An enormous barrier keeps resentful couples from achieving the compassion necessary for personal healing and relationship repair: disagreement about “facts.” Many people have trouble showing compassion when they disagree with various parts of their partner’s perspectives.
Compassion is most necessary when there is disagreement. Couples can sometimes get by with little compassion when they agree about facts, as the agreement itself tends to motivate supportive and reparative behavior. It’s when they disagree that sympathy is more necessary to motivate the enormous efforts it takes to repair a relationship damaged by years of resentment. When compassion depends on agreement, you are, in effect, saying:
“Because I don’t agree with you, your pain doesn’t matter to me,”
“You don’t have a right to be hurt, because the ‘facts’ don’t support your pain.”
“You should suffer, because you’re wrong.”
Of course, most intimate partners who struggle with compassion don’t mean any of the above. They are merely confounded by their own guilt or shame, which makes them construe their partners’ pain as indictments, rather than cries for understanding and help. As a result, they lapse into defensiveness, via focus on “facts” and abandon the compassion that would help them both.
Men are especially prone to this mistake, due to our heightened vulnerability to the shame of failure. The pain and unhappiness of our partners seem to mean that we are failing. Instead of using the shame of failure as motivation to succeed, i.e., to support our partners’ well being, we tend to defend our egos against the “punishment” of their pain. This tragic mistake eventually destroys relationships.
It Gets Even Harder
When a partner’s pain is expressed in anger, it sounds accusatory and punishing. For example, “You don’t care about me, you just care about yourself! You’re cold, inconsiderate, and selfish!”
The core value response, i.e., the most honest, sincere, and consistent with our deeper values is:
“I don’t want you to feel that I don’t care about you. What can I do to convince you that I care a great deal about you and want you to be well?”
Ironically, most partners really believe the above, yet it seems impossible for them to act according to their beliefs, until they develop self regulation skills.
Self regulation in close relationships is the ability to hold onto self value when we don’t like our partners’ behavior (so we don’t feel devalued) and hold onto value for our partners when they don’t like their behavior, so we don’t contribute to cycle of mutual devaluation. Both partners in the conflict are hurt. With compassion they can help one another. If only the “facts” didn’t get in the way.