I will start off this post by saying that I am going to make an assumption* (more details on the assumption at the end of the article). Currently there is no research that clearly says what I am about to say. But, for the sake of thinking through this research finding that I am about to share, I will make an assumption, and that is going to allow us more easily talk about and to apply this finding in real life.
What if I told you that empathy does not always relate to caring, validation, and understanding (what researchers call “responsiveness”) in romantic relationships? Would you believe me? And why would that be the case?
Well, believe it or not, it is true. And so is the opposite (that empathy CAN lead to MORE responsiveness). This is the more intuitive path, so let me start by explaining this one.
Imagine your partner came to you with an issue they wanted to discuss. What do you do? We can be more responsive to our partners when we can accurately understand their feelings/thoughts AND when we are concerned.
I don’t think this is a surprising conclusion at all and I would hope that something this straightforward would also be shown in research. So, you might think, if I can understand that my partner is stressed out and why they are stressed out, that should always lead to more responsive behaviors, right? WRONG.
Understanding is only half of the equation.
The other half of the equation lies in the amount of concern they have for their partner. Someone higher in concern will be more responsive. This actually happens regardless of how well they can empathize with their partner. Concerned people are responsive people. However, we can be even more responsive when we understand the other person. If we know that your partner is mad, and you know they are mad about how you never clean up after dinner, you can approach that problem and work with your partner.
Empathy can point us in the direction of “what” needs to be resolved. Concern can point us in the direction of “how” it needs to be resolved and how willing you are to do so. If you know what is the problem, and you know your partner is hurting and you actually care that they are hurting, you will talk it through or just fix your mistake.
But, this only happens some of the time it seems.
You can understand your partner, but have that lead to no more responsiveness. And potentially even less responsiveness. Empathy is not inherently good or bad (see previous post). Empathy is simply a skill that we have and that skill can be used in different ways.
There are two major reasons why empathy may lead to less responsiveness.
1) If we are truly empathizing because we have gone through something similar and have that experience already, then we could look at our partner, understand them, and then come to the conclusion that “I made it through alone, so you have to as well.” As if a negative, stressful experience is a rite of passage. We sort of really like to do stuff like this as humans.
To be fair, sometimes that is actually 100% true. We cannot always be a crutch for someone else to stand with, literally because we cannot always be there when times are bad. People DO need the ability to figure situations out on their own. If we are always there to help and do the work for them, it will make it a lot harder for that other person when we aren’t able to help.
However, that is not what is happening here. Rather, this is a cruel thing. When they see that someone is down, they will look the other way because they already had to endure pain as well. This is all actually brought on BECAUSE of empathy. I’ll make a list at the end of this post to clearly lay out a good chunk of the potential ways empathy does and doesn’t help.
2) If you truly are understanding your partner’s emotions, you may be taken aback. You may realize something you didn’t want to realize. If your partner is hurt and struggling to make amends, you might realize that you have actually crossed the line and there is no way to build back that trust. You may realize this is actually the end of the road for this relationship. Some people might actually be more responsive because of this. I think, however, the majority might actually pull back and not validate these emotions their partner is feeling because they don’t want them to be true. They think maybe if you just ignore it, it’ll go away.
But we like to think that sometimes.
Next week, I’ll be concentrating on how to improve concern and care for people (or how you can improve it in someone else).
*my assumption is that responsiveness is a consequence of both empathic accuracy and empathic concern. As far as I know, there is no study that actually looks at this and can conclude this (i.e., that empathy or concern actually LEADS to responsiveness). However, there is research that supports the idea that people who are both empathically accurate and concerned are also more likely to be partners that are responsive during a stressful conversation. It’s close, but not quite the same.
Likewise, responsiveness could actually lead to empathy and concern. While this is true, I think this happens less often than empathy/concern leading to responsiveness.
This may still be confusing, however, and that is fair. I will continue trying to explain this idea in future posts.