When we think of empathy, we usually think it’s about how we relate to other people’s feelings. In fact, empathy begins with how well we first learn to relate to our own feelings and emotional needs in childhood. How well we connect with ourselves will determine how we connect with others. In my clinical work, I use the idea of empathy styles to help my clients understand the way they handle their own emotional needs, and how they either show up for or avoid their partner’s emotional needs.
Your empathy style can say a lot about the type of partner you subconsciously look for and are most comfortable being around. It may also explain why you keep finding yourself in relationships that feel eerily similar, even when you’re sure you’ve tried to find a different kind of partner.
Which Empathy Style Do You Have?
I consider there to be a spectrum between two empathy styles (see below), and ideally we are able to operate across this spectrum, depending on what’s happening in the environment, with others, and with our own emotional needs. Trouble starts when you find that you are more stuck on one end of the spectrum.
Start with these questions. There are no wrong answers, it’s more about your style:
- Do you feel neglected if your partner doesn’t ask you how your day was?
- Do you look out for regular physical affection, like kisses and hugs in the morning and evening?
- Do you find yourself wondering how your partner is doing at an emotional level?
These are the two ends of the spectrum, see where you might place yourself on it:
- Detached Empathy Style: You tend not to think about your emotional needs, or those of others. You find sharing emotions or talking about others' feelings baffling and exhausting.
- Involved Empathy Style: You tend to focus emotion in yourself and others and feel the need to share, inquire and discuss, and are hurt when blocked.
How Does Your Empathy Style Develop?
In your early-to-mid-childhood environment, you learn how to relate to your own emotional needs based on how your caregivers treat you. No one has a perfect childhood, and no matter how ideal our early family life may have been, we still experience some emotional needs going unmet.
Think about your own experience of emotional needs in your early years. The five emotional needs include:
- Having safe, secure relationships with loved ones
- Feeling it’s okay to make mistakes and be imperfect
- Saying how you feel and what you need
- Having supportive, loving discipline and structure that isn’t mean in tone
- Feeling free to be joyful, spontaneous, and creative
We develop coping skills to do our best with getting our needs met, and those coping skills start to shape our empathy style, whether that means becoming more preoccupied with emotions, or needing to detach from emotion to feel secure. If your caregivers were less sensitive or welcoming of emotional needs, you may have reacted strongly by either detaching yourself or becoming more vocal and demanding.
A history of childhood trauma can complicate the process of how we care for our own needs. Coping skills developed during traumatic childhood experience often become more powerful obstacles to awareness of our own emotional needs.
There’s no simple formula to determine your style, and a mixture of genetics and environment make everyone’s story unique. Once we develop an empathy style, we tend to intuitively stick with it. The good news is that with some attention and practice, we can change our empathy style for the better.
Empathy Styles in Relationships
Empathy styles are about your baseline, your daily default mode. Do you orient yourself around your emotions in daily life? Or tend to avoid them? Knowing your partner’s empathy style may tell you whether you feel emotionally supported in daily life, and how to cope.
Through the lens of empathy styles, there are two basic patterns explaining how we relate to our romantic partner: same/same pairs and opposing pairs. See if you can determine your empathy style and your partner’s, and what kind of pair you may be.
Same/Same Empathy Pairs
We are drawn to partners with the same empathy style as our own, and find familiarity in shared assumptions.
- Detached/Detached Pairs: When it works, you are both okay with a cool emotional temperature in daily life. When it doesn’t work, you each may feel neglected.
- Involved/Involved Pairs: When it works, you may feel you have a soulmate who cares deeply. When it doesn’t work, you are each prone to competition over attention and support and a power struggles happen.
Opposing Empathy Pairs
We are drawn to the qualities of the opposite empathy style because we long to have them for ourselves.
- Those with a detached style may long for someone with involved style in the hope of getting the nurturing they missed.
- Those with an involved style may long for someone with detached style who shows the “stability” of detachment they long for.
Once you have an idea of your empathy style and your partner’s, how do you make improvements in being there for each other?
Harmonizing Empathy Styles in Couples
With each new dating experience, we learn about our emotional needs, as well as how to improve our boundaries. Being in a long-term relationship is also a learning process and an opportunity to evolve and adjust our empathy style. We also adjust to changes in our partner’s empathy style over time. Here are some tips:
- If you are a detached type, you will need to remind yourself to check in with your partner, talk about emotions, and share affection.
- If you are an involved type, you may need to adjust to reminding your partner what you need, and have a discussion about how they can remember.
- You may need to start with a discussion about what type of empathy styles you each may have. Start with curiosity, then move on to discussing how to improve and adjust communication around emotion.