Is Your Empathy Style Making You Afraid of Emotional Intimacy?

Is Your Empathy Style Making You Afraid of Emotional Intimacy?

June 30th, 2015 Comments Off
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Now You Want Me, Now You Don't! Fear of Intimacy book

For the last ten minutes 33-year-old Hunter explained his frustration with having to be 31year-old Cloe’s caretaker, but she didn’t get it. No matter how often he shared his discomfort with having to worry about Cloe being on her own without friends or hobbies, she kept responding with the same phrase: “I get it, but I’m fine as I am. You don’t need to worry about me!”

This stock answer infuriated Hunter who found himself in a romantic relationship that seemed more like being a single parent than a partner! Cloe’s constant text’s and calls when he was away on business or playing in tennis tournaments, made it obvious that she wasn’t “fine” and needed constant reassurance that he was thinking of and missing her. One part of him felt guilty that he wasn’t with her while another part of him was glad to escape.

Longing to be his special one, Cloe felt put aside and unwanted. When Hunter spent time away from her and didn’t stay in touch with ongoing text messages and calls to check in she felt he preferred other people. She tried to make him see that her need for closeness was the essence of romantic relationships, and that he was lacking in that respect. Although he said he ‘got it’ and would try harder, she experienced it as paying lip service, just to end the discussion. All too soon he would tell her that he “couldn’t breathe” and that she needed to get a life outside of him. Hurt by his remarks, she felt misunderstood and frustrated.

So how come Cloe and Hunter are both feeling so frustrated about not getting through to one and other? Why are they both feeling so unseen and unfelt?

cognitive empathy v affective intimacy

It’s all to do with getting empathy, but not the right sort.

When Hunter tells Cloe about not being able to breathe he wants her to sense his experience of being choked, understand it by recalling times when she has felt choked and then understand where he’s coming from. He wants affective (emotional) empathy .

But what he gets is cognitive (intellectual) empathy and that isn’t nearly as satisfying. Yes, Cloe ‘gets it’ – she registers that he is uncomfortable and blames her, but she isn’t validating his pain. He is receiving cognitive empathy which is totally unsatisfying.

Same for Cloe- she wanted Hunter to feel the pain of her longing, by referring back to a time when he longed to be close to someone and couldn’t – she wanted him to know that suffering and put his arms around her, hold and comfort her, while enjoying that intimate moment and creating more. She wanted affective empathy, but what she got was cognitive empathy – very disappointing and demoralizing. He said he ‘understood’ but it was just recognition that she had a need he wasn’t fulfilling. He didn’t really get her pain and suffering.

A recent study published in NeuroImage, 2015, found higher density of grey matter in different brain areas according to the type of empathy that was being felt for another. Those who had higher levels of affective (emotional) empathy, had more grey matter in the insula, found in the middle of the brain. Cognitive empathy high scorers had more grey matter in the midcingulate cortex, an area just above the corpus callosum which connects the left and right hemispheres.

When both partners in a romantic relationship are better at cognitive than affective empathy the result is often deep disappointment, and hopelessness that their will ever be that feeling of true connection, acceptance and union.


affective empathy reduces fear of intimacy


For empathy to be truly effective, all parts have to work in unison.

There has to be an intellectual recognition of what is going on for the other person, where they are coming from and what they are trying to tell you.

AND there has to be the affective piece – where you identify and emotionally experience similar feelings. It’s a deeper level of understanding and one that is absolutely necessary for relationship satisfaction.

Hunter and Cloe excelled in cognitive empathy because they got by in life that way. It was safe. It meant they could have some connections with important people in their lives, but not be vulnerable to the vagaries of emotions that may be difficult to control. They avoided feeling weak and easy to con. They had grown up with a defense against emotional intimacy by honing their cognitive empathy skills to the detriment of the affective side and were dealing with the consequences in a frustrating and unsatisfying relationship.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. They don’t need to let fear of emotional intimacy control them forever. Both can learn how to tune into their partners and bulk up the grey matter in the insula parts of their brain. They do that in therapy, where they receive affective empathy, grow it in themselves and then offer it to each other. Without the firsthand experience of affective empathy in a safe and nurturing therapeutic setting, the affective empathy parts of their brains are unlikely to be developed to their full potential.

 copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2015


Author of: Now You Want Me, Now You Don't! Fear of Intimacy: Ten ways to recognize it and ten ways to manage it in your relationship


 You might also like:

 Four ways to share feelings and be empathic

The second secret to being empathic and boosting your relationship

The secret ingredients for empathy in relationships – part 3


Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educative purposes only. Dr. Raymond is not responsible for any reactions you may have when reading the content or using the suggestions therein. Interacting with this material does not constitute a therapeutic relationship with Dr. Jeanette Raymond








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