The difference between love and empathy
Happy Valentine's Day, folks.
Today seems like the perfect day to ask: What's the difference between love and empathy? It's a question that comes up a lot, and for me the answer is kind of like the answer to "what's the difference between a square and a rectangle?" Love typically involves some level of empathy, but empathy doesn't always equal love. (Although I do sometimes see the words used interchangeably, along with "kindness," "compassion" and "caring," that kind of equivalence is controversial!) So, let's ask the experts how empathy applies to love:
Psychologist Paul Ekman separates empathy into three different types, which might be useful when thinking about love: cognitive empathy (perspective taking, or imagining someone's feelings but not actually feeling them yourself), emotional empathy (actually feeling others' feelings) and compassionate empathy (a balance of the two that usually leads to some action). The first two types are the ones people like Paul Bloom (author of Against Empathy) are worried about, because they can be used to manipulate people or make the person feeling them so overwhelmed that they get burned out before they can act on those feelings. This Psych Central blog post provides a list of expert-recommended suggestions for employing more compassionate empathy in your relationships.
Over at U.C. Berkeley's Greater Good project, empathy expert Roman Krznaric explains the "empathy circuit" we all have in our brains, allowing us to put ourselves in others' shoes. Research has shown that this circuit begins to develop shortly after we're born, and is influenced heavily by the way our parents or caregivers show us love and nurturing. But, as Krznaric points out, our capacity to empathize keeps growing and changing as we age, just like other parts of our brain. He shares the habits of highly empathic people, and I think habits 1, 3 and 4 can be particularly helpful when it comes to partner and family love.
And finally, a note about turning to empathy - instead of sympathy - when things aren't going quite so well in the love department. At Psychology Today, psychologist Jeffrey Bernstein writes about why it's more important to try to understand your partner than to feel sad or sorry for them. He also points out that loving someone doesn't mean empathy will necessarily come easily:
When it comes to intimate relationships, no matter how much love there is between you and your partner, there's no guarantee that you both will be able to automatically empathize with each other – even if you think you're "soul mates."
That may sound kind of depressing, but those of us who are fans of Valentine's Day might choose to see it as a worthwhile challenge. For the rest? I empathize. So this one's for you.