How To Cope With A Lack Of Empathy From Your Partner or Spouse

A lack of empathy is one of the defining characteristics of low emotional intelligence.

To have empathy, you must put yourself in another person's shoes — to feel what they are feeling and seek to understand their perspective.

You must step outside of your own needs and feelings to be present and engaged with someone else.

Empathy calls for patience, active listening, intimacy, and selflessness.

It requires a generous and giving spirit and a true desire to sit with someone in their most difficult moments or share in their most joyous accomplishments.

Some people are naturally empathetic, but people who lack empathy can learn and reinforce the skills of empathy and compassion.

To do that, we must recognize its value not only in our relationships but also in our personal growth.

Practicing empathy expands our understanding of ourselves and others.

It connects us to the human condition — the suffering, the joys, the sorrows, and the longings we all share. It draws us closer to the people around us and frees us to be vulnerable and authentic with them.

Can A Relationship Survive Without Empathy?

We need to practice empathy in all of our personal and professional relationships, but the one relationship in which empathy is essential is your marriage or love relationship.

Maybe you've found yourself thinking, “My husband has empathy for everyone but me,” or “My wife has no empathy.” If you're feeling these things, your relationship may already be in trouble.

A successful marriage requires a deep and abiding communion and closeness between the two people. Love and intimacy thrive on the empathic connection within the relationship. Without this connection, the relationship will wither and die.

Why Is a Lack of Empathy a Problem for an Intimate Relationship?

  • Empathy helps you resolve conflict and misunderstandings, as you are more willing to see your partner's perspective and understand their feelings.
  • Empathy gives you insight into the deepest recesses of your partner's emotional world, allowing you a fuller experience of the person you are married to.
  • Empathy shows your partner that you love him or her enough to be fully engaged and present, bring you closer to one another.
  • A lack of empathy causes you to have less compassion and be more judgmental with other people in your life.
  • Empathy allows you to distance yourself from your own petty grievances, frustrations, and demands when you are focused on your partner and his or her needs and feelings.

As Daniel Goleman, author of, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ 

Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.

For a relationship or marriage to thrive, both partners must embrace the value of empathy and practice it willingly. Both partners should be motivated to learn and overcome any lack of empathy.

But what if your partner isn't willing to learn and practice the skills of empathy?

Characteristics Of People Who Lack Empathy In A Relationship

Out of Touch

If you are an empathetic and compassionate person, you might find yourself working double-time to be there for your partner whenever he or she needs you. But sadly your partner sucks up all of your emotional energy without offering any in return.

man sitting in black jacket alone lack of empathy

You drop everything when your spouse needs you. You listen with compassion and love. You reserve your judgments and opinions and allow your partner to fully express his or her feelings.

Related Post: The Ultimate List of Emotions

Your partner's pain causes you great pain. You suffer when he or she suffers.

But your partner rarely reciprocates. In fact, he or she might view your emotions as trivial, overblown, or irritating.

Lacking Awareness and Curiousity

Your partner doesn't pick up on your facial expressions or moods, because he is too absorbed with his own concerns. Your wife doesn't take the time to ask you probing questions or attempt to understand the pain behind your bad mood.


Perhaps your spouse or partner views your problems or worries as less important or painful than his or her own. Rather than seeking to better understand you, your partner uses the opportunity to vent and compare his or her own problems.

Lacking Knowledge

Sometimes an otherwise loving and well-meaning partner has a lack of empathy out of ignorance or awareness. Your partner may not be naturally empathetic, and may not understand what empathy is and why he or she should practice.

Perhaps your partner never witnessed an empathic relationship between his or her parents and never learned the skills of empathy.

However, it's possible that you are in a relationship with someone who has a lack of empathy. A narcissist lacks empathy because they are too self-absorbed, controlling, manipulative, and insecure to offer you what you need in the relationship.

How Do You Cope with a Lack of Empathy in Your Relationship?

These are two different situations that require different coping skills.

Let's begin with the narcissistic partner or spouse who is unempathetic.

It's important to recognize that narcissists aren't motivated to change their behavior. Why should they be as long as they are getting their needs met?

This person doesn't care about improving the relationship or better understanding you by stepping into your shoes. He wants you to inhabit his shoes at all times. She wants you to meet all of her needs and be available for her without having to expend any emotional energy in return.

A true narcissist uses you to boost his or her self-esteem and will rarely view you as an equal — much less a priority.

Related Post: How To Deal With Narcissists and Self-Absorbed Love Partners.

If this is your situation, trying to get your partner to show more empathy is an exercise in futility.

Your best bet is to accept that you won't get your emotional needs met by your partner or experience the tenderness and compassion you desire.

You'll need to find empathetic surrogates who can fill the painful gap and learn to take care of your own emotional longings.

Ideas to Help You Deal with a Lack of Empathy

  • When you need emotional support and empathy, don't continue trying to make them understand you or offer you the compassion you require. Your partner's continued selfishness will only make you feel worse and undermine your self-esteem.
woman sitting at table outside lack of emapthy
  • Stop bending over backward to be present and available for your partner in the hope that he or she will reciprocate. Your partner will continue to be an emotional vampire, draining you of the energy you require to tend to your own emotional needs.
  • Develop or strengthen your friendships and relationships with other adult family members. Find a few people with whom you feel safe to share your inner feelings — those who have shown empathy in the past. Be sure to reciprocate when they need you and your understanding and support.
  • Find a caring, supportive therapist who can be there for you during really difficult or painful times. Your friends and family can't provide all of your emotional support, and since your spouse or partner is emotionally unavailable, you will need someone who can fill in when you feel overwhelmed.
  • Practice self-compassion by paying attention to your own suffering and pain and offering yourself love and kindness. Mentally step outside of yourself, as though you were your own best friend or loving spouse, and give yourself the empathy you would offer others.

Unfortunately, as long as you are in a marriage with someone who is unable or unwilling to show you empathy, the ideas above won't help you create a more loving, intimate, and empathic connection with your partner.

You will either have to accept a one-sided relationship with a selfish partner and cope the best you can or make the difficult decision to move on and seek a relationship with someone who doesn't lack empathy.

Read Related: 10 Ways To Cultivate Emotional Maturity

If your partner does show a willingness to be more empathetic and caring, then you have more to work with and a real opportunity to strengthen your marriage.

Steps to Help a Willing Partner with Low Empathy

  • Ask your partner to read this post about empathy so he or she can better understand what it is and why it's such an important skill for your marriage.
  • Tell your partner exactly how you need him or her to be more empathetic. Do you need more active and attentive listening? Less judgment? More warmth and affection? Sometimes you need to be direct rather than hoping your partner will intuit what you need.
  • Give your partner more insight into your inner world and why you feel and respond the way you do. Your partner may not realize why something causes you so much worry or pain or what might trigger these feelings unless you verbalize the deeper reasons.
  • Talk to your partner about your own body language and what it means. Think about how you react physically when you are frustrated, hurt, or sad. What are your expressions? How do you hold your body? Help your partner learn to read the physical signals of your emotions so he or she can respond with compassion.
  • Ask your partner to avoid judgments, unsolicited advice, or personal opinions when you are expressing your feelings or worries. An empathetic partner should listen with open compassion and tenderness and validate your feelings, even if he or she doesn't agree with them.
  • Show more empathy toward your partner or spouse. One of the best ways to teach empathy is to be a good model of it. Show your partner the kind of empathetic behaviors you want him or her to show you.
  • Acknowledge and praise your spouse when he or she shows empathy. Let your partner know how much his or her efforts mean to you and how they bring the two of you closer. Everyone responds well to positive reinforcement.

It may take some time and patience before they will overcome their lack of empathy and improve the skills of empathy so they become automatic. You may feel frustrated and irritated when he or she reverts back to less compassionate or selfish behaviors and words.

If empathy isn't a natural trait for your partner, manage your expectations about how quickly your partner will master these new empathetic behaviors.

Continue to reinforce how much you need empathy from your spouse and how important it is to the health of your marriage that he or she keep working on it.

Over time, your partner will experience the joy and contentment of drawing closer to you by being more selfless, compassionate, and fully present in your marriage.

19 thoughts on “How To Cope With A Lack Of Empathy From Your Partner or Spouse”

  1. Many great points in this article. My husband jumps from empathetic to total lack of empathy which makes it hard to know what I am getting #1 husband or #2 husband. My trick is to figure out what triggers the #2 husband. I have figures some of his moods and/or trigger points so I just avoid any issues at that time. I would like to share this article with my husband but I am afraid that he will take it as criticism and not what it is meant to be.

  2. Hi I really enjoyed this article. My spouse an I are dealing with infidelity on his part. I could deal with it and move on but his lack of compassion, empathy, and narcissistic behavior makes me feel like I will just be in a repeat cycle because he’s so arrogant and self absorbed that he doesn’t even care about what I want. He is just focused on the fact that I’m willing to let the marriage go and he’s not ready. I am so afraid that I’m dealing with a narcissist. We’ve been together for 11 years and married for 1. He just started a new position where he’s away from home for six months and home for six months. He was away for only a month before he started this ongoing affair with someone. I wrote this about my husband a few months after we got married, and before he started this new position:

    Jay is a Narcissist and shows traits of all three types. I fell in love with him because he showered me with love and admiration. I noticed his narcissistic ways early but I can deal with your typical narcissist. They are always like look at me I’m great. But what made me love him is because he would coward towards his adopted family. They would belittle him. I would tell him that they don’t see him as an adult, and they think little of him but I now know that was him being a closet narcissist. He wanted to be associated with people he admire even though they put him down. This is probably because of his toxic childhood. What I can’t take is when he is a toxic narcissist. When he tries to belittle me to make himself feel good or punish me for not stroking his ego by withholding his love and affection. I’m not a child be honest with yourself and talk to me like an adult. This part of him could ruin our relationship. I tell him about talking to me crazy or trying to belittle me. I love this man even though he has issues, but I will only be with him if he loves and respects me. God take the wheel!!!

    I don’t think I truly understood what a narcissist actually was, but to think I would just have to deal with it makes me want to cut my losses at this critical point. I am always calling him an asshole out of my frustration but it’s truly a lack of compassion and empathy. I believe this article is a Godsend.

    Monica Bowman

  3. I have tried all these things with my husband and he just tells me he doesn’t know why he is the way he is?! Whenever I try to discuss this topic he then deflects and talks about something that I have done. He is very passive aggressive and I am besides myself. The only thing he seems to care about is that people like him. We can have a conversation where he agrees with everything I say, but have the same conversation with other people around and he will then totally disagree with me, if someone else does. I don’t know this person anymore and I am totally disgusted with him. We have been married over 30 years and I have never worked because he wanted to be able to travel. Now, I feel stuck. I am at my wits end!

    • Hi Danielle. You are describing my exact life with my husband and the manipulation and passive aggressive behavior and the control he exerts over everything. I thought I was alone. Im now 14 years and two tween children into this marriage. If u have any advice…
      Thank you

  4. I was reading the above comments and felt such relief that I’m not alone in feeling this way.
    When my father died, he never hugged me or said anything even remotely nice to me.
    But when there’s people around, hes sickening sweet unless he sees a “hot girl”. Then I get the full treatment of being ignored.
    Many years of telling him no he can’t leave me and the kids alone so he can be around other women. Which he has done, no matter what I said. He’d just say, you are not my boss.
    This sounds like a young couple but no. Married 25 years of this sh**.
    He slowly stopped having sex with me shortly after we married. Yes, I asked him about it and he just shakes his head and responds with nothing to talk about.
    I have family to talk too but they don’t want to get involved and some of them would love to see my marriage end because they think I don’t deserve to be happy.
    I would like a divorce and never see him again. it would be so helpful if I had a shred of emotional support.
    For those who read this, thank you for making it all the way to the crazy end and yes, after I wrote this, I started calling divorce lawyers.

  5. I would have to say that I am screwed. My wife and I separated for 5 years durring her affair.
    She was arrested and kept for 103 days. Lost job residence and lover.
    I moved her back in with me and we appeared to make progress. She had a stroke in June. After 2 months at hospital and several months of rehab she was able to return to work and regained majority of her motor skills.
    Then she met her lover and stayed the night.
    After the blow up ECT he is rushed to hospital.
    Apparently dieing of stage 4 cancer.
    Apparently her stroke has removed her ability to have empathy.

    I’m guessing it’s past time to leave. Hate throwing away 27 years officially and additional 10.

  6. I just had a baby with someone I’ve been with for almost 11 years we dated for 9. I never lived with him until marriage and honestly I’ve been dealing with lack of empathy that turns into verbal abuse at times. I’m not sure how to deal with any of it anymore I’m so confused and depressed. He’s so concerned about himself that I’m just a speck of dust at times. He says all the right things to keep me latched on but then does the opposite. I recently found out that he’s still using cocaine and I’m just heartbroken. He lies so much I don’t know what to believe from him anymore. Before reading this I actually did feel so sad that I had to hug myself and pretend that I was the husband I wanted and talk to myself the way I wished my own husband spoke to me.

  7. This is my husband to a T. I have put myself through the wringer trying to help him understand in 40 years of marriage. He will read this article, find one sentence that doesn’t pertain to him and say, “that’s not me, I don’t _______.” Meanwhile I have wracked up debt from using shopping as a substitute. He is not interested in changing.


  8. Good article. Really helped understand what I am going through with someone that has no empathy. It really opened my eyes.

  9. I feel really sad that the world is full of disconnected relationships… this is really an epidemic issue of our world besides many other issues too…

    I really hope the newer generation will have better knowledge to educate their children and show them with examples of how to love and connect in their relationship. A lot of lack of empathy could also be coming from traumatized childhood upbringings. It’s like a never-ending bad cycle… starting from a loveless marriage and that effects every member in the family, and when the children grow up from such environment, how do we expect them to know how to love and connect?
    Charity Starts at HOME. An emotional healthy family will have a better chance to raise emotionally healthy children. We have to heal ourselves and love ourselves first with a good among of self-worth before we choose any partner and bringing them into our world. If our partner is not able to show empathy or not welling to really connect and give us love, we should love ourselves and let them go. Stop the cycle of emotional starvation for the sake of keeping an empty soulless partner by your side. The loneliness is too much to take on and at the same time, this pattern passes on to the next generation…

  10. THANK YOU!
    This is the best article I’ve read on this subject. I have Spina-Bifida which causes A LOT of back problems. Then 5 years ago I was diagnosed with a Sarcoma Cancer on the outside of my right lung. It caused more damage to the top lobe of my right lung than could be repaired so they had to remove the whole top lobe(biggest one of the 3 lobes by far.) That surgery didn’t go well. A 3.5 hour surgery went on for nearly 8 hours. When it was over, I was left with major nerve damage. A little over 1.5 years ago, another Sarcoma was found lower on the same lung. This time they had to remove a rib, cut into my diaphragm and remove more of that lung. This surgery didn’t go well either. More nerve pain and diaphragm pain along wth chest pains. I have since been on oxygen 24/7. I HATE pills but have to take 3 kinds of low dose pain pills and an anxiety pill just to get through the day, not pain free by any means. So i am in pain every day and there is no empathy in sight. It wore off as soon as i walked in the door when I came home from the hospital the first time.

  11. This was so interesting. I live with my husband who shows no kind of compassion for me when I’m sick witch is rare or hurting he is so into himself with heart health problems that if it isnt about him its not important. Never ask how im feeling can he do anything nothing does he ask. Think only true person he loves and worries about is himself. Im always there for him in and out of hospital staying with him worrying about him I get Zero.Says he loves me once in a while but I question if he truly does its all about him there’s no room for me. Right now having lot pain in my muscle part of my arm for over two weeks but you see its not his pain

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