Is Empathy Really Necessary?

By Dan Blair, marriage counselor and family counselor

Is empathy really necessary? It can be unnatural, even awkward. Maybe you don’t feel you need it yourself. Here are some common questions about empathy.

Why is empathy important in relationships?

Research shows that empathy is foundational to a strong bond in relationships. Empathy can help you to become more aware of your and your partner’s feelings and experiences, experience less fear or tension around starting meaningful conversations, build more connection and less emotional neglect, create a sense of feeling seen & heard, and offer more stability in your relationship.

Can romantic love exist without empathy?

No, empathy would be required to make a connection with someone, but it could be superficial, incomplete or run by one’s own agenda. Romantic love, though, is a heightened state of awareness driven by brain chemicals and may distort reality. While empathy, humor, and creativity are running at 5G, memory and logic may be compromised. This can lead to impulsivity, compulsivity, and even obsessions, which takes one farther away from empathy.

What does lack of empathy do to a romantic relationship?

In fact if you are missing empathy, relationship, safety and trust start to erode over time. Like the law of entropy, additional energy will be needed to change the system. Without it, each person has their own agenda. The other person wonders if they can count on their partner, or wonders if they have their back when the going gets tough.

What are some reasons why someone may not feel empathy toward their romantic partner (or stop feeling it)?

All types of anger run counter to the ability to empathize, including resentment and criticism. Emotional pain also interferes and even blocks empathy, including fear, helplessness, sadness and other emotions. Deeper levels of pain include inadequacy, rejection and abandonment. Other blocks to empathy include the effects of neurotransmitters, hormones, epigenetics including family and cultural training, and brain injury.

The brain uses mirror neurons to develop empathy. Empathy is about someone else’s needs, and anger is about your own needs. Too much empathy and you can get run over, and too much anger and you do the running over.

Judgement and stress, on the other hand, push us past needed social connection and into fight, flight and shut down modes. Other sources of stress are too many to list, but often are associated with pressure and conflict at home, academic or work pressures, unknown medical, diet and sleep issues, sensory issues, history of trauma and abuse, loss, mood disorders, anxiety, attention-deficits, and substance use.

How could I start being more aware of empathy? 

Develop an emotional vocabulary and practice identifying the emotions of the people around you, or what you see in videos or movies. Then practice expressing that emotion to make a connection. For example, if someone said “Did you see the Bears last night?” You may assume the emotion is disappointment, and you can express that emotion by saying, “It’s always wait ’til next year.” (Someday I may have to change this example). If I see my wife doing dishes I assume she would rather not, and I may say, “This is never ending!” (That may be my cue to help). If If I see someone hurting, I could ask to identify their pain, ask about what happened, and offer consolation. Sometimes just being there would be the best, because you are with them feeling their emotions with them so they are not alone. Note: none of these examples need to reflect your own emotions, just the other person you care about.

How would you “use” empathy to resolve couples conflict?

Emotions drive needs of a person. Leaving emotions out of the equation, and just focusing on “the facts,” will come up empty. The goal of conflict resolution is to feel better about the situation, cared about and understood. Solutions may look great on paper without empathy, but often fall short.

How can I develop empathy in my relationship?

Practice the art of mindfulness. It is being aware of your own and a partner’s emotions, in the present, without judgement, (which buries them.)

Mindfulness practice includes taking a deep breath and asking yourself, “What is happening inside of me?” Notice what ever gets your attention. Ask yourself if you can respond kindly to it. Now what do you notice? What am I unwilling to feel? What if it was okay to feel that? When you can do this for yourself, now you can go deeper with others.

ASK about your partner’s emotions.

Accept that your partner does feel what they feel versus discounting it or trying to change it.

Make Sense of the emotional logic behind the emotion so they don’t feel like an alien, or defective.

Kindess (plain and simple) works wonders.

How do I help my partner become more empathetic?

By being empathetic yourself, being vulnerable, assertiveness training, and establishing healthy boundaries that are in your control.

What type of empathy is more important to improve intimacy in relationships?

There are three types of empathy:


  • Identifying emotions is calming
  • Allowing your partner to feel what they feeling
  • Staying in tune so your partner does not feel alone


  • Not about fixing feelings
  • It is about making sense of the feelings
  • Letting them know their feelings matter


  • Offering comfort
  • Appreciation
  • Kindness

What are some specific therapy exercises or strategies to promote or strengthen empathy?

What started as a way to write encouraging notes to my wife developed into a co-journaling app that can be used not only as a personal journal to help identify emotions, but also practice identifying your partner’s emotions for a stronger connection. It’s called Minute Mood.

 Do you want to learn how to communicate? 

Free Communication Coaching with purchase of the app!

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