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Compassion Only Sometimes Improves Relationships

Some couples have compassion types linked to stronger relationship health.

Key points

  • A new study finds compassion might not be universally important for relationships.
  • The study identified two types of couples based on compassion-attraction link.
  • Synergistic couples showed compassion linked to attraction.
  • In contrast, independent couples showed compassion had no impact on attraction.

Does being compassionate matter for your relationship's health?

On one hand, the answer seems obvious: if you're kind and empathetic, it would seem likely that this would boost your relationship. But what if compassion has nothing to do with romantic attraction? Such a finding would suggest changes in compassion have no influence on overall relationship quality.

An underlying idea here is that relationships are not stable. They fluctuate over time. What one partner does or feels affects the other, which affects the other, and so on and so on; compassion can change, attraction can change, and overall satisfaction can change. One day, you might feel a lot of attraction ("I love that you did that for me"), and the next day, less ("Your bad mood is stressing me out"). This instability over time reflects partner interdependence, and it takes healthy patterns to keep relationships returning to favorable evaluations day after day.

Compassion's Role in Relationships

As noted, compassion refers to an approach based on kindness and gentleness. It includes attentiveness and sensitivity to suffering and can be self-oriented or other-oriented. While people might assume that more compassion universally predicts stronger relationships, new research (Ciarrochi et al., 2024) has raised skepticism about the idea that it works the same for everyone.

To understand compassion's role in relationships, Ciarrochi and colleagues (2024) collected data from 161 people who made up 79 long-term couples (plus a few people whose partners did not participate). They used experience-based sampling, a method that takes data collection out of the lab and asks people about their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors on their phones while they are living their lives. Participants completed relevant surveys five times a day for seven days.

Couple Types Tell Us About Compassion's Role in Relationships

The scholars observed first that both self-compassion and other-compassion tended to predict romantic attraction, meaning that individuals who expressed more compassion a) felt more romantic attraction to their partners and b) had partners who felt more attracted to them ( Ciarrochi et al., 2024). This general finding, however, was observed on average. The main contribution of their work was to look past averages and see if groups, or clusters, of people operated in the same way.

Using a technique called cluster analysis, the researchers were able to identify specific groups of people whose data appeared to operate in a similar fashion ( Ciarrochi et al., 2024). In other words, they organized participants by their compassion-attraction dynamics. Specifically, cluster analysis revealed two different types of people: synergistic and independent.

  • Synergistic Types. For synergistic couples, their day-to-day compassion fluctuates with their own felt attraction towards their partner. Further, when men reported more felt compassion, their partners tended to feel more attracted to them. For synergistic types, compassion and attraction are linked.
  • Independent Types. For independent types, compassion was not reliably connected to attraction. Feeling high levels of compassion did nothing for romantic attraction; likewise, low levels of compassion were not reliably connected with low romantic attraction. If people fell into the "independent" category, their relationship dynamics were surprisingly disconnected from the experience of compassion.

What This Means for Relationship Well-Being

When people are in unhealthy relationship patterns, strategies for improving the dynamic are often of keen interest. Ciarrochi and colleagues' (2024) work suggests that compassion interventions might work for some people but not everyone.

This finding departs from common sense, which might suggest that efforts to increase self-directed and other-directed compassion would improve relationship functioning. After all, a bit of awareness and sensitivity could translate into forgiveness, giving a partner the benefit of the doubt, and appreciating outside forces that might be impacting them. And, for some couples, it does appear to work in this way. Synergistic couples experience changes in their relationships when their compassion fluctuates.

For independent couples, however, an intervention that focuses on improving self-compassion or other compassion would fall flat with no noticeable effect on the relationship. As the authors note, couples in this study were not selected because they were distressed; they were a typical sample ( Ciarrochi et al., 2024). In fact, groups were virtually the same on other key dimensions, including size, relationship satisfaction, relationship length, amount of time with a partner, positive affect, and negative affection.

However, distressed couples might lack synchrony, which might be reflected by the absence of a link between compassion and attraction. More research is needed to understand how distressed couples experience the compassion-attraction dynamic. Meanwhile, current research advocates being critical of relationship interventions pointing to self-compassion: they won't work for everyone.


Ciarrochi, J., Sahdra, B., Fraser, M. I., Hayes, S. C., Yap, K., & Gloster, A. T. (2024). The compassion connection: Experience sampling insights into romantic attraction. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 32, 100749.

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