Anger in Marriage: Fear of Compassion

Do you get irritated when your partner expects compassion?

Posted Dec 11, 2015

One of the clichés of pop psychology is that anger is the most complex emotion. Actually, anger isn't that complicated. Although we've developed convoluted ways of thinking about it, it's really a simple response to a perception of vulnerability, threat, and entitlement. Compassion, on the other hand, can get really complicated, which is why it's so misunderstood. Complications notwithstanding, the only way to manage anger in intimate relationships is to be more compassionate.

Couples don't really fight about money or sex or in-laws or raising the kids or division of labor. Those are common problems that seem insurmountable only when people sense that their partners don't care how they feel. If you believe your feelings are valued, you will give and take about any issues with loved ones. But when it seems like someone you love is not compassionate, it feels like abuse.

As compassion decreases, resentment and anger automatically increase. Common problems become insoluble. If unfettered by the better angels of our nature, resentment and anger inevitably turn into an especially virulent form of anger known as contempt.

Contempt is disdain for the hurt of others, due to their lower moral standing, character defects, mental instability, ignorance, or general unworthiness. Contempt is powered by a low but continual dose of adrenalin. So long as the adrenalin lasts, you feel more confident and self-righteous in blaming your bad feelings on some defect of your partner. But you also feel less humane. And when the adrenalin wears off, you feel depressed.

Both compassion and contempt are extremely contagious and highly influenced by projection. If you're around a compassionate person, you're likely to become more compassionate. If you're around a contemptuous person, you're likely to become more contemptuous, unless you make a determined effort to remain true to your deepest values. If you project onto others that they're compassionate, they are likely to become more considerate. If you project contemptuous characterizations, such as, "loser, abuser, selfish, lazy, narcissistic, irrational, devious, etc.," they are likely to become more so.

By the time couples come to our boot camps for chronic resentment, anger, or emotional abuse, they have developed entrenched habits of protecting their respective vulnerabilities by devaluing each other. They try to justify their contempt with "evidence" that the partner is selfish, lazy, narcissistic, crazy, abusive, etc. Mutual contempt makes them both feel chronically criticized and attacked, although neither really wants to attack the other. They feel like victims and rationalize their bad behavior as mere reactions to the awful behavior of the other. Their defenses so automatically justify their resentment and contempt that they cannot possibly see each other.

And neither can they see that their resentment and contempt have cut them off from their deeper values and made them into someone they are not.

Once anger, resentment, and contempt become habituated coping mechanisms, they run on autopilot and resist change through insight. They will likely recur in any future relationship that stirs guilt, shame, and anxiety, that is to say, any close relationship.

The only way out, whether the couple stays in the relationship or not, is to focus on compassion, not to manipulate change in the other but to feel more humane. The shift in attitude and behavior is likely to be reciprocated, though not with the certainty that anger, resentment, and contempt will be matched, if not surpassed.

Couples know intuitively that their relationships cannot survive without compassion. Yet they become so invested in justifying their resentment and contempt that they begin to view compassion for each other as dangerous. Much of the common fear of compassion comes from confusing it with:

  • Pity
  • Agreement
  • Submission
  • Excusing bad behavior
  • Trust

Compassion vs. Pity

Compassion implies equality: "I sympathize with your hurt; despite our differences in luck or circumstance, we're (humanely) equal." Pity implies inequality: "I feel sorry for you because you're incompetent, naive, insensitive, crazy, abusive, or defective in some way."

Compassion is caring about the well being of another. Pity is feeling bad at the sight of another's suffering. Pity leads to contempt as we begin to blame the dysphoric feeling on the person stimulating it. Bertolt Brecht mused that the first time we see a beggar on the street we'll feel pity for him. The second time, we'll call a policeman to have him removed.

People who believe themselves to be morally or intellectually superior to their partners are surprised when they get negative reactions to what they think is compassionate behavior. Their presumption of inequality - "I'm okay; you're incompetent, crazy, abusive, or personality disordered" - will make any sympathetic behavior come off as pity, which is really just the opposite side of the coin from contempt. (That's why we hate to feel pitied but long for compassion.) You cannot be compassionate if you believe you're superior in any way.

Compassion vs. Agreement

Compassion requires validation of - and sympathy with - the pain or discomfort of another, regardless of disagreement about the beliefs or ideas that go with the pain. You can disagree with your partner's ideas and behavior and still sympathize with the pain that may result from the ideas or behavior. In other words, you can disagree 24-7 and still have compassion for your partner.

Compassion vs. Submission 

Feeling taken advantage of is loathsome for most people, but that can't happen if you're truly compassionate. Compassion motivates you to do what you believe in your heart is right for you and your loved ones. If you act according to your deepest values, you cannot be exploited, even if your partner violates his or hers with bad behavior.

Just as you cannot be manipulated if you are compassionate, neither can you manipulate others. Being kind to someone so they will do something for you in return is an investment, not compassion. Like all investments, it's risky.

Compassion vs. Excusing Bad  Behavior

Compassion doesn't condone or excuse bad behavior, because it's not about behavior. The word means, "to suffer with." Compassion focuses on the pain and human frailty that make people behave badly, while recognizing that the continuation of bad or irresponsible behavior will hurt them more. The worst thing you can do for an abusive person is excuse the abuse, which leads to self-loathing caused by the continual violation of his or her deepest values. Neither is it compassionate to allow children to behave irresponsibly, lest they painfully learn how cruel the world can be to the irresponsible.

Compassion vs. Trust

We never get hurt by too much compassion, but we're hurt all the time by unwise trust. Compassion makes you less likely to trust unwisely. With compassion you see the depth of your partner's vulnerability and more intelligently assess his/her defenses against it. You can discern whether your partner can use vulnerability as motivation to become better in love relationships (i.e., more compassionate) or whether he/she is likely to blame you for personal failings.

Compassion must be unconditional in marriage, but trust has to be earned, especially once betrayed. Compassion gives a couple room to earn trust, by disabling the automatic defense system that runs resentful relationships. When you stop blaming your partner for how you feel, it becomes easier for your partner to do the same and harder for you to take it personally if he or she cannot reciprocate at the moment.

As you experience the healing of genuine compassion, you understand that your partner cannot heal without compassion for you, which means he/she must see, hear, and value you. If your partner will not or cannot do that, your relationship will likely cause grave harm to both of you, as well as your children. In that case compassion will tell you to end it, perhaps with sadness and disappointment, but with awareness that you are doing what is ultimately in the best interests of all involved.

To have a chance of saving their resentful, angry, and contemptuous relationships, couples must be willing to distrust their automatic defense systems and renounce the urge to justify their contempt for each other. The trick is to appreciate the disastrous effects of resentment and contempt on the sense of self and recognize the pain that fuels the contempt. Such recognition will stimulate a naturally healing self-compassion.

Self-compassion, incompatible with contempt, relieves the fear of compassion for loved ones. From self-compassion, compassion for others is a relatively easy step; any trouble at all feeling compassion for others indicates the need for more self-compassion. Focus on self-compassion is the first step toward healing and growth, within or without the relationship.