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Richa Bhatia M.D.

The Key Ingredient Your Relationship Can't Do Without

The vital ingredient that can overcome the 4 horsemen of the divorce apocalypse.

Hrecheniuk Oleksii/Shutterstock
Source: Hrecheniuk Oleksii/Shutterstock

Many elements create a strong relationship, but the most vital foundational piece — one that even strengthens and builds the others — is compassion, toward others as well as toward yourself. This may sound simplistic. However, compassion has the power to overcome the so-called "four horsemen of the apocalypse" that John Gottman found to be the key predictors of divorce — contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

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

Let’s look at how compassion can overcome the four horsemen of the apocalypse:

1. Contempt and Compassion.

Contempt can come 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 acting this way may not be intending or be cognizant of these behaviors as hurtful or uncompassionate.

Contempt has a downward slope in a relationship. It is typically followed by the other three horsemen. Some people may act contemptuously without realizing it, perhaps subconsciously to establish their own superiority. Needing to prove your superiority often stems from deep-seated feelings of insecurity. Genuine compassion requires that we view each other as equals 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 toward others, and defensiveness are closely interrelated. 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 and loving-kindness meditation can reduce criticism toward the 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 the 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 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 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 toward the other.

Self-Compassion and Compassion Toward Others

Self-compassion and compassion toward others are closely intertwined. If you try to act compassionately toward others, but are frequently critical of yourself, your reservoir of compassion for others will quickly be depleted. Being self-compassionate does not mean being complacent or engaging in self-pity. It does mean that you come to the conversation from a place of greater awareness and acceptance of yourself, including your mistakes and strengths. And compassion is trainable: Functional MRI studies show visible brain changes in people who were trained in compassion for just a few weeks.

6 Steps to Build Greater Compassion

These basic steps to build and enhance compassion in a relationship follow the acronym PRAISE:

Pause: Pausing is the first 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 can be supremely beneficial, not only for the relationship, but for your physical and emotional well-being.

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

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

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

Soothe: Respond, pause, and choose a compassionate response toward yourself as well as others. Practice self-soothing words, thoughts, or actions, such as wishes for your own well-being, wishes that your suffering be relieved, 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.

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 24x7, 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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