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Try Some Tenderness to Make Your Relationship Stronger

New study shows why you need to show some tenderness toward your partner.

Do you consider yourself a compassionate person in general? Do you value caring for the way other people feel, even if you don’t know them very well? Now ask yourself how compassionate you are toward the person you care about the most in your life. Perhaps you tend to take your partner’s reactions to you for granted. So what if you’re a little gruff? Your partner will understand, right?

When you’re under stress, such as due to COVID-19’s impact on your daily life, finances, and potentially health, you may feel that when you’re with your partner, there’s no need to be especially “nice.” However, according to a new study by Marquette University’s James McDonald and colleagues (2020), “a fundamental element of connection to others appears to be compassion” (p. 60). To keep that connection strong, in other words, you actually do need to show some tenderness toward the closest person in your life.

In general, being compassionate means that you are sensitive to another person’s pain and wish to promote that person’s well-being. In intimate relationships, the authors point out, compassion is particularly warranted because it “facilitates closeness and buffers against the negative effects of marital stress” (p. 60). According to this logic, then, you should go out of your way to be nice to your intimate partner rather than assume your partner won’t mind your occasional (or more than occasional) bad mood.

McDonald et al. differentiate compassion from related values such as empathy and sympathy. You need empathy to feel compassion because through empathy you can feel another person’s emotions. On its own, the authors argue, empathy won’t lead you to show the kind of cooperative behavior implied in compassion. Sympathy involves feeling concern about another person but doesn’t necessarily mean you experience the other person’s emotions. In fact, sympathy can actually be blocked if you have other motivations to see yourself in a positive light. In other words, if you hurt another person, you may not feel sympathy because you’re trying to protect yourself from taking responsibility for your own actions.

Compassion reflects a prosocial, or altruistic, approach to another person but it also can be associated with its own rewards. As the Marquette researchers note, “people who engage in prosocial behavior are more likely to report high levels of social support and, in times of distress, are more likely to receive aid than individuals who do not engage in prosocial behavior.”

What’s more, when you show compassion toward others, you improve your own resilience to challenging life events. This resilience comes about because your compassion toward others translates into self-compassion that allows you to bounce back from those stressors. In view of the trauma that everyone seems to be is going through at the moment, some self-compassion may indeed be a very key coping mechanism.

Cutting your partner some slack, then, can have both reinforcing outcomes in terms of stronger intimate bonds, as well as bolstering effects on your own well-being. To test the proposal that compassion as a value would benefit on one manifestation of those strong intimate bonds, or marital satisfaction, McDonald and his fellow researchers recruited an online sample of nearly 1500 heterosexual married participants from three U.S. states, Vermont, Utah, and Arkansas. The research team felt it was important to look at the three states selected for the study specifically because, as you might guess, they differ in terms of religiosity, another possible influence in the compassion-marital satisfaction link.

The participants in this study were long-term partners, married on average for 27 years (their average age was 54 years). The study's measures included rating scales of both compassion and marital quality. Additionally, the research team asked participants to report on their adherence to self-transcendent values, another possible influence in the compassion-satisfaction connection.

People high in self-transcendent values adhere to such principles as benevolence and universalism, meaning that they believe it important to show kindness toward others and see commonalities rather than differences with regard to other people. Those who are low in self-transcendent values try to assert their power and want to outdo everyone else.

Compassion and self-transcendent values aren’t the same, however. According to the authors, you can be low in self-transcendence (i.e. want to do better than everyone else) but if you’re high in compassion, you can still have a satisfying relationship with your partner.

As a control against self-report bias, the authors took the additional step of asking partners to answer questions about each other. You might say that you’re the most compassionate person in the world, then, but how does your partner see you? How might differences between your own self-ratings and those of your partner influence how much satisfaction you both experience in the relationship? If your self-views are distorted, it’s likely that your own ratings won’t correlate with the satisfaction that your partner reports.

Turning now to the findings, the authors reported that, as hypothesized, people’s own ratings of marital quality were predicted by the amount of compassion and self-transcendence shown by their partners. Furthermore, as expected, high compassion ratings could make up for low self-transcendence in terms of marital quality reported by partners across the three regional samples.

Taken together, these results suggest that showing compassion toward your partner can indeed lead to the greater satisfaction your partner feels with your relationship. Self-transcendence also plays a role, meaning it’s better not to be too power-hungry, but high compassion can help offset this potential threat to the relationship. Indeed, the authors suggest that “cultivating compassion in spouses and encouraging them to engage in other-oriented values-driven action may be two of the most important mechanisms for enhancing marital quality” (p. 68).

Because compassion is translated more easily into behavior than self-transcendence, and because compassion has its own reinforcing qualities, it would make sense that its cultivation could be a prime target of intervention. The simplest way to show compassion is to offer support when you sense your partner is feeling down. Again, returning to the empathy-sympathy connection, you may not even have to feel what your partner is feeling, but you do have to notice it before you can offer support.

To sum up, when you’re feeling stressed, it may seem like an additional burden to have to extend support to a partner who seems to be hurting too. However, to do so has the very real advantage of improving the quality of your relationship. That tenderness will ultimately benefit the well-being both of you experience. In the process, your own resilience also grows, allowing you to experience greater feelings of personal fulfillment as you make it through those tough times.

Facebook image: Yuriy Maksymiv/Shutterstock


McDonald, J. E., Faytol, A. L., Grau, P. P., Olson, J. R., Goddard, H. W., & Marshall, J. P. (2020). Compassion and values influence marital quality amongst couples in three US states. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 9(2), 59–72. doi: 10.1037/cfp0000134

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