By Jeffrey Lance, Ph.D.

What does it feel like to be misunderstood when you are upset? What is it like when you are trying to explain your feelings to your spouse etc., and they interrupt, become defensive, and really don’t hear what you are saying? All of us can relate to experiences like these and the feelings of frustration, anger, and aloneness we may feel in these situations.

After many years of doing marital therapy, it has become clear to me that couples and individuals have great difficulty with listening deeply, and understanding the inner emotional world of their spouse. This lack of empathy and listening skills, often leads couples to feel uncared for and unloved. leading to bickering, arguing, withdrawing, and escalating into feeling detached and distant from each other. This in turn makes it very difficult to problem solve and arrive at loving compromises with each other because of the animosity that is engendered. This leads to unnecessary suffering in our relationships.

But why do we find it so hard to listen and empathize with each other’s experience? Largely this is due to the way in which we were responded to by our caregivers in the early developmental years of our lives, and to the modeling and empathy they showed in their relationships to each other, and to us.

We were all born into the world a bundle of needs. If these needs were adequately met in a loving way, positive emotional states and feelings about ourselves and the world became part of our inner world. When our needs weren’t met adequately, we expressed our concern and distress by expressing our feelings about this and cuing our parents. Our parent’s empathic attunement to our clues of distress, and their appropriate and timely response, nurtured and comforted our distress, due to their ability to feel for us (empathy).
Unfortunately, for many of us, our parents didn’t respond empathically, appropriately, or timely to our distress due to their own blocked pain, feelings, and needs, and defenses. They themselves were defensive or oblivious to our pain and needs, and responded with anger, rejection, withdrawal, or not at all. This left us in a state of distress and psychic pain. In response to this pain we began to numb out and defend against our own awareness of our feelings and needs, since there was no enlightened witness to help us work through these painful and frightening experiences.

From these experiences we lose touch with our own needs and feelings, and the ability for our own empathy is severely affected. Late in life we find ourselves unconsciously searching for a loving and empathic spouse, but tend to unconsciously pick someone who reminds us of the caregivers from whom we didn’t receive what we emotionally needed. We will then struggle with this person to get them to be for us what our caregivers hadn’t been originally–attentive, responsive, and empathic listeners.

However, our spouse is also often numbed and shut down from their inner experience. The defenses they built to survive emotionally early in their life now interfere with their ability to be empathically attuned to themselves and to us. In this way the pattern of empathic failure reoccurs in one generation after the other.
To free ourselves from this empathic numbness, we must first free ourselves from the numbing to our own feelings and needs that have been blocked and defended against since our own early years. Only by finding in ourselves, and feeling empathy and compassion for our own numbed and hurting self, can we open to a deeper empathy and perception of the cues of our spouse and children’s needs and feelings. In this way we can break the intergenerational isolation, numbing, and empathic failure, and give ourselves and each other the empathic experience so needed today.


Dr. Lance is a psychologist in practice in Glendale Ca. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. Dr. Lance can be reached at (818) 265-4052.

Copyright 2017 by Jeffrey Lance, Ph.D.