I recently went through a breakup. These are some of the words I was on the receiving end of: “The most interesting thing that has happened between us in the past three weeks is that you taught me the buttons on the duvet cover.” I scoffed, but only in my mind. It clicked for the first time; I had been dating someone with an empathy deficiency.
I suspected this early on. When we first started dating, I caught wind of stories from his past, like how he hooked up with his best friend’s girlfriend while they were dating. To be so negligent of burning two (and most definitely more) important relationships to the ground was glaring to me. While it raised a red flag, I held faith in forgiveness and growth. If the lack of empathy concern did not spark then, I should have recognized it in this next instance.
My grandmother went to the emergency room on Christmas Eve. Due to the pandemic, she was admitted completely alone, and because of her early onset Alzheimers, was left confused and frightened. Describing what she was going through and the aftermath effect on my Dad and entire family was painful to share with him. It’s definitely not comforting to hear, “Well it’s not the grandma you’re closest to, right?”
Hours later in the day I brought it up again, clearly sharing the sadness I was feeling and the immense amount of worry for my family, especially my grandpa who has been married to this beautiful soul and woman for 65+ years! My ex S.O. finally asked if I was okay. I said thank you, and breathed a sigh of relief. I could put my feelings down because he cared to know if I was okay.
That relief quickly turned into concern – something wasn’t right. Sympathy, in this case, should not be a gift in a committed relationship. Sympathy is the bare minimum, it’s expected and necessary. It’s in these moments you realize what feeds your soul.
Back to the duvet covers. As we laid in my bed both painfully aware of how starving our souls were, finding the final words we’d ever speak to one another, my mind ran through the past three weeks and the harsh reality that the only interesting thing I had to offer was the duvet covers (needless to say, it is a hot tip).
Some background on my *boring* self; I just joined the creative lab at a budding tech startup, I’m one of the first four members running a mental health nonprofit, freelance writer, and head of marketing for a second nonprofit in my hometown. I spent the past three weeks starting my new job as a creative strategist, traveling to Los Angeles to be in the office in person, fighting a sickness and upon recovering, flying back home to Chicago to be with my family. What happened while I was home? My grandmother went to the ER, my mothers’ doctor found a massive, ominous lump on her left breast, and I was ridden with stress debating if I really made the right career decision.
But it’s difficult to share these things with someone who lacks empathy. I would urge you not to; they will wind up being your fault, not as bad as they appear, or, in the best case scenario, the conversation will turn to them. Like their most tragic day on the mountain because their new ski boots were too tight.
I think there was more to us then the buttons on the duvet cover; I shared a famous restaurant for the first time (Jon N’ Vinnys), we learned backgammon together, we healed from Covid, we played question games, we awed over the personalized 40-piece board game I made him, we spoke about diversity and the beauty industry, we expressed what we wanted from next ventures, we contested our beliefs for an article I was drafting, I got to show him Love Actually for the first time; to me, the list went on.
There’s two clear lessons to me. One, you must understand one another’s relational gifts, communicate them, and appreciate them. And vice versa. Arlie Hochschild argues that relationships need shared understandings of and gratitude for gifts in everyday life to be successful, this is deeply tied to empathy. She tells the story of two married doctors she interviews, the male doctor’s gift to his wife was his long hours as the breadwinner. The gift he wanted to receive was home cooked meals and nurturance from his wife. However, the wife was also a phenomenal doctor, and more progressive. Her gift to him was cutting back on hours spent at the hospital to care for their children. The gift she wanted from her husband was help with the housework. Neither partner received appreciation for their gift. And neither partner received the gift they wanted from their spouse. The relationship failed. When gratitude (and empathy) is mismatched, people are left feeling neglected, unheard and unloved. The focus on relational gifts is critical for a successful relationship. You can read more from Hotschiled in depth in She Minds the Child, He Minds the Dog.
The second lesson is more heavily focused on empathy. Many micro moments, reactions, actions, beliefs, values and intentions make up the ultimate success of a relationship. However, empathy was one of the foundational failures in my last stint with love.
After the duvet cover comment, the conversation turned to empathy. The difference in our actions and reactions had become blatant, “You’re very emotional and empathetic and I am logical. That is not going to change,” he continued, “My empathy has moved two points in four years. That is not going to change.” I respected the self awareness, but the lack of interest to feel with other people, to walk in their shoes, to taste their pain made me deeply sad.
Someone who lacks empathy may be struggling with Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD). It’s defined as, “lacking the ability to feel, understand and resonate with another’s feelings,” according to Counselling Directory. Individuals affected by empathy deficiency “Cannot look at life through anyone’s perspective but their own,” states The Good Men Project. Outside of the details I’ve already shared, some of the other symptoms highlighted from the research above include difficulty making emotional connections, possessing a strong sense of entitlement and expectation, and being unable to see how their actions hurt someone. It’s highly correlated with narcissism. I’m not a medical expert and would never diagnose someone I love with EDD or narcissism, but you can begin to imagine how lack of empathy could gravely affect a romantic relationship. To date someone with a low EQ means being in a relationship with someone who won’t ask how you are and will put their needs first. (Queue a flashback to having to ask him to ask about me).
I would never change my “really emotional,” empathetic self for anything. I’ve even written about the downfalls of feeling so much of it in The Trouble With Empathy. I want to feel every last feeling, I want to soak it up like a sponge, it’s what makes life – and our relationships – as beautiful and as colorful as it is.
Imperfect moments, even painful ones, reflections of self, commitment to change and growth is part of our humanity – and especially a part of partnership and romantic relationships. Not every day is perfect. Not every week is perfect. Not every three weeks is perfect… But if someone tells you who they are, (thank you Maya Angelou) listen to them the first time.
And then run.