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How to Help a Loved One Who Lacks Emotional Intelligence

Three strategies help a partner re-establish a healthy connection.

  • Empathy, self-awareness, and attunement to others are highly valuable in close relationships. Individuals who lack them may struggle to stay close.
  • Using cognitive empathy and making sympathetic statements may help such individuals deal with empathic deficits.
  • Those who struggle to understand someone's pain should be cautious about the temptation to "rescue" that person.

Most people find themselves involved with an emotionally unavailable person at some point. Initially difficult to recognize, but glaringly apparent as the relationship unfolds, partners with deficits in emotional intelligence tend to turn things around on others, avoid taking personal responsibility, and act as if things are their way or the highway.

A pervasive pattern of these traits may indicate the person is robustly defended. A staunch and rigid defensive structure shields him or her from the discomfort of taxing capacities such as empathy, self-awareness (insight) and social awareness (emotional attunement to others).

Although these emotionally intelligent abilities are challenging, they are superpowers worth the cost because they sustain the closeness in a relationship. A person who operates without these tendencies may struggle to remain authentically close to others. Often mistaking control for closeness, a partner with low emotional intelligence frequently inflicts guilt and makes unfair accusations in order to manage the other person in the relationship.

In contrast, a person who possesses emotional intelligence routinely displays empathy, self-awareness, and social awareness. Empathy, or attempting to fully understand a person’s experience from his or her perspective, is a cornerstone of closeness. Self-awareness compels a person to self-reflect, glean insight, and own a selfish moment in a relationship, which quickly repairs ruptures. Intense remorse, which follows true accountability, usually reminds the person to avoid repeating the mistake and protects the trust. Social awareness, or the ability to be emotionally attuned to others, fosters conscientiousness in a relationship. Deficiencies in these abilities may prevent a partner from adequately resolving conflict, sincerely understanding a person, and preserving the bond.

What to Do When a Partner Struggles With Empathizing

Three suggestions may help a loved one who struggles with emotional intelligence. First, due to the partner’s difficulty accessing empathy, he or she may need to consider incorporating cognitive empathy. Unable to penetrate an over-arching and unconscious defensive structure that protects a fragile sense of self from uncomfortable emotions, the partner may be disconnected from sensing the deep and distressing feelings necessary to truly resonate. Yet, intellectualization, a defense mechanism, may allow the person to logically think about another person’s experience and analytically convey this understanding. Although it may lack the power of empathy, it may communicate a basic understanding of a person’s experience, which may help.

Second, encourage the partner to sympathize. Feeling pity for someone does not require a partner to specifically resonate with another person’s uncomfortable emotions, so it is doable for an emotionally shortsighted partner. The key, however, is for the partner to refrain from enabling. Often when a partner sympathizes, the temptation to save and rescue is present because it makes the partner feel powerful. Yet, this may disempower the person who is already feeling hurt. A better idea may be to sympathize and then encourage.

For example, sympathizing and then saving and rescuing may sound like, “I’m sorry your dog died. I bought you a puppy, so don’t be sad. Focus on the puppy. You’ll thank me later.”

This negates the distressed party’s experience and “slaps a band-aid” on the problem, so the partner walks away a “hero” without completing the difficult work of sincerely understanding a person’s pain.

An example of sympathy without rescuing is, “I’m sorry your dog died. I feel bad for you. I hope you feel better tomorrow.”

Although the support may ring hollow because a partner is unable to resonate, it nonetheless provides support.

An empathic statement may pack the most power, for example, “You are devastated Maggie died. It’s such a loss. She provided you so much comfort and love. I am so sorry. I am here. Cry as much as you need to. I would feel the same way.”

The empathy allows the person to feel understood and less alone. Feeling connected to a partner who “gets it” fosters closeness in the relationship and adds comfort. Experiencing connectedness, closeness, and understanding often grounds a person. Feeling human and loved often facilitates feelings of empowerment.

If, however, a partner is incapable of this sort of empathy, sympathy may be the next best option, assuming it does not lead to enabling.

Third, assist a partner in recognizing when to offer cognitive empathy and sympathy. An emotionally unintelligent partner is often egocentric so he or she may lack the ability to recognize when others need emotional support. Remind him or her that when a person identifies he or she is upset, the focus needs to remain on that person.

This means that the partner should refrain from talking about what he or she thinks before fulling listening to the person’s plight and providing cognitive empathy and sympathy. If asked for an opinion or advice, only then should he or she provide it. The attention needs to stay on the person in distress until that person feels heard and understood.

A partner bereft of emotional intelligence may also lack motivation due to an absence of insight. He or she may sincerely believe the problem lies outside of him or her. The inability to be introspective allows him or her to escape the reality that deficits exist. If this is the case, it may be necessary to contemplate exiting the relationship. A mismatch in emotional intelligence is most painful for a partner who is capable of closeness and empathy but is met with indifference and disdain. Love and closeness are sometimes the conduits for a happy and fulfilling existence. Without them, life may seem less sweet.