Do avoidants lack empathy and incapable of being supportive or do avoidants just not care; and expecting your avoidant ex to show empathy is setting yourself for disappointment, frustration and feelings of resentment.
Empathy is a subject I’m very passionate about because it speaks to the deepest part of the human experience -feeling heard, seen, understood, valued and supported. We all want this deepest part of the human experience, and some of you who’ve worked with me one-on-one might have noticed that I get “emotional” when discussing why we need more empathy especially in light of what we know about attachment trauma.
Everybody has been through something, is going through something and doing the best the only way they know how to, and understanding someone else’s experiences, what they think and feel when empathy, support and comfort or care is expected, needed or requested from them is how you’ll truly understand why they act, react and respond the way they do – and what you can do encourage avoidants who seem to lack empathy to be more supportive, caring and want closeness.
I strongly believe that both avoidant and anxious attachment styles will experience an improvement in their relationships if they train themselves to have more empathy for who the other is and why they are the way they are.
The relationship between attachment and empathy
The two studies (Joireman, Needham & Cummings both explored the relationship between dimensions of attachment (closeness, trust, anxiety) and three forms of empathy (empathic concern, perspective taking, feelings of discomfort in distressing situations). They found that greater trust and comfort with closeness are associated with greater empathic concern and perspective taking, whereas greater anxiety was associated with greater feelings of discomfort in distressing situations. This means that people with an anxious attachment have greater empathy for someone is going through personal distress or stress-evoking situations.
These studies are consistent with my own observation and experience in how the different attachment styles think, feel, and behave when an ex is going through personal distress (sickness, depression or situational stress). Sometimes where more empathy would have changed the outcome of a conversation or experience and improved the relationship overall, exes react or respond according to their attachment styles, and the outcome of a conversation is negative and in some cases end any chance of getting back together.
Avoidants are often unable to see when a partner needs support and comfort
Avoidants in general have less comfort with closeness and less trust in others as dependable and this often makes them uncomfortable and sometimes less willing to support, help or comfort others in distressing situations.
In my discussions with both fearful and dimension avoidants (and my person experience), there is more to an avoidant ex’s “lack of empathy”. When I’ve asked why they were not available, supportive and did not step in to comfort their ex when they needed it, some avoidants say they did not know or think their partner needed it and/or they did not know how to provide the comfort and support their partner needed.
This is because avoidants in general are less likely to seek comfort or support from a partner, let alone share the fact that they’re going through mental or emotional distress. Unlike individuals with a secure attachment and an anxious preoccupied attachment who have a positive view of relationship partners, both fearful avoidants and dismissive avoidants have a negative view of relationship partners. This may explain why they have difficulty sharing their problems and less willing to seek support and comfort from a relationship partner.
Some avoidants view needing comfort and support as depending on others, and are uncomfortable with both depending on their partner and have their partner depend on them.
Why avoidants look like they don’t have empathy or care
Many avoidants are not fully aware when they need comfort, support or help and as a result don’t seek comfort or support. But even those who are aware that they need comfort and support act like they don’t need or desire it and often don’t receive the comfort and support they need from relationship partners. This confirms their negative view of others as undependable and their belief that seeking comfort and support is either not possible or undesirable.
And because avoidants believe that seeking support, and comfort from a romantic partner is undesirable, it’s hard for them to see when a partner needs support and comfort. Dismissive avoidants especially have an emotional block that makes it hard for them to empathize with what another person is going through.
Most dismissive avoidants didn’t have sensitive caregivers to model concern and care during their development, and this is the internal working model dismissive avoidants use to respond to a partner in distress. For example, if they were injured they were told not to cry, suck it up, be tough etc., and when they needed emotional care and support they were told to not to be weak, deal with it, not to bother others etc.,- and that’s what they did. It’s also what they expect a partner to do.
Dismissive avoidants turn away from a partner’s distress
As someone who was dismissive avoidant and in my conversations with many dismissive avoidants, I can confidently tell you that dismissive avoidants have and feel empathy. But faced with another person’s distress emotions, dismissive turn away and direct their cognitive and emotional resources on reducing their own distress rather than on providing comfort and support to the distressed person.
In other words, when a romantic partner is in high distress, or the situation is highly stressful, dismissive avoidants turn away or withdraw to focus on their own distress. When a romantic partners distress is low-level, dismissive avoidants are able to focus their efforts their distress and on a partner’s distress and comfort and support them. But when the situation is highly stressful dismissive avoidants choose to tend to their own distress because they don’t have enough emotional bandwidth for both themselves and others.
Dismissive avoidants hostile and defensive behaviour instead of empathy
This is consistent with other studies that found that when dismissive avoidants perceive negative emotions in their partners, they display hostile and defensive behaviour. Where most people would see the need for sensitivity or concern, and provide care and support, dismissive avoidants see someone who’s unable to suck it up, be tough, deal with it and not bother them. But when the person is displaying less expression of “negative” emotions, dismissive avoidants invest more effort trying to understand the other person’s feelings and perspectives and less effort in defensiveness and self-preservation strategies.
Unfortunately, individuals with an anxious attachment also do not have the coping skills necessary to regulate their own negative emotions. When they don’t receive the comfort and support they need from a dismissive avoidant, they express (and often exaggerate) “negative” emotions. Dismissive avoidants experiencing an anxious attachment ex’s distress become distressed, hostile, defensive and shutdown as a way to regulate their own “negative” emotions.
How do you get a dismissive avoidant ex to show empathy and be support?
First of all, you shouldn’t have to “teach” someone how to “empathize”, but dismissive avoidants are the way they’re for a reason, and until they change their attachment style, dismissive avoidance is the only thing they know to do.
Instead of reacting with shock, frustration and “negative” emotion when a dismissive avoidant ex doesn’t seem to understand or appreciate what you’re going through, or “lacks empathy”:
- Empathize with why they’re the way the are especially now that you know about the relationship between attachment styles and empathy;
- Directly, using non-violent communication and without the “negative” emotions overload, tell your dismissive avoidant ex what you want them to do to make you feel supported and comforted.
If your request is “reasonable” to them, you may be surprised by how readily a dismissive avoidant steps up in the moment, but you may also be disappointed that you have to do this again and again.
Fearful avoidants have more empathy and are supportive when they feel safe
Fearful avoidants are better than dismissive avoidants at sensing when a partner needs support and comfort because their anxious attachment side is attuned to distress empathy. But fearful avoidants often don’t respond appropriately because they’re unsure, confused and fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing.
In my experience, a fearful avoidant’s ability to be supportive and to step in to comfort their ex depends on how they perceive their ex in the situation. If they perceive their ex’s intentions, motives, and actions as less empathetic or caring during the time they themselves were going through a stressful situation, they’re unlikely to ask for or welcome comfort and support and less likely to give it to a partner when they need it.
But when fearful avoidants feel safe and a partner is behaving in a caring, understanding and calming way, and takes their perspective into consideration, fearful avoidants are more empathetic and supportive and will be as comforting as they need to be.
Fearful avoidant exes are also likely to remember and value the care and support their ex provided in the past or are willing to provide. This is perhaps because fearful avoidants feel that others don’t care or take their feelings and needs into consideration and take note when someone does.
The opposite is also true. When you don’t show a fearful avoidant that you understand them, and understand what they’re going through, or criticize, talk down, or act rejecting, fearful avoidants take note. When you ask a fearful avoidant for comfort and support, it triggers a memory of when they wanted understanding and support an you we’re rejecting, they’ll act rejecting or pull away due to feelings of resentment. They’re thinking “my feelings/struggle/pain/frustration etc., didn’t matter to you, but you want me to care about yours?”
How do you get a fearful avoidant ex to show empathy and be support?
Fearful avoidants value trust, responsiveness and consistency even when they themselves are neither transparent, responsive or consistent. The foundation of trust, responsiveness and consistency allows fearful avoidants to express the empathy they feel without fear of being judged, criticized or reprimanded, and most of all, rejected.
When they are going through a difficult time, affirm their feelings and show that you can understand their struggle, pain or frustration— even if the problem is out of your control. As mentioned above, fearful avoidants take note this and will reciprocate by providing comfort, care and support when you need it.
When you need comfort and support, use non-violent communication without the “negative” emotions overload. Don’t expect instant change in a fearful avoidant’s response because you’re approaching a request for support and comfort differently. When you start using a more empathetic approach your avoidant ex may react to your new approach based on past experiences. But if you’re consistent and make the new approach the new normal, they’ll start responding differently.
With both fearful avoidants and dismissive make sure you don’t do excessive “caregiving”. Excessive caregiving is attention and approval seeking behaviour where the person actively giving comfort and support questions their worth, worries about losing the other person, and hopes that by giving comfort and support the other person will want more closeness. Avoidants in general are put off by excessive “caregiving” which they see as condescending and/manipulative.
Track your excessive distress empathy and caregiving
When you have an anxious attachment, you are also prone to compulsive or “excessive caregiving”. Excessive caregiving combined with distress empathy puts you at a risk of emotional enmeshment where you’re prioritizing an avoidant ex’s feelings and “problems” over your own emotional well-being.
I see this with many of my clients trying to get back with an ex going through personal distress. They focus on an ex with excessive sensitivity, responsiveness and distress empathy and lose touch with their own feelings, needs and goals. Some of them have difficulty encouraging an ex’s autonomous growth and thriving because they’re afraid their ex won’t need them anymore.
Make sure you keep track of when you are over-identifying with your avoidant ex’s feelings or personal “problems”, excessively caregiving and depleting your own mental and emotional resources, and when your empathy has been hijacked by anxiety, worry about losing your ex and fear of abandonment.