10 Signs of a Lack of Empathy in a Relationship

How do you spot the signs of a lack of empathy in a relationship?
on May 30, 2023
Read time: 10 min

Empathy is the driving force behind this ability and is a fundamental aspect of successful relationships. After all, relationships are all about being able to see thing’s from your partner’s perspective

This emotional connection makes resolving conflicts easier, improving intimacy and growing together as a couple.

A lack of empathy limits these emotional interactions and can make it difficult to foster a healthy relationship. Learning to spot signs of a lack of empathy in your relationship can make it easier to overcome these emotional obstacles from the outset.

What is empathy? 

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others by putting yourself in another person’s shoes. 

This ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective enables us to recognize and appreciate the emotions of others. Our capacity to resonate with others’ suffering shapes our emotional response to these situations, enabling us to react genuinely and authentically. 

Previous studies believed that empathy was an inborn trait that could not be taught, but research has shown that this vital human interaction can be passed on. 

What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?

Empathy allows us to feel the plight of others by seeing things from their point of view. 

On the other hand, sympathy involves understanding someone else's emotions —  from your point of view. For example, sympathy would be saying you’re sorry but empathy means that you are hurting along with them.

Types of empathy

Cognitive empathy 

This refers to the intellectual understanding of another person’s emotions and perspective. Cognitive empathy allows you to see things from someone else’s point of view and understand their experiences on an intellectual level. 

Also known as empathetic accuracy, research defines cognitive empathy as the ability to have more complete and accurate knowledge of another person’s mind, including how they might feel. 

Unlike emotional empathy, it is more like a skill that you can learn to recognize and process other people's emotions and behaviors. 

Emotional empathy 

Emotional empathy, or affective empathy, goes beyond just the understanding of another person’s emotions and enables you to feel the emotions alongside the other person. 

Studies show that emotional empathy can be broken down into three separate components: 

  1. Being able to feel the same emotion as another person 

  2. Feelings of distress in response to another person’s plight 

  3. The feeling of compassion for another person 

Emotional empathy allows you to emotionally connect with others and respond with the appropriate compassion or reaction.

Compassionate empathy  

Compassionate empathy, also known as empathic concern or empathic compassion, is a hybrid of both cognitive and emotional aspects.

With compassionate empathy, you can not only understand and share the feelings of others but can also feel genuine concern for them and wish to relieve their suffering. 

What does it mean to lack empathy? 

A lack of empathy, commonly referred to as apathy, is whereby people struggle to relate to or understand other people’s feelings or emotions. 

A person who lacks empathy cannot see someone else’s perspective. This limits their emotional response or feeling as they might think they can handle the situation better and are thereby unable to see why the person is distressed or upset. 

This lack of understanding makes it difficult to react correctly during emotional situations and impacts the well-being of a relationship. 

What causes a lack of empathy? 

There are many causes of empathy deficit, including neurodivergence, personality disorders, or a lack of emotional understanding.  

“There are a lot of reasons why someone might lack empathy or not know how to tap into it, and not all those reasons are as selfish as we might think,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired.

In many of these cases, it is important to speak to a mental health professional to get an accurate assessment and diagnosis. 

1. Neurodivergence 

“Some people have a lower empathy because of how their brain is wired and it is not for lack of love,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

Studies show that autistic people struggle more with cognitive empathy as this relies more heavily on the reading of facial expressions and body language —  which has proven to be more difficult for neurodivergent people. 

However, emotional empathy can be overwhelming as it is based on instincts and involuntary responses —  which causes people with autism to feel these emotions on an intense level. 

Not everyone on the spectrum may not face these challenges, so it is important to discuss the levels of empathy experienced with your partner to understand how it may affect their emotional reactions. 

2. Personality Disorder 

Several personality disorders list a lack of empathy as a defining feature or symptom. 

Narcissistic personality disorder 

Narcissism and a lack of empathy have always been linked. 

Studies show that a lack of empathy is a primary distinguishing feature of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). However, according to this study, empathy is not simply lacking in these individuals, but dysfunctional.

Further studies have defined this dysfunction as not the inability to experience empathy, but rather an unwillingness to do so. This means that they technically have the capacity for empathy but choose not to respond in this way. 

Borderline personality disorder 

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is characterized by a pervasive pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, affects, and behavior. Research suggests that people with this personality disorder also have a dysfunction with empathy. 

Similarly to neurodivergence, studies show that people with BPD struggle with cognitive empathy but experience emotional empathy on a high level. 

This means that they may have difficulty seeing their partner’s perspective, but are emotionally sensitive. 

Antisocial personality disorder 

Someone with antisocial personality disorder may be manipulative and will not care for other people’s feelings. People with this disorder are also commonly referred to as sociopaths. 

This lack of empathy is subjective based on the severity of this disorder, ranging from occasional bad behavior to extremely manipulative and criminal actions. 

Psychopaths are considered to have a severe form of antisocial personality disorder, which means they have an extreme lack of empathy or remove and a shallow emotional range.

3. Low self-esteem

“Lack of empathy can also come from a place of low self-esteem and being deeply self-critical,” says Seeger DeGeare. “It is hard to have empathy for someone else’s emotions if you are not willing to give yourself grace and love in that area.”

In this case, low self-worth prevents people from being able to see outside their viewpoint —  if they can’t feel it themselves, they don’t understand how it can affect others.  

“If you don’t give yourself the space to feel sad or disappointed, it is hard to be with your partner when they are feeling this way even if logistically it makes sense to you.”

4. Lack of understanding 

In some cases, people have had no experience of empathetic behavior with their family members or personal relationships. 

This can lead to a lack of emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and an inability to understand empathy because they have never had an empathetic role model. 

How lack of empathy can affect your relationship 

Empathy is one of the most fundamental aspects of human interaction and without empathy, it can make it difficult to build or maintain emotional connections. If your partner is unaware of your feelings, this can have a huge impact on your mental health and well-being —  making it hard to sustain a healthy relationship. 

“Lack of empathy stalls out deeper intimacy in a relationship and can leave both partners feeling lonely and misunderstood,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

Empathetic people have the instinct to comfort and protect their loved ones, but people with low empathy struggle to respond in this way —  which can feel incredibly isolating in a relationship. 

“It is hard to feel like you are getting to know each other deeper if one person is wondering what it must be like for their partner, or wants to know how they think because it is different to their own experience.” 

Not receiving validation for your feelings, and struggling to convey your own emotions to an unempathetic partner can be incredibly draining. 

What are the signs of a lack of empathy?

Spotting signs of a lack of empathy in your partner isn’t that simple. Since unempathetic behavior operates on a scale, signs may differ based on the situation, or the extent to which they are unempathetic. 

However, according to Seeger DeGeare, these are some lack of empathy signs that you should look out for in your partner. 

10 Signs of a Lack of Empathy

Not being curious about your partner's opinion or point of view.
Lack of interest in your partner’s feelings.
Not being open to the idea that someone feels differently than you do.
Frustration that your partner is acting a certain way and frequently feeling confused about why they think and behave differently from you.
Being highly critical of your partner.
Struggling to have close friendships.
Judging people and being critical of others for their emotions.
Inability to understand others lived experiences as being different from your own.
Struggle to take accountability for the hurt they cause their partner because they do not feel or see how those actions affect them.
Not forgiving people for making mistakes.

How to address a lack of empathy in your partner 

Being accused of having a lack of empathy in a relationship can cause extreme hurt and upset — so it should be addressed in the right way. 

If you notice these signs in your partner or believe that they may have little empathy, it should be communicated to find a resolution that is sensitive to the other person’s feelings. 

Address your emotions 

Rather than bottling it up, you should try and sensitively communicate your concerns. 

“Couples should make space to understand what ‘putting yourself in their shoes’ actually means for the person,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

Explain how you are feeling and give your partner space to showcase their point of view on empathetic behavior — allowing them to elaborate in this way can make it easier to pinpoint the root of the issue. 

Model empathetic behavior 

Some people may not be able to understand the meaning of empathy because they have never witnessed empathetic behavior in their upbringing or familial relationships. 

In this case, it could be helpful to consistently model empathetic behavior in your relationship —  for example, consistently being empathetic to their emotions, thoughts, and feelings. 

By witnessing and experiencing this in their relationship, it can make it easier for them to reciprocate this behavior. 

Practice with your partner

Depending on the causes behind your partners’ lack of empathy, it can be beneficial to practice empathetic behavior with different communication styles. 

“We can help our partners in a lot of ways by explaining our emotions further and understanding where our partner’s lack of empathy comes from, which can be a way to support healthy communication,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

If your partner is neurodivergent, it is important to practice communication transparently and encouragingly. For example, this could mean articulating your emotions in a more specific way. Instead of just saying how you feel, you should try and elaborate so it is clear why you feel that way. 

+50K reviews
Need to improve communication with your partner?
Download the #1 app for couples to guide you in the process.