How Compassion Fades in Love Relationships

Relationships begin to falter when partners confuse motivation with feelings.

Posted Jun 03, 2016

When most couples fall in love, they experience high levels of compassion. They’re generally sensitive to each others feelings, care very much about each others well-being, and show strong desire to alleviate any hurt or hardship that may arise.

Compassion wanes in all relationships, but for different reasons in happy and troubled unions. In the former, there tends to be less hurt and hardship and need for compassion. Happy relationships automatically invoke the compassion paradox: “If it’s available whenever needed, it’s seldom needed.” Scarcity of compassion in times of pain, stress, or hardship, at first creates deprivation mentality, a special kind of neediness that makes you want all you can get while you can get it, because it won’t be available for long. Eventually scarcity of compassion breeds resentment and contempt.

In troubled relationships, couples tend to blame waning compassion on (in descending order over time):

  • Issues
  • Differences, disagreements
  • Partners’ bad behavior
  • Partners’ character.

The initial cause of diminishing compassion is more subtle. Most of the time it’s a contradiction between what negative emotions feel like and what they look like.

Emotions are activated by change, either external (in the environment) or internal - sensation, physiological variation, thoughts, memories, imagination. Emotions respond to perceived change by sending action signals to the muscle groups and organs of the body. They prepare us to do something; they motivate behavior. 

The motivational element of emotions has strong physical manifestations, which evolved before language, when emotional demeanor and expression were the primary forms of communication and negotiation. These are most apparent in:

What are commonly called “feelings” are the subjective element of emotions, how individuals experience them in the mind and body.

Now here’s the problem. Negative emotions almost always feel different on the inside from the way they look on the outside.

For example, resentment feels hurtful and devaluing, like you’ve been victimized or treated unfairly; it looks self-righteous, mean, rejecting, and unfriendly. Anxiety feels tense, like you’re overburdened or might become overwhelmed; it looks controlling or demanding and often manipulative in love relationships. Sadness feels painful, with a sense of loss; in the context of a low-compassion relationship, it looks self-obsessed or rejecting.

But don’t take my word for it; test the hypothesis. Think of something that happened at work or at home that triggered your resentment. Think of how unfair it was, how it shouldn’t have been that way, and how you’re being disregarded or exploited. In the midst of your resentful thoughts – without editing them – snap a selfie.

We exacerbate the disconnection between the external manifestations of emotions and how they feel internally by confusing feelings with judgments about other people’s behavior. Expressions like, “I feel ignored, unheard, manipulated, controlled, betrayed, abused,” and so on, have become common. Yet these are not feelings; they’re judgments, if not veiled accusations. They nearly always get a defensive response, rather than a compassionate one. Consider your gut-level response to the following:

“I feel ignored.”

“I feel sad because I seem to have lost something I value very much – your interest.”

If you express the first, your physical manifestations are likely to be interpreted, however incorrectly, as demanding, entitled, and inconsiderate of your partner’s feelings.

To eliminate the disconnection between what the emotion feels like and what it looks like, feelings must be examined with attention to the motivational aspect of emotions – what the emotion is telling you to do.

Each emotion carries a general motivation for behavior selected from the broad categories of approach, avoid, or attack. Actually, researchers use two categories – approach and avoid – because you have to approach to attack. But in navigating love relationships, it makes sense to distinguish approach from attack.

If the change stimulating the emotion seems promising, the usual response is interest or enjoyment, which motivate various approach behaviors: “sense more, learn more, get more.”

If the change seems unpromising or dangerous, anger, fear, or disgust emerges with motivation to avoid (get away from or shut out) or attack – neutralize the perceived ego threat.

Examples of approach behaviors: learn, sympathize, encourage, help, protect, negotiate, cooperate, please, delight, influence, guide, assert, set limits.

Examples of avoid behaviors: ignore, withdraw, stonewall, look down on, depersonalize.

Examples of attack behaviors: control, criticize, manipulate, demand, coerce, threaten, bully, dominate.

In intimate relationships, almost anything you say and do in approach motivation will succeed in the long run. Almost anything you say or do in avoid or attack modes will do more harm than good in the long run.

Motivation vs. Intention

Many people get stuck in Toddler brain standoffs (“Mine!” “No!”) by confusing feelings with goals and intentions. For instance, Sabrina came to my office about a "communication problem" with her partner. She described a terrible altercation that began with what she characterized as her "harsh but right" reproach: "Please look at the account balance before you write a check! We’re over drawn again, for the fourth time!"

Her goal in this interaction, of course, was to ask her partner to take more care with the checkbook. Her intention was to let her partner know that she was upset, due to the repeated oversight. But in the Toddler brain, the problem became one of autonomy rather than negotiation with a loved one. Feeling devalued, the Toddler brain opted for power and attacked. The attack motivation – not Sabrina's goal or intention or what she felt on the inside – made her look like she was trying to make her partner feel bad  for making the mistake. The partner's response, of course, was defensive and retaliatory. After some mutual name-calling, he said he’d be more careful, in submission and humiliation, which he numbed with resentment. In fact, this is why he "forgot" to check the account balance in the first place – power struggles almost always produce passive-aggressive behavior on the part of the one who has to submit. This kind of forgetting is usually not on purpose. On many occasions in the past, the loud alarm of the Toddler brain made Sabrina interpret the normal distractions of a busy life as a personal affront, prompting her attack mode. After only a couple of repetitions of this dance, her partner associated the checkbook with humiliation. (Humans will do almost anything to avoid thinking about humiliation.) He automatically sought more interesting things to occupy his mind, which made him more likely to forget about the checking account balance. The more often he forgot, the more Sabrina attacked, while fooling herself with the "rightness" of her goals and intentions. She made it worse by choosing her words from one of the thousands of bullet lists of “communication skills” published on the Internet and in magazines, which added an extra layer of self-righteousness to her “I-statement” attacks. “I feel ignored, disregarded, and disrespected.”

Your intention may well be to discuss finances, but you’re bound to create problems if your motivation is to devalue your partner for disagreeing with you. Your intention might be to discipline your child, but the physical arousal of anger is more likely to invoke fear in a younger child and contempt in a teenager. Your intention might be to help, but that is lost when emotional arousal makes you seem condescending or coercive.

Questions to Ask Yourself

“Is my motivation in this interaction to approach, avoid, or attack?”

“Will acting on this motivation move us closer to the relationship I most want to have?”

“Will acting on this motivation be consistent with my core values?”

“Am I wanting more understanding and sympathy than I’m showing?”

“Am I being the person, partner, and parent I most want to be?”

Soaring Love