Tag Archives: empathy

Genes May Contribute to Relationship Empathy

A new study out just this month that appeared in the online journal Emotion, published by the American Psychological Association, suggests that our genes may determine how inclined we are toward empathy. This means that the level of connection we have toward our spouse’s negative emotional state may have more to do with their biological makeup than with how much they care.

Researchers suggest that our genetic makeup may make some people more responsive to their partner’s emotional states and others less so. Their theory is that the serotonin transporter gene 5-HTTLPR might play a role in making us either less or more responsive to our spouses’ emotions.

The study involved data from 172 couples who remained married after 11 years. Researchers found some people have one variant of the gene, while others have a second variant. Depending on which variant you or your spouse has, your emotions may be more or less connected to your partner’s emotions. The gene appears to control how long your reaction lasts, and how responsive you are to your spouse’s emotional cues.

While we can’t blame our actions on our biology, Bradbury says we do need to realize that who we are is in large part a makeup of our biology, and that our reactions are sometimes outside our control. However, researcher Tom Bradbury says, “It’s much more complex than a single gene.”

The reason this understanding is important, say the psychologists, is not so that we can explain away our own behavior, but instead that we learn to be more forgiving of our spouse. “This research may imply that we should be forgiving of the behavior of a loved one and not demand that a spouse change her or his behavior,” said the psychologists.

  “Who you are and how you respond to me has a lot to do with things that are totally outside your control,” said Bradbury. “My partner’s biology is invisible to me; I have no clue about that. The more I can appreciate that the connection between who I am and who my partner is may be biologically mediated leads me to be much more appreciative of invisible forces that constrain our behavior,” he added.

Researchers believe multiple genes are at play in helping to contribute to our reactions. They say that if you realize how hard it is to change yourself, you may see that your partner can’t control this aspect of him or herself either.

There’s much more to the full research study that I’ll write about later, but this biological component is important to helping understand why we need to have a forgiving bent within marriage. It’s difficult at times to see things the way our spouse seems them, and at times we would like them to be more emotionally understanding of where we are. However, this may be harder than you realize for your partner to accomplish.

From my own experience, I believe my husband to be very empathic with others, but I don’t believe we are always emotionally on the same page. So, this research helps remind me that we have a different makeup and that he can’t always choose to be where I am emotionally. It doesn’t mean that he can’t understand my emotions, but rather that we may have to work harder to maintain emotional connection and understanding.

Do you find these results interesting or enlightening—or dull and unhelpful? Does it help you view your spouse’s reactions in a new light? Or, do you think individuals can exercise much more control and choice over the way they respond, and shouldn’t rely on biological excuses?

Photo by Photostock courtesty of freedigitalphotos.net.

Lori Lowe is the author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage. The book tells the true stories that demonstrate that marriage can thrive even in the most difficult circumstances. Learn from 12 inspiring couples who experienced child loss, infidelity, drug addiction, cancer, financial crises, brain injury, stranger rape, military service, infertility, opposing religions, unsupportive families, interracial relationships, raising special-needs children, and much more. These couples found the pressures of life didn’t destroy them; instead, they crystallized their commitment to each other.

How do Bullies and Abusers Relate to Others?

In a recent post I presented the importance of empathy in marriage and the physiological studies that have proven this. However, all people do not empathize in the same manner. Bullies are one group whose brains differ in how they relate to the emotions and pain of others.

Researchers at the University of Chicago studied empathy in bullies. They performed functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans of boys’ brains aged 16 to 18 while showing the boys videos of people getting accidentally hurt. A control group was tested, along with a group of boys who had been abusive and had been diagnosed with conduct disorders.

Prior to these studies, many surmised that bullies lacked empathic skills and couldn’t connect to the pain they were causing. I’ve heard that said about psychopaths. At least in the case of bullies, the reality is worse than the prediction. According to this study, bullies do not lack empathy; they feel pleasure when others experience pain.

When the bullies’ brains were scanned, “the brains signaled empathy towards the pain, but their brain wiring associated that pain empathy with pleasure, in the reward centers of the brain,” says professor Jane Decety. “Bullies associate the pain of their victims as a positive feeling. These results suggest that the abusive behavior of bullies feeds their brains with a feeling of reward.”

These tests were done on older boys, so it remains to be seen if the results would be the same in adult perpetrators of domestic abuse. If that is how abusers think, it is one more reason why victims should not stick around to try to persuade the abuser to change their ways. Brains that are wired to receive pleasure from causing pain may just be on the lookout for the next person to provide that reward.

If someone you know is in an abusive situation, refer them to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and share these safety tips.

Do You Empathize with Your Mate?

I’ve often considered my high degree of empathy to be a weakness. I have to minimize my news intake of tragic events, I never let a friend cry alone, and I have to turn away when an ice skater falls during a performance. I’ve read studies that explain people who deeply empathize have many of the same neurons firing in their brains as those who experienced the event. That helps explain why I can relate to emotions that are far from me.

Good news if you are like me: empathy is a strength in marriage. This isn’t just my opinion. It’s been shown through psychophysiological research. Finally, being emotional has an up-side.

The book The Energetic Heart assesses bioelectromagnetic interactions within and between people and explains some of the current research. Author Rollin McCraty, PhD, reports on multiple studies that show people synchronize some of their physiological activities, such as heart rate, when they empathize.

For example, Levenson and Gottman studied physiological synchronization in married couples and concluded partners who were skilled at showing empathy mimicked their partner’s physiology. Their heart rates sped up and slowed down to match their spouse’s when they discussed emotional content. McCraty adds that researchers have been able to use physiological observations of couples to predict those who will divorce.

If couples who are not skilled in empathy are more likely to divorce, we should dissect this ability further. Empathy is the capability to share another’s feelings and emotions. We can’t get to that point if we are not truly present to one another and effective listeners. We also must be open and vulnerable emotionally. I’ve been writing a lot about techniques for listening, and it’s not because I’m not feeling heard. Many types of research lead me back to the topic and stress the importance of listening in all types of relationship success.  How can we be empathic if we don’t hear or understand our spouse’s true concerns? How can we improve intimacy without empathizing with one another’s deepest worries, goals and desires?

These psychophysiological studies are a fancy way of demonstrating couples who are emotionally in touch with one another, but I’ll bet you know if you’re in touch without the gadgets. Do you find your mind wandering when your spouse talks about his dreams for the future? Does your anger level rise when you hear your wife was mistreated? Are you in tune with your partner’s mood or anxieties? Try taking a few deep breaths before you reconnect to help your bodies adjust physiologically before your minds connect emotionally.

Do you think empathy is just a female skill? Do you think it can be learned or improved, or are there some people who are just not emotional? Read about how the brains of bullies empathize in surprising (and not good) ways. It may explain why abusive spouses are unlikely to change.

10 Great Tips to Get Through to Your Spouse

To follow up on a recent post on why better listening is better loving, a new book provides some useful techniques on how exactly to listen effectively. “Just Listen” by psychiatrist Mark Goulston, MD, delivers on its promise to teach you how to get through to anyone, even offering advice for dealing with neurotic, narcissistic and violent individuals (we won’t go there). Most of the book addresses everyday personal and professional communication strategies, and offers scientific explanation to explain why they work within the brain. I’d recommend reading the book if you would like to improve your communication and connections at work or home, but I’ll summarize a few techniques in the next two posts:

The Empathy Jolt—When you are at odds with your spouse, take a break. Ask yourself how you would feel if you were in their shoes. Literally, what feelings or thoughts might you be experiencing? Sometimes a third party can ask this question to both spouses, and they will express a deeper understanding of one another’s true motivations.

Reverse Play—When you feel like complaining about someone’s behavior, set up a time to talk. Instead of complaining, apologize genuinely for the ways you may be contributing to the problem. Say you are sorry for anything you might have done to offend or disrespect them. This catches people off guard and often motivates them to act graciously.

Mirror Neuron Deficit—As we attempt to conform to the world’s or others’ demands on us, trying to win love and approval, we ache to be mirrored back with the same attention. Often, people feel they give their best, but receive apathy or hostility in return. This creates a deficit that you as an effective listener can help fill. Instead of waiting for your spouse or child to express a feeling or complaint, then mirroring it back, Dr. Goulston suggests taking the initiative to express your perception of their feelings, while offering a chance to clarify.

For example, when a man sees his stressed out wife scramble all evening to get emails returned and kids to bed, he might say, “You know, I was thinking today how frustrating it must be to feel so torn between home and the office. Is that how you feel, or am I reading things wrong? Then, you allow the other person to talk, without interrupting. When the other person stops, say, something like, “Go on.” Resist the urge to talk. Allow him or her to fully vent and relax. Do not solve the problem; just listen. This technique can even work in hostile situations and/or with teens. I tried it on my 6-year-old, and it worked great.

Be Vulnerable—Especially when things are at their worst, instead of getting aggressive, be vulnerable and share your deepest fears or concerns. Encourage your spouse to share feelings as well. This can create a breakthrough connection.

Read 6 more great tips from Dr. Goulston.

4 Habits of Highly Effective Relationships

There are four basic habits a person must demonstrate to be successful in relationships, says Dr. Noah Kersey (a licensed psychologist in Indiana) in his recent blog post. I found this post insightful and useful not only to be be reminded of four important traits we should all be working on to improve our relationships, but also those to instill in our children to enable them to later have positive relationships. Read the full article at this link:


You can also visit his website at www.LifeCareCounselingServices.com