Expert Q&A: Can Empathy Be Learned or Am I Fighting a Losing Battle With My Husband Who Has Zero Empathy? by Dr. Bethany Cook Clinical Psychologist
Q. "My husband has absolutely no empathy. I always try to explain what it is to him when situations arise, which is often. Can empathy be learned or is this a losing battle?"
A. Research has shown that empathy is not a trait humans are born with but it actually needs to be cultivated and taught. Different from sympathy (sharing or having the same feelings) empathy is about being able to “put yourself in someone else's shoes” without necessarily having had that specific experience or feeling.
The formal definition of empathy is: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another.
Several psychological and neurological disorders hinder an individual's ability to learn and express empathy. Those are:
Even if your spouse does suffer from one of these disorders it is possible to teach empathy – if he has a desire to learn. The old saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is 100 percent about the dogs willingness to learn vs. his ability to learn.
Here are four steps you can use to teach empathy:
- First, it’s important to highlight the benefits of showing empathy (makes your connections to others deeper, more meaningful and fulfilling). Also, teach how to identify emotions in others (you can use a feelings chart with images of faces if needed), the importance of allowing those feelings inside and appropriate responses someone can say that are heard as supportive (i.e. “Sounds like you’re having a stressful day.”).
- The next step is to provide modeling of the behavior. We can’t always offer empathic responses to our spouse. What you can do is watch a video and talk about the people in the show and their feelings, listen to a story or read a book about someone else showing empathy.
- Once they’ve learned how to identify emotions in others and you’ve modeled (exposed them to) empathetic responses it’s time to practice. This can literally be role-playing short scenes where you both act out scenarios in which your spouse uses supportive language reflecting an empathic response. You could also practice this with a friend, professional/therapist. Just like with anything, the more you practice empathy the easier it is to do.
- Finally, it’s important for the person learning empathy to get feedback. Let them know that they’ve “done it right” when they do something that feels good to you. Be specific: “I felt seen and heard when you said ‘I understand’ to my comment instead of trying to problem solve.” Model empathy when offering constructive feedback.
Relationships are difficult even on the best of days. Good luck on your journey.
We get lots of great questions from our community members, and we have lots of great experts to provide answers. Have a question? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll do our best to get it answered for you!
The content on 30Seconds.com is for informational and entertainment purposes only, and should not be considered medical advice. The information on this site should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, and is not a substitute for professional care. Always consult your personal healthcare provider. The opinions or views expressed on 30Seconds.com do not necessarily represent those of 30Seconds or any of its employees, corporate partners or affiliates.
Take 30 seconds and join the 30Seconds community. Inspire and be inspired.
Related Products on Amazon We Think You May Like:
Books About Empathy for Adults $5 & Up
Books About Empathy for Kids $5 & Up
Books About Narcissists $5 & Up
30Second Mobile, Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.