In Marriage, It's Compassion or Resentment
The only middle ground is numbness
Posted July 24, 2015
Most marriages end in a whimper, not a bang. The final rupture of most committed unions is not caused by too much anger or abuse or infidelity. Most die a slow death from too little compassion.
Compassion is sympathy for the hurt or distress of another. At heart it’s appreciation of the basic human frailty we all share. Giving compassion makes you feel more humane and less isolated.
Don't Love without It
Compassion is necessary for the formation of emotional bonds. We fall in love only with people who seem to care how we feel. Think of when you were dating the person you eventually came to love. Suppose you had to report that your parents had just died. You would not have fallen in love if the response was, “Call me when you get over it.”
Most of what we fight about in marriage is not money or sex or in-laws or raising the kids. Those are common problems that seem insurmountable only when resentful. What we really fight about is the impression that our partners don’t care how we feel. When someone you love is not compassionate, it feels like abuse.
As compassion decreases, resentment automatically rises.
Resentment inevitably turns into contempt. Contempt is disdain for the hurt of others. Their hurt irritates or stirs impatience rather than sympathy. We justify this violation of our deeper values by judging them to be of lower moral standing. Or they have character defects. Or mental instability. Or they’re ignorant. Stupid. Unworthy of compassion.
Contempt is powered by a low grade adrenalin. Adrenalin makes us feel self-righteous in blaming our bad feelings on our partners. But we also feel less humane. When adrenalin wears off, depressed mood dominates.
Both compassion and contempt are extremely contagious. 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.
Both compassion and contempt are highly influenced by projection. If you project onto others that they’re compassionate, they’re likely to become more considerate. If you project contemptuous characterizations, such as, “loser, abuser, selfish, lazy, narcissistic, irrational, devious, etc.,” they’ll almost always become more so.
By the time couples come to our boot camps for chronic resentment or anger, they’ve developed entrenched habits of protecting their respective vulnerabilities by devaluing each other. Mutual resentment makes them both feel chronically criticized, rejected, or attacked. (Although neither really wants to attack the other.) They feel like victims and rationalize their bad behavior as mere reactions to the awful other. They cannot see that their resentment and contempt have cut them off from their deeper values and made them into someone they are not.
If contempt is not treated with greater self-compassion and compassion for others, it turns to bitterness. Some form of verbal or emotional abuse occurs. Eventually the union dies.
As contempt becomes an habituated coping mechanism, it begins to run on autopilot. Its resists change through insight. It will likely recur in any future relationship.
How to Overcome Resentment
Focus on compassion. The goal of genuine compassion is not to manipulate change in the other. It’s to feel more humane. As compassion increases, resentment automatically declines.
Once resentment or contempt becomes a habit, it can be changed only by developing new habits that are incompatible with it. That habit of looking at self and loved ones sympathetically is incompatible with resentment.
It takes will, training, and practice to change habits. If you bring the willingness to practice, you can find the training that will lead to a better life.