Man and Woman Arguing in a Kitchen

3 Signs He Lacks Empathy in Your Relationship (And What To Do About It)

by John Santana

Empathy is one of the basic human tools of behavior. It helps people understand each other better and prevents them from doing harm to others that they wouldn’t want done to themselves. It doesn’t take a genius to know that hurting people is bad. Everyone has an understanding of this at an early age.

But you are probably here wondering: How do men make hurting other people look so easy?

Plenty of women wonder about what goes on with their men internally. Men are taught to have stoic facades. Society expects them to act straight to the point, never hesitating between options. This haste to act can come off as callous and inconsiderate, or even unhinged if they are too energetic about it.

The line between a man who acts tough and a man who lacks empathy is a thin one. There is a good chance that your man does not even know which side of the line he falls on. It helps for you to both understand the warning signs of a man without empathy, and also how to spot someone who has it.

1. First, Look At How He Treats Others

Couple Talking to a Therapist

This is the most obvious sign, at least insofar as it is the most easily observed. But it can also be the most esoteric and open to interpretation. The most important step to discerning empathy in a man’s treatment of others is looking for his intentions. Intentions don’t justify actions. If he hurts someone, he hurts someone. If you can find his intentions in his behavior, however, you can find his empathy.

The short version of this analysis is that you are looking for whether or not he treats people like objects.

What Does It Mean To Treat a Person Like An Object?

Specifically, it means that he treats them as having one use. He views all other behaviors as accessories or obstacles to that use. This can manifest in both big and small ways. A big, obvious way is if he gets mad when someone doesn’t do what he wants. He doesn’t even have to directly interact with

them. Maybe he asked them to do something, maybe he didn’t. Maybe he made his feelings known, maybe he didn’t. You’re looking for how he is invested in other people.

On a smaller scale, he might simply express himself in terms of what other people can do for him. He might give the appearance of “taking charge” by making things that benefit him seem like imperatives for a group. Or, more commonly, make efforts to pass his preferences off as objective facts.

2. Second, Look At How He Categorizes Things

A Woman in Cream Sweater Behind a Person in Black Vest

Carl Jung believed in a dichotomy he called the “Anima and Animus.” His idea was that everyone forms an idea of the sexes in their mind. For women, they form the anima, and for men, the animus. These ideas are not universal truths, but personally held ideas of what is ideally feminine and masculine.

This means that not all men are going to categorize the same things as “manly.” More importantly, they will not treat the label of “manly” as equally virtuous. But it is common for people of all sexes, genders, and other demographics to use words like “manly,” “womanly,” and others as replacements for “good.”

Find What He Considers “Good” And “Bad”

Going by Jung’s idea of the animus, we can determine that a man is likely to associate things he believes are virtuous with masculinity. Of course, if your man doesn’t do that, the same logic can be applied to any category. The goal is to find out whether or not his definitions of “good and “bad” are self-serving.

He might not call anything good, beautiful, strong, or correct unless it pleases him or benefits him. He might put people into a group that he considers less-than unless they conform to certain ideals of his.

Also Look For Justifications In These Categories

Once you establish what categories he considers “good”, then you can start to look for bleed-over from those categories. This is why the example of masculinity is so instructive. He likes lifting weights because it’s manly. The good produced for him by lifting weights earns it the title of “manly.”

Later on, he might justify violence or disrespect as being “what men do.” This is the same logic. It would be socially unacceptable for him to just say, “I consider violence good because it benefits me.” Instead, he must say, “Violence is associated with manliness, and therefore must be accepted along with it.”

There are two things you have probably noticed about this logical trick. For one, tons of people do it all the time. Men, women, politicians, everyone uses categories to understand the world. That is not the problem. The problem arises when they are used to rhetorically excuse obviously bad behavior.

Second, we focused a lot on the category of “manly” things. While this particular category is used far too often to excuse bad behavior (“boys will be boys”), it should not be taken as a red flag by itself.

3. Third, Separate Bad Behavior From Unempathetic Behavior

Couple Fighting outside in the park

Everyone has moments of weakness and imperfection. There is no one who has perpetually resisted the draw towards being judgmental. We all put things into categories to understand the world faster at the cost of understanding it better. Even self-centered thinking is normal in many situations.

The question then becomes this: How does one tell the difference between a man who has a normal amount of bad behavior, and a man whose bad behavior is the product of a lack of empathy? Well, remember that you are not just looking for whether or not your man has moments of weakness.

In a way, you are trying to find out if his capacity for empathy is handicapped, whether by mental disorder or willing emotional repression. Drawing the line between someone with bad behavior and someone with a disability is hard. But it is the last step before you can be sure he truly lacks empathy.

Communicate With Him About These Things

You have to try talking with him about these things eventually. The trick here is to do it only after you have observed how he treats people and categorizes things. Once you are sure he tends to do both of those things in a consistently self-serving way, then your conversation can have some substance.

Of course, you can also talk with him about this before you start scrutinizing him. We recommend having a conversation with him after you watch him for a while because you don’t want to come off as baselessly accusatory. If you bring up his empathy as a subject matter in highly abstract terms, then he has reasonable grounds to get defensive no matter what.

If you have examples of how his behavior might be construed as unempathetic, then you have something to talk about besides theory and your gut instincts.

The most constructive way to talk with a man about his potential empathy issues is to listen at every opportunity you can. When you bring up empathy as the topic of discussion, listen for if he brushes it off, treats it as unimportant, or produces some elaborate rhetoric to explain his behavior.

If he apologizes for his behavior, is disappointed in himself, or shows any other signs of genuine regret, then that is a good sign that he has been behaving badly but still has the capacity for empathy.

Give Him Chances To Be Kind

African American couple arguing at home

This can be done while you’re observing him, before you start talking with him about the subject, or even during the discussion. Most of the time you can do it like this: Mention something positive that does not directly benefit him. 100 kilograms of garbage was recently extracted from the South Pacific Garbage Patch, for instance. Mention something like that and see how he reacts.

There are lots of different things you can mention or show him, from acts of charity to advances in science. The specifics are not important. What is important is giving him a purely positive stimulus that does not directly relate to him. If he lacks empathy, he might have trouble interpreting good news in a good way if it doesn’t relate to him. He might be endlessly skeptical about obviously good things.

If he has trouble seeing anything outside of his benefit as good, then that is a good way of verifying that his bad behavior is not just moments of weakness but part of a greater blindness to empathy.


This underlines the central issue with a lack of empathy: All too often, people who lack empathy are imagined as unrepentant manipulators. Even by our description, it is easy to see them as such.

But a man who lacks the ability to empathize with others will also lack the ability to feel happy for others. He will lack the emotional momentum to break through the blanket of skepticism we all live under in the modern age.

Be careful sharing your life with someone who lacks empathy, but remember that they are a human being who is probably suffering as a result of that disability.

John Santana

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