Ellyn Bader

… and Utilize Specific Tools for Increasing Differentiation

Last month we talked about one defensive pattern of a narcissistic partner. This month we will address the low level of empathy in the narcissistic partner.

A narcissistic partner would never start therapy by saying this in an initial interview:

“I wish I could give even when it isn't convenient for me. However, I hate to admit I'm wrong and I have a very thin skin, so I frequently make demands or attack my partner. I wish I could make a sustained effort to give and respond in an empathic way. But, I am rarely giving or nurturing unless I feel like it.”

The narcissist will never say this because they do not give when it is inconvenient and they have minimal capacity to be psychologically separate from another person. By being separate we mean having clear enough boundaries that they can understand and accept another person having different emotional responses and different vulnerabilities than they themselves have.

Our favorite definition of empathy comes from Judith Jordan (1984) at The Stone Center. She defines empathy as, “A cognitive and emotional activity in which one person is able to experience the feelings and thoughts of another while simultaneously knowing his/her own thoughts and feelings.”

Another aspect of empathy is the ability to understand verbal or nonverbal communication of the cognitive and affective experience of what is being communicated to you while simultaneously knowing your own thoughts and feelings.

The narcissist struggles mightily with being empathic. A major flaw in the relationship often becomes evident when life circumstances or therapy requires one partner to function empathically towards the other. In fact many relationship breakdowns emerge when empathy is desired. Here are two recent examples:

1. The wife of a narcissistic partner was pregnant with twins. She was confined to bed and then hospitalized for the last eight weeks of her pregnancy. Her husband could not empathize with her fear that the babies would be born prematurely, her pain with early labor or her difficulty being confined to bed. Instead, he raged at how much she was inconveniencing him.

2. A husband and only child was called suddenly to go to Kansas when his 80 year old mother had a stroke. While he was at the hospital, his wife called and cussed at him for missing a friend's 40th birthday party. She could not understand why he didn't want to leave his mother under only the doctor's care.

The inquirer role in the initiator-inquirer process will illuminate a partner's capacity for empathy. This role has 4 requirements:
1. Listen actively and recap.
2. Ask questions to understand the partner's feelings, thoughts or desires.
3. Respond with empathy.
4. Give several empathic responses until a soothing moment occurs.

For thorough training on the Initiator-Inquirer Process, see our CD set
“In Quest of the Mythical Mate Practice Development Kit”

A partner with a very low level of differentiation will respond vacantly. They will treat the other as an extension of themselves and expect the spouse to feel the same as they would feel in the same situation. They may even belittle a partner who feels differently or who exposes more vulnerability. And they will not be able to express any effective empathy.

A partner in the mid ranges of differentiation will be able to contain themselves to listen, will be able to recap and ask some questions and may show genuine curiosity about their spouse's feelings.

At higher levels of differentiation, the listening spouse will be able to empathize, and express compassionate understanding for the partner's feelings or divergent point of view without compromising personal integrity. The inquirer may even go beyond what the initiator says, add to it and truly help create a moment of soothing and shared understanding.

Asking an inquirer to be empathic is frequently stressful. When you ask a narcissistic partner to function in the inquirer role, you are stretching their capacity for differentiation. Empathy is a powerful way to promote differentiation. The primary purpose of the empathy is not to serve the initiating partner's desire for fusion but to increase the developmental capacity of the Inquirer. For the narcissistic partner, this addresses their self-centeredness and decreases their self absorption. Over time functioning in this role will increase their capacity for separateness and also help the narcissist learn to delay gratification by putting their own desires on hold.

The Initiator – Inquirer communication process is used by couples and therapists around the world to build more successful relationships. It helps couples manage emotionally stressful conversations and also give each other positive support.

Besides promoting empathy and personal growth in your narcissistic clients, the initiator-inquirer process will help you assess and intervene with your couples in a more targeted and precise way. Complete training on the technique is found in our CD set “In Quest of the Mythical Mate.” There you will find easy to follow examples by listening to clinical couples, hearing role plays and following specific transcripts of sessions that demonstrate developing empathy in the inquirer role.

For more information or to buy the program, find out about our Mythical Mate CD set.

Or, click for more information on my online couples therapy training program that provides you with the framework and confidence you need to work with couples and relationship partners.


Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

    Find more about me on:
  • googleplus

A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.

Tags: , , , , , , , , Forward to a Colleague
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

© Copyright 2021 The Couples Institute. All Rights Reserved | Managed by Strategic Websites