What’s the Key Ingredient Your Relationship Can’t Do Without

Over the years, you may have read hundreds of articles on relationships. While there are many elements that create a strong relationship, the most vital foundational piece that even strengthens and builds the other elements is, compassion- compassion towards others as well as towards self. Now, this may sound simplistic. However, compassion has the power to overcome the four horses of the apocalypse of divorce (which were initially found by Dr. John Gottman as key predictors of divorce). The four horses are: contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling.

Many people value compassion, but, may not always be aware or recognize that their actions or behavior are not congruent with compassion. In order to develop this awareness, pausing and reflecting are steps you can take before you react in response to something your loved one or significant other says.

Let’s look at how compassion can overcome the 4 horses of the apocalypse:

1)    Contempt and Compassion: Contempt can be in the form of rolling your eyes or making comments that have an undercurrent of derision or looking down upon the other person. None of these are acts of compassion, although the person enacting these behaviors may not be intending or be cognizant of these behaviors as hurtful or uncompassionate.

Contempt has a downward slope in a relationship. It is followed by the other horses mentioned below. Some people may act contemptuously without realizing it and subconsciously to establish one’s own superiority. Needing to prove your superiority often stems from deep-seated feelings of insecurity. Genuine compassion requires that we view each other as (equal) humans without the need for comparison or proving superiority or feeling inferior.

2)    Criticism and Compassion: A compassionate response is not a response that is laden with criticism or one that feels critical. Here, I am extending Dr Gottman’s ‘criticism’ to also include self-criticism. Self-criticism, criticism towards others and defensiveness are closely inter-related. If you are self-critical, you are likely to be unhappy with yourself and have a harder time receiving or accepting compassion or even compliments from another.

Compassion training, ‘loving-kindness’ meditation can reduce criticism towards self as well as others. ‘To err is human’. Yet, many dwell and carry the burden of past issues or errors in a relationship. Compassion allows us to be aware, yet, move past errors and mistakes that you or others in your life make or seem to make. It can allow you to forgive yourself and others. Compassion allows us to remember that we don’t have to win an argument- we are all part of shared humanity. What makes you ‘win’ inevitably makes your significant other win, and vice-versa.

3)    Defensiveness and Compassion: When there are efforts towards true compassionate behavior in a relationship, it can help reduce the sense of feeling attacked and can soften defensiveness that one or both individuals may experience. Self-compassion helps to establish a more stable sense of self-esteem that does not depend on external approval or what others think of you. When you have a stable self-esteem, it can go a long way in decreasing reactivity.

4)    Stonewalling and Compassion: Both self-compassion and compassion practices can reduce the physiological arousal and emotional overload that is a precursor of stonewalling. When you practice self-compassion on a regular basis, you will be able to soothe yourself with more ease and would have an easier time staying open to the other person in a relationship. Self-compassion facilitates awareness of one’s shortcomings as well as strengths, thereby, practicing self-compassion will also help you become more attuned and open with yourself. Pausing and thinking about the other person’s suffering can allow you to be more compassionate towards the other.

Self-Compassion and Compassion Towards Others:

Self-compassion and compassion towards others are closely inter-twined. If you keep trying to act compassionately towards others, but, are frequently critical to yourself, your reservoir of compassion towards others will soon get depleted.

Being self-compassionate does not mean being complacent or engaging in self-pity. Being self-compassionate does mean that you come to the conversation from a place of greater awareness and acceptance of yourself, including your mistakes and strengths.

Can You Learn to be More Compassionate?

Yes, the good news is that compassion is trainable. There are functional brain MRI studies showing visible brain changes in people who were trained in compassion just for a few weeks. Compassion training is conducted by a few organizations across the world. Most of these institutes have developed compassion training practices that also incorporate elements of becoming more mindful.

Key Steps to Build Greater Compassion:

Following are basic steps to build and enhance compassion in your relationship (Acronym: PRAISE)

Pause: Pausing is the first key step that paves the way for compassionate behavior. Often, people react without thinking. These reactions can be related to past, unresolved emotions and related reflexes. Pausing for just a few moments or minutes can be supremely beneficial not only for the relationship, but, also for your physical and emotional well-being. 

Reflect: Reflect on whether any of your recent actions or responses towards your loved one may have been less than compassionate.

Acknowledge: Acknowledging that everyone has their own challenges, struggles and suffering, and everyone (including you yourself) deserves your compassion, is an essential step towards building compassionate behavior. Suffering and mistakes are universal. How you recognize this suffering and deal with mistakes that you and/or others make, is what can determine the quality of the relationship. Extending compassion towards self and others in such a time can reduce tendencies towards defensiveness and criticism.

Ingrain: Practise instilling and ingraining compassionate responses by thinking about what the common patterns and trends of arguments are, in your relationship. Write down, for each instance, how you could choose to respond in a more compassionate way.

Soothe: When you respond, pause and choose a compassionate response towards yourself as well as others. Practise self-soothing words, thoughts or actions (such as wishes for your own well-being, wishes that your suffering be relived, a nature walk, a warm bath, relaxing music, time with your pet). Comfort yourself as you would a friend or a loved one. 

Explore: Understanding what is keeping you from acting compassionately can be beneficial- seek the help of a mental health professional if needed.

Start strengthening your compassion muscle today and discover how its influence permeates not only your relationship, but, your entire life.

Note: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide medical or psychiatric advice or recommendations, or diagnostic or treatment opinion. This is not a complete review or description of this subject. If you suspect you are in an abusive relationship, please seek professional help. If you suspect a medical or psychiatric condition, please consult a health care provider. All decisions regarding an individual’s care must be made in consultation with your healthcare provider, considering the individuals’ unique condition. If you or someone you know is struggling, please contact the 24×7, confidential National Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or use the crisis text line by texting HOME to 741741 in the US.

copyright Richa Bhatia 2018.

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