Empathy, Changing the Guy, Teaching the Child

I haven't been true to my word, haven't done that post on Asperger's Syndrome.

But I have done some research on it and three things, three findings teach us something important about people who have Asperger’s and people who don’t have Asperger's.

Remember, “findings” are about group norms, not individuals.
1) Empathy is difficult for men and women with Asperger's.

2) More men have Asperger's Disorder than women.

3) Women with or without Asperger's have more empathy than men.
It's nice to find research that validates what is called "practice wisdom." Let’s just focus on the idea that the odds are that a woman will be more empathetic than her man.

I only brought in the Asperger's research so you'd not think me a total slacker, because I really have done a little reading on autism, although I prefer “chick lit” to put me to sleep at night (have you read Jonathan Tropper?) and my hero is Jonathan Safron Foer (his second book is my favorite of all time, how does a person this young understand love so well, not to mention depression) but still get a kick from critical thinking. It’s the latter that keeps me up at night.

Practice wisdom, by the way, is the knowledge a therapy doc gets by osmosis, just by staying on the job, watching one couple after another get into the same type of awful argument. Different details (content), same process.

People do pick up dysfunctional fighting from their parents (as a group, not as individuals). Why would our parents teach us wrong, after all?

I just saw a new patient last week whose spouse hits her when she gets emotional. His father hit his mother. "Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do," he asks me, "to set her straight?"

He’s serious. I wish I were making this up.

Therapy docs see dysfunctional interactional sequences so often that we just want to scream, Can't you please get it together and stop doing this?! It's so disturbing, so not Zen.

But that screaming bit doesn't seem to work, as it probably doesn't in your relationships, either.


The definition I've used on this blog for empathy:
the ability to feel how another person is feeling, being in someone else's shoes,an affective process.
But I’ve since learned that there's a second way to define empathy, which is
having the ability to put into words how another person is feeling, a cognitive process.
Some people have one of these gifts, some both, some neither.

It's possible that there's a genetic marker for empathy. I know that it can be taught to most children. I think we learn it best when we're young because that’s when we learn language the easiest. Empathy is a communication process.

We wouldn’t want to stress a child with Asperger's, by the way, a person challenged in this area. Making a child feel deficient and bad, making ANYONE feel deficient and bad for not having empathy,is psychologically damaging. Not very empathetic, we could say.

Of course, I’m down on parents who shame their children for virtually anything, shame is so toxic. There are better ways to teach children. Not as efficient, but better. Teaching the child empathy is one of them.

But stressing a child without Asperger's to be empathetic can save that child's future relationships. The lesson's a good one at any age, but if we're talking adults, it's likely going to be a woman's job to do the teaching (unless you're in therapy, in which case perhaps the therapist might take over).

This is in sync with what my significant other tells me about me.

FD tells me that I feel it's a woman's job to find a man to change him.

Sorry for the heterosexist bias, here. It’s more efficient to write about my heterosexual relationship with FD than to find Jack and Jill, or Jack and Jack, or Jill and Jill. Please change genders if appropriate.

See, FD knows how I feel since he's an empathetic guy. He's right, of course.

But not every guy has an empathy deficit, remember? Statistics, as I’ve said before, do not mean that individuals don't deviate from the norm, only that a difference in the group's norm or other measure of central tendency is statistically significant.

My son-in-law, for example, is EXTREMELY empathetic. He's unnatural, I feel, but it's a good unnatural.

So, although men are less empathetic as a group, a particular man can be as empathetic as a woman.

Everyone, clearly, even those of us who feel we're empathetic can learn to listen better, be even more attentive, try even harder to understand everyone else, even if it's really much harder for some of us than others.

But since men, as a group, are less empathetic, then perhaps . . .

Perhaps rather than search forever to find one who scores high on the empathy tests? Perhaps it might be simpler, really, to change the one you've got.

Is that SUCH a terrible idea?

Copyright 2007, therapydoc


Familydoc said…
I think I know what you're trying to say.

Perhaps a good example of cognitive empathy is Jonathan Safran Foer's writing, although you may have to edit your statement there to be more intelligible.
Anonymous said…
All of the self-help relationship experts advise us poor lonely hearts never ever to enter into a relationship thinking that we can change the guy. I find your perspective very refreshing... instead of spending year after year searching for a guy who "gets it", why not teach him how to do it? Change him into the man you want him to become. I like it. I am, of course, assuming that men can learn empathy once they are past the toddler stage... please say it's so, doc!
therapydoc said…
Oh, Anonymous, not only is it so, but I'm going to teach you how to do it.
Anonymous said…
I'm in! When do the "change your guy" lessons begin? The sooner the better as far as I'm concerned :-)
therapydoc said…
Gotta' be patient, Anon. This is for fun, ya' know. If it starts feeling like work I'll get sullen and distant, self-reflective and anxious, next thing you know, passive aggressive and who knows what kind of weird stuff will get posted, but none of it will be instructive, most likely.

Have a nice weekend. :)
Anonymous said…
I'm thinking that sullen, distant, self-reflective, anxious, passive aggressive thing is not too pretty... so take your time, doc. It would (however) make a great little essay for one of those online services (yahoo, msn, etc). They all have a "dating and relationships" section and there is always someone telling singles "Don't expect him to change!" I'm thinking that you could provide a novel and very worthwhile point of view... "Ten steps to changing your guy into an Empath Partner" or the like. They would eat it up.. and so would all of us desperate women in search of that elusive empathetic guy.... Just a thought... hope you had a great weekend :)
therapydoc said…
Great idea, thanks!
Anonymous said…
I think these is such a thing as changing behaviors, rather than changing someone's personhood. If a person already loves another person and wants that person to be happy, it isn't much of a stretch to teach someone how you need to be treated to, in fact, feel good about yourself.

For example, making a request that someone turn off the TV and listen to what you have to say, really listen, isn't much of a request.

I also think that many men who are in relationships with women or men who are empaths are more likely to emulate them, if you're doing it effectively (e.g. repeating their feelings back, asking how their job is going and asking follow-up questions when the answers are short). I have found that really listening and asking the right questions to get to the heart of the matter helps the other person be more in touch with their own feelings, then making them more available to care about yours. Someone who is completely self-involved because they can't figure themselves out simply won't be empathetic to your problems. Period.
therapydoc said…
Lynette, I don't see your comment here and I know I published it. Anyway, that is a raw deal. I think there are genetics going on, too. But some people get much better at responding, at least, to social cues if they practice it, become aware of them.

Popular Posts