Empathy and Relationship Success: Crossing the Gender Gap

happy young couple together at home lying down on carpetLinda comes home from work upset. Her boss has been critical, and Linda is feeling down. She shares her feelings with Josh, her partner, hoping for some empathy and soothing from him. Instead, Josh offers advice, telling her to stand up to her difficult boss. Linda feels cut off and shut down by Josh. Rather than feeling understood and calmed, she gets more agitated and defensive, telling him he is just like her boss, always telling her what she’s doing wrong. Josh retorts, “I was just trying to help!” He is bewildered by her disappointment in his response; giving advice works great with his male buddies, but it blows up in his face with Linda. He gets defensive and stalks off, muttering under his breath that he can never satisfy Linda.

What has happened to this (hypothetical) couple? How did they get so disconnected in this interaction? They love each other, and both partners have good intentions. Linda was looking forward to sharing with Josh, hoping for a hug and the boost she gets when her girlfriends are empathic with her. Josh wanted to be helpful, offering ways to fix the problem. But they ended up both feeling alienated and misunderstood.

The Gender Divide

As is often the case in heterosexual relationships, both partners’ assumptions about what would be helpful in this moment are shaped by their gender training from the time they were young. As a girl, Linda played with dolls, concocting relationship scenarios and enacting complex family dynamics. She spent a lot of time talking to her girlfriends and her mother about feelings, giving and receiving empathy. She experienced the pleasure and tension-relieving impact of empathy in close relationships, and assumed she would have that with Josh, her long-term partner.

Josh grew up in a different world from Linda; his gender socialization experiences were radically different. Rather than playing with dolls, Josh played competitive sports with his friends. And like many boys, Josh was taught by his peers not to cry or show vulnerable feelings. The worst insult that could be hurled at a boy at recess was, “you’re a crybaby” or “sissy.” He learned to disconnect from his feelings (anger was OK, but not any soft feelings) and the feelings of others.

Not all women are empathic, and not all men are tuned out to feelings. Many parents teach their sons to attune to emotions, and a girl’s parents may be dismissive or out of touch with the world of feelings, leaving her less skilled in the empathy arena. But more frequently, our culture trains girls to be empathy experts, and boys to be less skilled in empathy. The result in an adult heterosexual relationship can be misunderstanding and disappointment.

The Neurobiology of Empathy

What, exactly, is empathy? It is usually defined as feeling with an other, sharing his or her pain, sorrow, or joy. The word derives from the Greek empathos, “feeling into” the experience of another person. Neuroscientists have been curious about empathy, and have explored what’s going on in the brain when we feel with another.

Four components of empathy have been identified by scientists. The first, resonance, is an automatic experience in which I feel in my body what you are feeling. Powered by mirror neurons and other brain processes, resonance allows us to share each other’s feeling without even thinking about it. Next comes cognitive empathy, in which I consciously put myself in your shoes. Finally, self-regulation and a boundary between self and other are key to empathy. If I lose myself in your pain or become flooded when you’re upset, I experience personal distress, not empathy.

Empathy Is a Brain-Body Experience

Empathy relies on eye contact. There are muscles around the eyes that communicate our emotion to others, and there are neurons in the brain that specialize in reading the emotions of others. (You can test your own empathy ability by taking the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, available online.) We evolved as social beings who coordinate our behavior with others in our group; eye contact is key in group coordination and in empathy.

Hormones can help or hurt our empathy skills. Oxytocin enhances empathy and facilitates attachment; it is more plentiful in females. Testosterone, more plentiful in males, is negatively correlated with empathy; the higher the testosterone, the lower the empathy. It looks like biology as well as socialization contributes to gender differences in empathy.

Cultivating Empathy

Ideally, we learn empathy naturally in our family growing up. Our parents attune to us and help us feel safe. And they help us master the nuances of empathy. My husband and I were quite deliberate in teaching our sons the skills of empathy, a key aspect of emotional intelligence. If they came home from school describing a fight at recess between two of their friends, we would ask, “How do you think both of those kids felt?” Our sons learned to be curious about the experiences of others. We also helped them tune into their own feelings. They have grown up to be men with strong empathy skills, which serves them well as husbands and fathers. I believe that teaching empathy to boys is especially important given a male peer culture that discourages tuning into feelings.

Not all women are empathic, and not all men are tuned out to feelings. Many parents teach their sons to attune to emotions, and a girl’s parents may be dismissive or out of touch with the world of feelings, leaving her less skilled in the empathy arena. But more frequently, our culture trains girls to be empathy experts, and boys to be less skilled in empathy. The result in an adult heterosexual relationship can be misunderstanding and disappointment.

If you didn’t get this gift from your parents, you can still learn these skills as an adult. The first step is to read your body cues. As Daniel Siegel points out, empathy for others shares similar brain circuits as self-attunement. And, as we have seen, resonance, feeling in your own body what the other feels, is the first component of empathy.

But what if you don’t know how to read your body cues? What if as a child you were discouraged from tuning into your experience? How are you going to read emotions—your own or someone else’s? A mindfulness exercise, the body scan, teaches you to slow down and attune to your breath and to tension you may be holding in various parts of your body. Learning to read your body—racing heart, clenched teeth or fists, butterflies in your stomach—can give you valuable information about how you are feeling.

The second component of empathy, cognitive empathy, involves putting yourself in the other’s shoes. If my husband seems upset, I might ask myself—or him—what is bothering him. If I convey genuine curiosity and care, he is likely to confide in me. But if I ask him with an edge—“What is it with you? Why are you so crabby?”—I am likely to get a defensive response.

The plot thickens if I assume he’s unhappy with me. It’s hard to hold my empathy stance if I become defensive or counterattack. I may spin a whole story about why he’s upset and how he is wrong—and how he is wronging me—without ever checking in with him about the source of his distress. It takes maturity to calm myself down and be open to his experience rather than getting reactive. Curiosity and openness to each other’s feelings are key to a loving relationship.

What if I get upset when he gets upset? Emotions can be contagious; some people don’t open up to their partner’s pain because they fear they will lose themselves in it. Healthy boundaries and the ability to self-regulate are necessary if I am to be there for my husband when he is hurting.

When we are able to hold each other’s pain without losing ourselves in it, something quite wonderful happens. We “feel felt” by the other, as Siegel puts it. In these empathic moments, oxytocin flows. And oxytocin lowers cortisol, the stress hormone. Rather than trying to give advice (which is often interpreted as criticism), we are just there for each other. And this “being there” releases the magical elixir of oxytocin, making us feel more relaxed and safe.

Blocks to Empathy

One of the challenges to empathy these days is our reliance on technological devices. Instead of reading others’ emotions in their eyes, we gaze at our devices—smartphones, tablets, computers. And, recent data shows, empathy has been plummeting among college students in recent years. The eyes are the window to the soul, and that window is too often closed. Empathy is a vital relationship skill. It needs to be proactively nurtured, especially in a world that privileges devices, disconnection, and distraction.

Other blocks to empathy include defensiveness, anxiety, anger, rigidity, or imperiousness. If I am locked up in my own fortress of self-protection, or if I am caught up in blaming my husband, the flow of empathy may become derailed.

Empathy Is a Choice

Finally, we may be just too busy to notice our partner’s distress. With jobs, child care, bills to pay, and laundry to fold, who has time to slow down and notice what’s going on in the other? Empathy takes time, patience, and openness. And it may take a lot of practice for empathy skills to become natural. But the investment is well worth the effort. Would you rather be awash in cortisol in a stressful relationship, or do you choose the magic of oxytocin through mutual empathy and love?

References:

  1. Decety, J., & Jackson, P.L. (2004). The functional neuroarchitecture of human empathy. Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, 3, 71-100.
  2. Konrath, S.H., O’Brien, E.H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 180-198.
  3. Siegel, D.J., & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the Inside Out. NY: Penguin.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mona D. Fishbane, PhD, therapist in Highland Park, Illinois

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • colston

    colston

    November 11th, 2015 at 7:39 AM

    When I have a bad day at work I don’t need advice from my husband telling me what I should or should not do, but I do want him to hug me and tell me he knows what I’m feeling and that things will be okay. He always tries to fix things and I don’t need a fixer, I just need him to listen ad try to understand.

  • Dorothea

    Dorothea

    November 11th, 2015 at 2:01 PM

    What if we as women spent more time realizing that this a man’s way of trying to help? Maybe to empathetic like we think we would prefer is not really in his blood and it could be time to accept that and be willing to accept what it is that he has to give to us.

  • FLOYD

    FLOYD

    November 12th, 2015 at 5:21 AM

    Goodness knows I have always tried everything that I knew how to meet my wife’s needs but there was always something about the way she responded that told me that it wasn’t right, wasn’t good enough. I tried for years but after a while getting the cold shoulder I guess I just gave up on it. I didn’t mean for that to mean that I was giving up on the relationship but she took it that way and that was that. I wish that communicating our needs was a little easier for all of us because i think that if we had been able to really talk to each other about what we felt then we may still be together.

  • louis

    louis

    November 13th, 2015 at 5:11 PM

    Wow: I better learn from this so i can be a better person!

  • Carlee

    Carlee

    November 14th, 2015 at 9:26 AM

    @ louis: I don’t think that this article is about making you feel like you need to be a better person. I think that it is more about showing the ways that couples can often misunderstand each other and how male and female needs are often so different from the other. I think that we all have quite a few things to learn when it comes to being a nicer and more compassionate partner, and this is simply a guide toward helping us better understand much of that. Take care!

  • Judy S.

    Judy S.

    November 15th, 2015 at 11:33 AM

    Yes, husbands who over empathize and try to give advice often do not succeed in making their wives feel better. I have tried for years to ask for specifically what I want when I feel bad, but this doesn’t help either, because allowing me to remain in my “un-fixed” problem is too painful for my husband; he wants me to enjoy the fruits of my self-improvement because he loves me! I think the boundaries thing is paramount for us; getting lost in the other’s pain and not being able to help. We are still working on being old dogs who learn new tricks.

  • dane

    dane

    November 16th, 2015 at 6:39 AM

    Novel concept- ask your partner what they need, not just assume

  • Martha

    Martha

    November 17th, 2015 at 10:24 AM

    Everything is just the opposite in my house. I am the one who is always looking to fix things and I think that my boyfriend just wants me to sit and listen. He isn’t looking for me to fix something, he just wants to talk it out. I have a hard time with that. Have a problem? I want to help you create a solution.

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