Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


3 Ways a Partner Displays a Lack of Empathy

A partner is the one person who is supposed to understand you.

Key points

  • A person who shuts down how their partner feels because they do not want to hear it may lack empathy.
  • An individual who dismisses their partner when they voice a feeling that they do not like may be deficient in empathy.
  • Someone who shames their partner for disclosing a feeling that they do not understand may have difficulties with empathy.

A romantic partner is the one person in the world who is supposed to understand you. They are “your” person. Yet, some partners lack the ability to consider your perspective if they believe that they are right. Often, they argue their point incessantly until you surrender from sheer frustration. Beneath this inability to entertain an alternate viewpoint may be a resistance to understand how you feel if it differs from how they want you to feel. A partner’s reluctance to have consistent empathy for you typically occurs in three ways.

Shutting Your Feelings Down

First, a partner displays a lack of empathy by shutting your feelings down. For example, Lisa and Terry are out to dinner. Lisa is worried about her 13-year-old son, Ben, who is feeling unwell and running a fever. Although Ben promised to answer Lisa’s texts to keep her posted, he fails to respond to Lisa’s texts and calls. Lisa’s thoughts go to “the worst-case scenario,” and her distress is palpable. Terry is annoyed with Lisa and asks her to “stop overreacting.” He calls her “overprotective” and tells her to stop worrying.

Now, Lisa feels like she cannot verbalize her fear that something is wrong. She struggles to put a smile on her face and to make it through dinner. Terry believes she is being irrational and ridiculous. Lisa represses her anxiety about the situation and after Terry finishes his last bite, she pays cash for the tab and rushes to the car. Terry is irritated and he, purposefully, takes his time. Under his breath, but loud enough for Lisa to hear, he says, “Stop being so paranoid.”

When Lisa gets home, she races to her son’s room. Although he is miserable and has a raging fever, to Lisa’s relief, he is OK. She vows to never go out when her child is ill again and is quietly resentful of Terry.

In this scenario, Terry lacks empathy for Lisa. He shuts Lisa’s feelings down because he does not want to hear them. He prefers to have a nice dinner. What Terry wants is more important to him then what Lisa feels.

Alternatively, an empathic partner puts himself in Lisa’s shoes. He remembers how consumed with worry he is when his own kids are sick and immediately resonates with Lisa’s distress, “You are really worried about Ben. I would be too if he were my son. Nothing is more important than your kiddo. I’ll grab the server and ask for the food to go; you keep trying to reach Ben.”

Dismissing Your Feelings

Dismissing feelings is a second way a partner lacks empathy. The partner ignores you when you articulate a feeling that they do not like. For example, Rhonda and Lucy are getting ready to attend a friend’s party. As they are getting dressed, Lucy tells Rhonda that it is the anniversary of her miscarriage. Rhonda does not say anything. She is silent and finishes getting ready. As she travels down the stairs, she says, “Hurry up, we are late.”

In the car, Lucy asks Rhonda if she heard what she said in the bathroom. Rhonda says, “Yes, but it is not a discussion I want to have before a party.” Now, Lucy’s hurt is amplified because Rhonda refuses to entertain a feeling she does not care to hear. Lucy fears she is overdramatizing her issue and feels deep shame and fear that she has angered Rhonda.

Conversely, an empathic partner may prioritize Lucy’s feelings before being on time for a holiday party. She may say, “This day is hard for you, with good reason. What is the part that hurts the most?” The partner may empathize with Lucy’s loss and take the time to support Lucy in discussing her grief. The two grow closer and feel more connected. Lucy dries her tears and proclaims she is ready to dance the night away, and her partner happily agrees.

Shaming You for Identifying a Feeling

Third, a partner shames you for identifying a feeling. In place of honoring it, they make you feel ashamed for voicing it. For example, Troy has lost weight. While on vacation with his girlfriend, Amelia, he admits that his confidence has not caught up with his new physique. He says, “Gosh, I should be excited to get into a bathing suit. I never thought I could look like this, but for some reason, I still feel like the ‘fat guy.’" Amelia is annoyed with his admission and says, “Really? You are so insecure. It is so unattractive.”

Troy is crushed. His insecurities skyrocket because he feels completely undesirable. At the pool, he attempts to embody confidence like Amelia desires, but he is hurt and devastated by her description of him as unattractive.

Pretend Amelia is a partner who possesses empathy. Instead, she may state, “It is so normal to feel insecure. You are not used to your rocking body yet, but you are gorgeous at any weight, Troy.” The two giggle and have a playful and fun trip to the pool.

If you have a partner who consistently lacks empathy, it may feel dehumanizing. Your emotions are what makes you uniquely human. A partner who rejects your right to express an emotion is a partner who may be emotionally unavailable. However, a partner who attempts to understand and honor your internal landscape may be a person with whom you can trust and remain close.

It is important to note that empathy does not require enabling. A person who exploits a partner’s empathy to escape accountability or take advantage of a partner may be manipulative. Alternatively, a partner who simply wants to feel understood and is willing to be vulnerable to do it may have one motive, and that is to feel close.

More from Erin Leonard Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today