The Montfort Group

Dating Someone Who Lacks Emotional Intelligence

A therapist sits with her patient and listens to the same old story, one she has heard countless times before. They love their partner, they assure her, but he’s just so insensitive! He never seems to understand. He’s never there when they need him. Physically he is, but not emotionally.  

Emotional Intelligence

The brilliant physicist who can understand quantum mechanics, but not his fellow humans is a stock character. And this distinction between academic brilliance and emotional insight has long been known. Indeed, many novels revolve around the tensions and misunderstandings it creates. In recent decades, however, the distinction has acquired a scientific label. Alongside I.Q., we now find E.Q., a measurement of emotional intelligence.

You have no doubt heard people described as “book smart but not people smart.” In such cases, they may possess a high I.Q. but a low E.Q. She may understand algebra, for example, read Ancient Greek or remember the date of Winston Churchill’s death. But when her child tells her he’s scared of the dark, or her colleague is upset at having to sell the family home, she cannot grasp the reason why. Intellectually, or rationally, she may understand, but not emotionally. 

An example of this difference can be found in the arts. It requires a high I.Q. to study Rembrandt’s self-portraits: to read the art critics, learn the historical context, appreciate his use of line and color, etc. However, it takes emotional intelligence to understand the heart and soul of those paintings, to feel his journey from shy youth to bumptious genius and then disillusioned old man. 

Traits to Look Out For

Someone who lacks emotional intelligence isn’t necessarily bad or flawed. Indeed, in some cases, they make excellent partners. After all, there will be fewer tears, less clinging and neediness, and very little drama. If you are yourself unemotional, this may suit you. If, however, you are deep and sensitive, you may feel isolated, neglected and lonely.

First, consider how self-aware your partner is. Is he able to analyze his own emotions? Can he step back and look at himself as if from the outside? Those who lack emotional intelligence are not always unemotional. This is an important point. The cold rationalist (the Sherlock Holmes type) certainly exists, but there is another type, the man who cannot control his emotions, who is swept along by them, oblivious to what is happening.

The emotionally intelligent feel deeply, but they understand why, they know what is going on (and thus, of course, they can change). That, perhaps, is the best way to define a high E.Q.: deep and powerful emotions that the individual recognizes and understands. For example, they start drinking too much in the evenings. Quickly, they realize what is going on: they have become stressed at work, and the stress is making it hard to sleep, so they use alcohol to knock themselves out. They also know that it helps them cope with loneliness and boredom.

Or, to take another example, someone becomes very aggressive when threatened or intimidated. Again, they recognize this and understand it: they were bullied at school and have never lost the sense of rage and fear. When someone attacks them or seems to attack them, they see the face of their old school bully. 

Then, of course, there is empathy. The emotionally intelligent understand people. But they understand them at a gut level. They can tune in to their fear, anxiety, loneliness, etc. and feel it with them (which is why some people appreciate art and others do not). Someone with a high I.Q. but low E.Q., on the other hand, will merely analyze you. They get that you feel upset, but to them, this is merely a fact, like your eye color or hair length. It isn’t something they can share.

Without empathy, it is difficult to bond. Most couples have their bad times: they row, become bored or irritated, even begin to flirt with an attractive colleague. So long as that deep, emotional bond persists, however, the relationship has a chance. Those who lack empathy find it difficult to establish such a bond. Relationship counselors then hear the same old complaints: “he just doesn’t get me,” “I never feel he really understands,” “she’s never there when I need her, not really,” and so on.

The emotionally intelligent can read a situation. At a new workplace, for example, they will quickly grasp the power dynamics. They will get that John is the alpha, that Bill is a two-faced sycophant and that Sarah just wants to be left alone. Because of this, they can anticipate clashes and arguments, often disappearing just in time.

The big question, of course, is whether they can change. You may be with someone who lacks emotional intelligence and feel the relationship is doomed. In that case, it’s pretty straightforward. You see that you are incompatible and try to end things with the minimum hurt and bad feeling.

But what if you love this person? They are funny, upbeat and sexy. Life with them is fun. You are happy, apart from this lack of depth and emotion. If only they got you, if only he understood why you dread losing your parents, or don’t want to sell the family home, or hate the way his sister puts you down. And they seem so volatile. One minute they are happy, then they are ranting and raging, and yet, when you mention this, they say “well, that’s just me.”   

The good news is that, whereas I.Q. seems pretty much fixed, E.Q. can be improved. Of course, there are limits (you are never going to turn a cold logician into a warm and passionate romantic), but things can be done. People can be taught to recognize and regulate their emotions. They can also work on their understanding. Obviously, you cannot insert an empathy chip, but you can teach them what it is that makes you feel this way. Also, bear in mind that some people repress their true selves. Your partner may be sensitive and empathetic by nature, but she buried this in order to cope with her abusive childhood.

The key is the willingness to try. So long as your partner is prepared to try, that’s half the battle. If they are not, perhaps it is time to brings things to an end.     

Picture of Cory Montfort, MS, LPC-S

Cory Montfort, MS, LPC-S

I completed my Masters of Science in Counseling from Southern Methodist University where I specialized in working with individuals, couples, and families. I have extensive experience working within the mental health community facilitating groups, conducting assessments, counseling individuals, and performing crisis intervention. I hold an active License in Professional Counseling and am also a board-approved Counselor Supervisor for the state of Texas.

Schedule Online

It's easy to set up an appointment with us - see what's available now!

Our Blog

Therapy thoughts