You want your spouse to be fully present with you in your feelings, thoughts and situations in life. But what happens when they don’t show empathy? You probably feel alone, unimportant and misunderstood. You’ve opened up, but your spouse seems unable or uninterested in responding in an empathetic way. So, what do you do when your spouse lacks empathy? 

First, my heart goes out to anyone married to a spouse who indeed lacks empathy. This is a hard road.

Let’s begin by establishing what we mean by the word empathy. According to Harvard psychologist Susan David, “Learning to label emotions with a more nuanced vocabulary can be absolutely transformative.” 

The term empathy has evolved and has recently exploded in popularity.

That’s great, but it can be confusing if it’s not clearly defined. In Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, researcher Brené Brown describes two types of empathy:

  1. Cognitive Empathy is sometimes called perspective-taking or mentalizing. It’s the ability to recognize and understand another’s emotions. “Your best friend told a bunch of people something you confided in them! It’s completely understandable to feel betrayed. I get you.
  1. Affective Empathy is often called experience-sharing. It is one person’s emotional attunement with another’s experience. “Your best friend told a bunch of people something you confided in them! I feel that sting of betrayal. I feel you.

Your spouse is the one person you hope will get you and feel you. Why? So they can be there for you. (In whatever way you need them to be.)

Simple phrases like, I get you, I feel you, and I’m here for you, are gestures toward empathy. When they’re sincere, they mean I. Am. With. You. You are not alone. But empathy doesn’t stop there. Empathy isn’t complete without action. 

Empathy should lead your spouse to put self aside, be present in your story and absorb it. They understand, believe and validate it and you… they don’t judge, criticize or dismiss it and you. (And they definitely don’t make it about them.) Empathy is the catalyst to respond with appropriate, compassionate actions.

How to Respond vs. React

Telling your spouse they’re not empathetic is probably not gonna help. It’s more of a label when you actually need their labor. You need them to do the relationship work to get outside of themself and be considerate of you. 

You may be able to help your spouse who lacks empathy by fine-tuning your communication. Be clear and direct about what you need. Invite them into your story. Frame the conversation by saying things like, “At the moment, I’m not looking for you to judge me, give me advice, or share your opinion. I need to feel heard and understood.”

Pause. Reframe. Rephrase. “I need you to be present with me.”

Begin your statements (like the ones below) with “I need you to…”

  • Understand how I feel and care about my feelings.
  • Listen to what I’m thinking and consider my thoughts.
  • Hear me and care. I need to know I have your full attention.
  • Support me and be my partner in this situation.
  • Understand this part of me I’m trying to share with you.
  • Understand how important this is to me.

Empathetic conversations can lead to tangible, actionable things for a caring spouse. You can set measurable goals around these statements. Often, we can address a lack of empathy with better communication. There is help and hope to improve communication so you feel heard and understood

But what if this doesn’t snap my spouse out of themself and into being present with me?

Why isn’t your spouse empathetic even when you ask them to try to empathize with you? There can be a variety of reasons. We don’t fully understand why some people are more empathetic than others or why some people have little to no empathy. But there are indications that a person can learn to be more empathetic. 

Here are a few things you can do:

1. Model empathy for your spouse.

Make empathetic statements “out loud” and do empathy work “out in the open” where your spouse can see it. For example:

  • Help me understand how it felt to get that raise at work… 
  • Sarah, how did it feel when Hunter wouldn’t share his toys? 
  • Imagine what it must be like to lose everything as those people on the news did.
  • Amanda, I’m not going to offer unsolicited advice. I just want to sit with you as you go through this difficult time. You tell me what you need.

2. Practice talking about emotions with your spouse.

Try books, games, apps, and websites with “get to know you” questions and conversation starters. This can be a helpful practice for discussing your interior lives. Make it a “Judgment-Free Zone” and a safe sharing space.

3. When your spouse does express empathy, acknowledge it and thank them for it.

Hard Relationships. Hard Choices.

Living with a spouse who isn’t empathetic can be draining and demanding. Because your spouse lacks empathy, they might be critical, cruel, or unforgiving. They may react with anger when they feel like you are being “too sensitive.” They could be oblivious to how their behavior affects you, or be unresponsive to your needs. 

Unfortunately, this might be your reality. It’s one thing to be patient with the change process and support growth in your spouse. It’s quite another to be hurting all the time and in over your head. 

Here are things to consider: 

1. It’s not your job to “fix” your spouse.

Several factors can contribute to someone’s inability to empathize. Genetics. Socialization. Childhood trauma. Your spouse may have grown up in a family that suppressed emotions. You can support and encourage your spouse if they’re trying to grow in this area. But this may be an issue they need to work through. You also need to recognize if they’re not trying to grow in this area.

2. Seek professional help.

Diagnosable disorders may play a significant part in why your spouse lacks empathy (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, or Borderline Personality Disorder, etc.). Know when to bring in the professionals. But remember: Your spouse may not change. 

And if abuse is going on, it may not be a safe relationship for you to stay in. Your safety and mental health are important. 

**Constant criticism, mocking, and devaluing your thoughts and feelings are forms of emotional abuse, and if your spouse is completely unwilling to get help to change their behavior, that’s not ok. Understand what abuse is in all of its forms. [See below for The Domestic Violence Hotline number.]

3. Find validation from within and from other supportive people in your life.

It can take quite a bit of time for your spouse to hone their empathy skills. It’s a process that will have ups and downs. You can’t allow your self-worth to be tied up in their ability to empathize with you; it should come from within. Practice self-acceptance and self-care, and in the meantime, turn to trusted friends you can share your thoughts and feelings with. And there’s no shame in seeking a counselor for yourself, either.

Life is certainly not easy with a spouse who lacks empathy. You can do several things to improve the situation. But you also need to recognize when those things aren’t working. Many people have successfully maintained their marriage knowing that their spouse may have many positive traits, but being empathetic is not one of them. You can set boundaries with your spouse and still get your need for empathy met in other healthy ways.

At the end of the day, we all want to be heard and understood without judgment. And chances are, you both want your marriage to be a safe space to share your thoughts and feelings. Fine-tune your communication around what empathy looks like in your relationship. Practice talking about feelings. Dig deeper into understanding and believing in each other. Recognize and appreciate any progress toward more empathy – it’s a process that will bring you closer together in the end.

Sources:

*Special thanks to my colleague, Tamara Slocum, for her insights/contributions to this piece.

Susan David, Ph.D.

Brené Brown

Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience

8 Steps to Better Communication Today

Empathy Definition | What Is Empathy

The Origin of Empathy

The Surprising History of Empathy | Psychology Today

The Secret to a Happy Relationship Is Empathy | Psychology Today

What to Do If You or a Loved One Lack Empathy

Resources:

Why Should I Consider Counseling? – First Things First

How to Find a Counselor Who Will Fight for Your Marriage – First Things First

How to Crack the Code of Men’s Feelings | Psychology Today

Keys to Effective Communication in Marriage – First Things First

Why Some People Have a Lack of Empathy (And How to Deal with Them) – Lifehack

200 Questions For Couples

**Domestic Violence Hotline

Do you feel safe? For a free, confidential, and clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here, or contact the Domestic Violence Hotline, 24/7, at 1−800−799−7233.

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