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Communication problem: Empathy versus Caring

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Article by Robert McInnes

Communication problem: Empathy versus Caring

After counselling couples using Cognitive Principle Therapy for over six years the biggest single problem in communication is the difference between the level of empathy versus caring in couples.

Empathy is the ability to recognize what the other person is feeling. It is interesting that this word was only first used in early 1900’s, whereas the word caring is a very old word.

Caring is feeling and exhibiting concern for others.

My observation is that men and women appear to have the same level of caring for each other, such as providing physical, emotional or mental support, even though the roles may be very different.

However, historically men have tended to be more controlling of the caring process, particularly before the mid- 1900’s. It was they who made many of the decisions related to what constituted physical, emotional and mental support. This may be a factor which allowed woman to develop a skill of “reading the feelings” of the man, so that she could comply with the man’s controlling nature and therefore feel secure.

The observation is that men and women have similar levels of caring, but women have higher levels of empathy. This is a generalization about men and women, and certainly doesn’t apply to all relationships. However, another factor does contribute to the imbalance between caring and empathy in couples, and that is, if you  [man or woman] have a weakness in empathy, you will sub-consciously pick that strength in a partner, whether you are aware of it or not. This process of covering weaknesses is a survival method which allows the couple to be stronger as “a unit.”

 However, it doesn’t work if the opposite way of behaving annoys you, rather than you accepting it and using in constructively.

An example of an imbalance in caring and empathy occurred between a couple that  I will call John and Linda. They had been married for over forty years and have three children. John is controlling by nature, was a high achiever at work before he recently retired. Linda, was a stay at home mum who cared and raised the children, all whom have left home.

Linda was wanting a new mobile phone, something simple. John bought her an I-Phone, then proceeded to tell her how to set it up, while standing in front of her. Linda became anxious, couldn’t think clearly, got annoyed at being harassed and threw the phone away. John got angry at her, saying that he is only trying to help and calls her an idiot.

When counselling  John and Linda they are given psycho-education about principles as follows:

John is made aware the differences between caring and empathy. That he is like many men who lack empathy and he needs to grow in this area. This can be achieved through having a dialog with Linda about rules, boundaries and consequences relating to a number of supporting principles. For example, a rule about “respect” could be that he listens to Linda’s request and also ask her how she is feeling, if he receives negative feedback. The boundary could be, not to move into Linda’s space and force his views if he receives negative feedback. The consequence could be that Linda may reject his “gifts” until he follows the rules and boundaries.

The above process of setting boundaries, rules and consequences may be conducted in counselling sessions if Linda does not feel safe discussing those alone with John.

Linda is made aware of the differences between caring and empathy. In particular she needs to understand that John can’t necessarily read her feelings and she has to learn to state those to him. She will need to grow in both assertiveness and courage to do this as part of her counselling. Linda will need help to work on setting rules, boundaries and consequences and learn that they have to be fair, consistent and escalating, based on increasingly bad behaviour by John. Linda will need to help develop courage and persistence, because in many cases the bad behaviour will escalate in the short term as John subconsciously “tests” her resolve.

Based on my experience of couples coming for counselling for relationship conflict, about one third of men are unaware that their behaviour is inappropriate and they change within a relatively short period. A third of men have unresolved issues from the past and they need help to resolve these before they can change. This takes time, but significant change occurs in most cases. The remaining third either do not want to change or have trauma based past issues which they either can’t deal with or are not yet ready to deal with.

In relation to women, a smaller percentage than men are unaware of their behaviour. The majority have unresolved issues around respect, acceptance, love or trust and most can work through these issues with counselling and there are only a small percentage of women who are reluctant to change.  However, there are a number who have trauma based issues and some of those are not yet ready to deal with those in counselling.

3 Oct 2012

Last Update: 4 Oct 2012

Article/Information supplied by Robert McInnes

Disclaimer - Any general advice given in any article should not be relied upon and should not be taken as a substitute for visiting a qualified medical Doctor.