Empathy is defined as the “intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another” (dic.com). Empathy is an important part of the process in bonding. When two people can imagine how the other person feels it leads to support and connectedness. Often it is men who lack empathy (though certainly not always). Someone who lacks empathy can often be rigid and judgemental; this means it can be hard for the other person to share things that hurt or things that they’re ashamed of. This can lead to disconnectedness.
Part of what creates a bond between two people is being able to be vulnerable and share intimately. The danger for a partner paired with someone who lacks empathy is that you will give up on sharing because you fear adding to your shame. This can be very difficult to overcome and two people can easily grow apart in this situation.
One option is to talk with the person who lacks empathy and teach them about what you experience. Self-awareness is the first step of change (which is why AA begins with introductions of first name and the statement, “I am an alcoholic”). Think of this as an opportunity to teach each other about what’s not working. Asking for what you want is a basic in making relationships work.
Three steps to take:
1. Ask them to suspend their quick leap to judgement because most likely, you’re already feeling really badly and are judging yourself plenty.
2. Then teach them there is value in being a witness instead of the judge. A witness listens and that in and of itself is valuable. There have been many times in my office, where all I could really do was be a witness and over the years I’ve learned to trust just how helpful that can be. For someone else to know the truth can be enough.
3. The third thing you can ask for is that they become willing to offer a silent hug. There is so much comfort in just being held – that in and of itself can be healing.
I often recommend not piling on more than 3 things to learn because any more than that, just gets lost. Discuss how this is a process that will be new for both of you – so it’ll be a bit bumpy in the beginning. Remember that moving from rigidity to adapting and being more flexible is the road to greater mental health.
Living without empathy is hard. One way for you to adapt to it (if your partner is resistant to change) is to delay sharing instead of giving up on it. Delay until you feel more able to sustain yourself so that you won’t allow the hurt to be compounded.
It’s my belief that those who lack empathy also lack the ability to forgive themselves of their own faults. If you lack compassion for others, you are likely to be prejudiced. You will not understand when a friend struggles with the disease of depression and you will judge them as not working hard enough at life. It is also likely that you will choose someone who is very compassionate and empathetic. We unconsciously look for the missing parts of ourselves in the people we love.
This pattern of an empathetic, generous partner who is linked up with someone who is not is something I often see. The good news is that if someone is willing to learn to be more empathetic, the brain can be trained to do so. Change requires recognition there is a problem and then there has to be a willingness to do the work. Longevity in relationships is about being willing to respect your partner enough to want to be a better person for him or her.
November 2014 addendum: Science has proven that people who read fiction improve the brain’s capacity for empathy. Here is a link to the article: science-shows-something-surprising-about-people-who-love-reading-fiction
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