is not wrong or bad, but it doesn’t bind us to others. Sympathy doesn’t connect us the way empathy does.
Empathy, on the other hand, looks and feels different. According to Theresa Wiseman (1995), who conducted research on empathy, there are 4 factors that come into play when we emphasize with others.
1. The first factor is being able to “see” the other person’s perspective. Being able to “stand in another person’s shoes” and “look at the world through their eyes” are key components of empathy.
2. Secondly, having a non-judgmental attitude while standing in the other person’s perspective is crucial. Understanding difference begins with being curious about what seems novel or strange, rather than being judgmental. Curiosity invites us to understand, whereas being judgmental pulls us away from understanding.
3. The third factor is understanding another’s feelings. This is perhaps the most crucial part of empathy: allowing ourselves to feel what another is feeling. This is also the hardest part of empathy. Many people erect defenses to feeling others’ pain, hurt, sorrow or shame.
4. The final factor is communicating the understanding. Without some form of effective communication, our partner, other groups, or whole communities, can’t know that we understand.
The Development of Empathy
We are hardwired for empathy, but that doesn’t mean we automatically express empathy as a child. Research suggests that newborns as early as 18 to 72 hours after birth can respond to a caretaker’s distressed look. However, building empathy is more a skill developed through a series of experiences and that matures over time.
If we take, for example, the four factors that encompass empathy, they must be modeled and taught from a young age, while continuing to develop over time. When a child is young and in distress, that child will come to the primary caretaker with an urgent need to be soothed. The caretaker, in turn, helps the child to make sense of the hurt, expressing in words and tone of voice that they understand why the child is hurting emotionally. Then the caretaker expresses the cognitive perspective around the problem, helps the child begin to problem solve, or even just offers words of wisdom by being a bigger, stronger adult.
Finally, by the caretaker communicating all of this and affirming the child’s emotions, the child begins to realize they are not alone in the world and that there are others who can understand them, see them, and hear them. The child begins to realize they are a person worthy of an empathic response. Over time, they begin to internalize these attitudes and then they begin to express them outwardly towards others.
This process will look simplistic when they are younger. A child may give up half their sandwich to another child if they forgot their lunch - but even in this simple way empathy is still present. With maturity, that empathy may be demonstrated in a similar but more complex fashion, such as buying lunch for another person or contributing time, talent or money to serve others in need.
The Neuroscience of Empathy
When we are feeling strong emotion, we are working out of a part of our brain called the amygdala. This structure is housed deep in the middle part of the brain and sits under the right hemisphere, which is more feelings based, creative, non-linear and non-verbal.
When we experience emotional hurt, sadness, fear, shame and guilt, we are working from the amygdala area (emotional center) of our brain.
If the emotion is strong enough, then we exceed the limits of our window of tolerance. This “window” is the area in which we can utilize our brain’s full capacity. We can hear others, integrate information, and think more logically and rationally when we stay in the window.
If however, we “pop out” of the window and are feeling excessive amounts of anxiety, fear or anger (hyperarousal), then we no longer have the capacity to integrate information. We can also pop out of the window (hypoarousal) and go numb, shut down or feel frozen. Either way (hyper or hypo) we limit our capacity to be flexible, think on our feet and become adaptive to the situation.
Finally, the area in the front of our brain, right under our forehead, is called the prefrontal cortex. This is the area of our brain that allows us to think rationally and logically and to tie our thoughts to our words. This is the area where we can see another’s perspective, stay away from judgementalism, and put ourselves in another’s shoes. This is where empathy is housed.
Tying these three structures together, the amygdala, right hemisphere and prefrontal cortex, allows us to accomplish all the components of empathy. If, however, we are experiencing strong enough emotion, and we pop out of our window of tolerance, then we must first soothe ourselves so that we can get back in the window. We can’t possibly have empathy for others if we are excessively angry, fearful, anxious, emotionally shut down or frozen.
A Word About Lack of Empathy
Oftentimes I will have a partner tell me that their spouse is narcissistic and cares only about themselves and what makes them happy. While I won’t dispute that some marriages and partnerships do contain a narcissistic partner, I also have witnessed, more often than not, that the current cycle the couple is caught in brings out what looks like narcissism but is more likely feelings of disconnection and hurt.
From an attachment lens, most behaviors make sense when a partner is caught in a defensive cycle trying to protect themselves from cycles of misunderstanding.
It is true that lack of empathy for others is a symptom of narcissism. But this kind of lack of empathy comes from a place where the person never feels good enough, so they have to fill the void —whether that be by buying more things, looking better in the eyes of the world, or making most conversations about themselves. This does not mean that they have never done anything good for anyone else, but at the heart of their good deeds is a self-serving motive.
Never having been given empathy as a child, the narcissistic individual feels a constant depletion of self-esteem. This is a void that rarely gets filled up, at least not with more power, money or prestige. At the heart of narcissism is a deeply insecure person who has to draw from outside him or herself to feel good about themselves. The lack of empathy in this situation is a symptom of this deeply insecure, hurting person.
Creating a Pathway to Empathy
So what do you do if you are married to someone who lacks the empathy you need? What happens if you come to realize that you don’t empathize with others as much as you could? Well, hope is not lost. Like any skill, building empathy can be learned, and with practice it can be mastered.
First, let me clear up some misnomers about empathy. Like all skills it can be contextual, meaning empathy is not called for all the time in all interactions. If you are going to see a therapist, then by all means you should require that he or she be able to understand your perspective, feel their way into your story, and not judge you for it.
However, if I am getting surgery I do not want the doctor who is handling the procedure to be wondering how much pain I am going to be in during recovery, or how much my family is worried about me, or how quickly I might get back to work. I want him focused on the job at hand and performing a successful surgery. So when I say empathy is contextual, it means that we do not need to have empathy at all times in every situation.
There are a couple additional concerns I see with others learning to express empathy. I sometimes see individuals worried that if they empathize with their partner, it means their partner’s perspective is right and theirs is wrong. In some cases, they feel like if they empathize then they have to give up their perspective and accept their partner’s perspective as the “truth.” However, empathy is about seeing multiple perspectives, not just one.
Empathy is about feeling your way into someone else’s life without judgement. You can empathize with others and still retain your own perspective. You can have empathy for others and still remain confident in your convictions.
Empathizing With Others
Here are some helpful guidelines and tools for demonstrating and encouraging empathy:
1. Bracket yourself - The first thing you want to do is to set aside your own perspective for a moment. Without being able to suspend your own perception and take on another’s perception, you won’t be able to empathize. Bracketing yourself means holding your feelings and perception long enough to allow room for another’s view.
Bracketing is holding loosely your perspective and allowing room for another’s thoughts and feelings on the matter. This links with the window of tolerance we discussed earlier. You can only bracket yourself if you stay in the window of tolerance. Otherwise, you have popped out and are not available to truly hear your partner’s perspective.
2. Ask questions - Don’t assume you understand another’s perspective right away. Oftentimes, we only listen up to the point when we want to interject something. Make sure you really understand your partner’s thoughts and feelings on the matter. By asking questions you tell your partner that you care enough about their feelings to understand more, and you are curious about how they feel.
3. Stay away from judgement - While listening to your partner, you may find yourself judging what they are saying. It may not even feel like judgement in the moment. It may just be a matter of an internal dialogue that says, “This will never work,” or “Your feelings shouldn’t be hurt by that.” These types of internal statements keep you from truly empathizing with your partner.
4. Communicate your understanding - When your partner is done speaking, and you think you have a good grasp on their perspective and feelings, make sure you communicate it to them. Ask, “Did I get this right for you?” Without verbal confirmation that you got it right, you may not really know.
Wanting Others To Empathize With You
Monitor your own feelings before responding - Check yourself first to determine whether you have popped out of the window or not. It’s hard to have others empathize with you if you are angry and yelling at them. Make sure you are using a tone that is open to discussion and not accusing. Your partner will likely be more willing to listen to you if they do not feel attacked.
Stay centered in your own perspective when communicating - Stay away from describing other’s feelings or thoughts. The closer you stay to describing your own feelings the better. It’s better to use “I” statements such as “I think, I want, I need, I feel.”