Can Emotional Depth Be Learned?
One of the most common frustrations my clients experience in their romantic relationships is feeling like their partners possess scant emotional intelligence. I’ll often hear things like, “He just gets really logical when I’m telling him how upset I am” or “I’ll request that he treat me differently, and he will for a week or two, but then things just go back to the way they were before.” Over time, it can seem like their partners are simply incapable of learning how to deeply relate and empathize, no matter how hard they (seem to) work at it. This has led me to ask myself: Is there a cutoff point for learning emotional depth and intelligence? Does that have to do with age, genetics, early life circumstances, motivation, or some combination of them all? This is obviously a huge topic beyond the scope of a single blog post, but I’d like to share some of my reflections.
What Is Emotional Intelligence/Emotional Depth?
Emotional intelligence/depth is the capacity to register, interpret, maturely and sensitively express, and skillfully respond to feelings that arise in both yourself and others around you. One hallmark of emotional intelligence is empathy – the ability to “feel into” someone else’s experience enough to know what it’s like to be them.
Low emotional intelligence/depth on the part of one or both partners in a relationship substantially interferes with the ability to give and receive support; to develop intimacy; to resolve conflicts; and to navigate major life transitions and crises. Understandably, this issue arises frequently in therapy.
Why Do Some Have It While Others Don't?
A combination of genetics, gender, culture, home environment in early life, and the presence (or absence) of what I call “growth factors” throughout one’s lifespan are most likely responsible for why some people develop strong emotional intelligence while others remain perpetually stunted.
People who are neurodiverse – those who are on the Autism/Aspberger’s spectrum – have a different neurological makeup from the majority of the population. This different neurology manifests itself in different ways of orienting to the world and processing information. Most notably, neurodiverse people think very rationally and can have difficulty registering the nuances of emotional expression (tone of voice, body language, facial expression) and meaning (understanding and anticipating common emotional responses/norms around certain kinds of circumstances). Current research holds that while there is no process or treatment that can fundamentally change this difference, neurodiverse folks can learn to adapt to the world around them by learning explicit rules and codes for how to behave and respond in emotional situations. And, importantly, the world can learn how to adapt to them as well.
In the United States, men are at a disadvantage. Men are socialized to ward off and suppress any emotion other than anger, because they are taught that having and expressing feelings makes them weak. They are taught instead that their role in society and family is to be a strong provider who uses strength and intellect to solve problems. This means that, from a psychological perspective, they are critically wounded at a young age: cut off from major dimensions of their inner life and, as a result, less able to understand the feelings of others.
Women, on the other hand, are socialized to be nurturing caregivers, so talking about feelings is often much more familiar terrain. I find women often overextend themselves with their emotional intelligence, doing the “emotional labor” of both themselves and their male partners (in heterosexual relationships). This overfunctioning is a product of a patriarchal social system in which emotional intelligence, considered a female quality, is simultaneously devalued and overly demanded from one half of the population.
Culture plays a huge role in how emotions are managed and expressed within an individual. In Western cultures there is an emphasis on verbalizing and expressing feelings (although there is an overemphasis on positive feelings). In many non-Western cultures, the direct expression of emotion can be considered outrageous, confrontational, or offensive. In these cultures emotions are more likely expressed through behaviors or somatic experiences (headache, stomach pain, fatigue, etc.) If there is a cultural difference between you and your partner, consider the norms of their culture of origin and investigate what system they use to communicate feelings.
Home Environment and Early Life
If you grew up on an emotionally responsive environment – meaning that your feelings were welcome, and others modeled appropriate expression of feelings – odds are that you developed fairly strong emotional intelligence. However, if you or your partner grew up in a family where emotional expression was not tolerated, , or when having feelings was too intolerable due to traumatic circumstances, then this sensibility may be underdeveloped. When we learn to disavow as unacceptable all but a narrow slice of our experience, we stop noticing it, and sometimes it can take a lot of sustained effort to bring it back into awareness.
One of the only things that reliably causes profound internal change and reorganization is an experience that forces us to break through to a new level of being. This is often a crisis – a death or divorce, the dissolution of identity, the end of a career (or beginning a new one) – but can also be a spiritual experience, a deeper and more expansive relationship to an individual or community, a radical change in environment, or engaging in therapy.
These experiences often break down our habitual ways of operating and help us learn a newer, often more expansive way of relating to ourselves and others. Of course, they can have the opposite effect as well: making us smaller or more restricted, or more likely to suppress our full range of feelings. They are always an opportunity for growth. Someone who has never had their status quo majorly disrupted in unlikely to develop emotional intelligence if they didn’t already have it.
Motivation – Or, Can It Be Learned?
Given all the factors that can impact the development of emotional intelligence, this isn’t an easy question to answer. My experience as a therapist, combined with my understanding of neuroplasticity (the ability for the brain to change at any stage of life), makes me hopeful.
Of course, who I see in therapy is a self-selecting group – people who are already somewhat curious about their internal life and their relationships, or who would like to understand their feelings more.
For those who haven’t experienced a growth factor or who have not otherwise reached the level of curiosity or need to start therapy, it is hard to chart a trajectory. We are conservative creatures by nature – we try to maintain what is familiar, even if it is limiting. So if someone close to you lacks emotional depth, your best bet is to lovingly encourage them to explore themselves – or demand it, if necessary – while also evaluating whether they offer a kind of relationship that will nourish you. Ultimately, they must walk their own path, and overt efforts to change them are likely to fail. The real power you have is in choosing who you spend time with and why. And if someone isn’t giving you what you need, don’t wait indefinitely for a change. Hope can be a trap when it comes to changing others. They have to want to change themselves.