Why It's Easier to Be Kind to Strangers Than to Our Partners

... and how to turn things back around.

Posted Feb 24, 2015

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Ann* and Bob* have been married for five years and, after trying to get pregnant for two years, have just had their first baby. Their friends and family are thrilled for them. And while they are both excited to be parents at last, they are also exhausted, anxious, and miserable. The baby doesn’t sleep through the night yet, and he is also colicky, often crying inconsolably for hours at a time. Their pediatrician has assured them there is nothing physically wrong with the baby, and she and their parents assure them that this will pass.

But this is not what they thought they were signing up for when they started trying to have a family.

They are both worried, despite what the pediatrician has told them, and they are tired and generally unhappy. Ann is worried that she is doing something wrong, that there is something the matter with her breast milk or with the way she is nursing. Bob tries to reassure her, but he is concerned as well and keeps making suggestions about ways she could do things differently. His suggestions don’t help. In fact, they just make angry. The next time the baby starts to cry, and Bob starts to suggest she swaddle him, as the doctor had advised, she hands the baby to Bob. “Here,” she says with tears in her eyes, “you take care of him!”

They are not bad parents. When friends with a newborn come over and describe their sleepless nights, both Ann and Bob are warm and responsive, acknowledging how difficult the first few weeks can be and how tired and irritable they all feel. Despite the difficulties, their baby is eating and growing according to schedule, and just a few weeks after this incident, he has turned into a sweet, cuddly infant.

It is common for couples to be in conflict many times over the course of a marriage, often over child-rearing issues. It is also common not to have compassion for one another during these times, even though it would seem that it would be exactly the most useful emotion in the moment.

Why is it that we can be compassionate and kind to friends, relatives and even strangers in ways that we cannot muster for our loved ones?

The answer is in part found in the meaning of compassion itself. One of the keys to compassion is empathy, which Brené Brown defines as the ability to take another person’s perspective, to understand and appreciate what they are feeling. We expect our loved ones to do exactly this for us. Ann expected Bob to appreciate how badly she was feeling about herself as a mother, for instance. She also needed him to recognize how hard she was trying and to tell her that she was not a bad mother simply because her baby was not being soothed.

But, as happens in relationships, Bob also had needs. In particular, he needed Ann to help him feel okay about himself as a partner. He needed to believe that she would know how to soothe their baby. And he desperately wanted her to let him know that they were going to be the family he had imagined they were.  

Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut called all these wishes “selfobject needs.” He explained that humans use the responses of certain others to help us maintain a positive, stable and cohesive sense of who we are. The other person is experienced as almost being part of the self, which is why he merged two psychoanalytic concepts into one—self and object (the psychoanalytic term for "other") became selfobject.

Kohut saw the need for someone to provide these functions as part of normal life, just as we need oxygen to breathe, from birth to death. Research into attachment theory and neuroscience has confirmed his hypothesis, including confirming that these needs are present not only in childhood, but that they continue through adulthood. At some point in every relationship, partners, parents, siblings, friends, and even children provide psychological and emotional functions for us that we cannot provide for ourselves.

It’s usually pretty easy to accept these needs in young children. When your son proudly shows you a drawing he made, for example, and you “ooh and ah” over it, you are providing a healthy admiring and mirroring response that will probably aid his development into a person with a stable, positively colored sense of self. When he skins his knee and proffers the boo-boo for a kiss, he is asking you to be a soothing selfobject. You will also be adding to his capacity to deal with adversity when, after putting a Band-Aid on the injury, you tell him that he’s okay and can go back and play. Knowing when your child needs soothing and when he needs to be encouraged to pick up where he left off is part of empathy.

It is both natural and healthy to need empathy from the same person who needs it from us. Children routinely (and mostly unintentionally) provide normal selfobject functions for their parents. This is not bad. In fact, it is one way that children learn to be in a relationship with another person. When an infant smiles at her parent, for example, she gets a positive response, which engages her in the world of relationships and also in the development of a self. But she makes that parent feel good and special, thereby providing a selfobject function for him or her. It is probably at least in part the fact that our children engage in this mutual reinforcement from very early in infancy that helps them get their own needs met.

But the problem for Bob and Ann, as it is in many relationships with loved ones, was that they both needed soothing at the same time; and, as often happens, they needed different kinds of reassurances. If Bob had been feeling more confident, he would have happily told Ann that he knew she was doing everything they had been told to do. And if Ann had been feeling more competent and secure, she would have easily shared her feelings with Bob. But caught in a trap of their insecurities and anxiety, they could not give one another what they needed. And without that support, they became more distraught, felt worse about themselves and each other—and oh yes, about the baby, who was not giving them the positive emotional feedback they had thought that having a baby would give them.

Part of healthy attachment involves a mutual selfobject functioning between our loved ones and us. Most of the time this works just fine. You can soothe your child when he scrapes his knee, and his smiling face and hug makes you feel better about yourself. Your honey tells you how terrific you look, and you smile and return the compliment. You feel good about yourselves, about each other, and about your relationship.

But when things aren’t going so well, or there’s a lot of stress—even good stress, like when a new baby comes into the family—you may not provide each other with the positive feelings of being understood and being valued that you each need in order to feel good about yourselves and good about being together. At the same time that your self-esteem plummets, your empathy for each other goes down the tubes.

A stranger, an acquaintance or even a work colleague isn’t part of that crucial circle that involves feeling good about yourself in relation to the other person, so you can be empathic to them. They are separate from you and you don’t expect them to meet your needs without your having to explain what you need.

And here’s the key to the whole problem: We expect our loved ones to know what we need without our having to explain ourselves, and without our having to give them anything back. When this fails, we become frustrated and unempathic towards them. But the truth is, selfobjects only work as part of a system.

In order to get empathy from your partner, you have to give empathy to them. In order to get love from your child, you have to be empathic to that child’s particular needs.

Kohut once wrote that psychological health is the ability to find someone who can provide you with the selfobject functions that you need in order to feel like a good, solid and valued person. Attachment theorists have added the idea that we also need someone for whom we can provide the same functions. When all is going well, this is usually pretty easy to do. It’s during times of stress that it becomes hard. But when you can find your way to empathy for your loved one, chances are good that they’ll return it to you. And that’s what makes it possible to be as compassionate to a loved one as you are to a stranger.

* names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

Further reading

Banai, E., Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. (2005), “SELFOBJECT” NEEDS IN KOHUT’S SELF PSYCHOLOGY Links With Attachment, Self-Cohesion, Affect Regulation, and Adjustment, Psychoanalytic Psychology, Vol. 22, No. 2, 224–260. DOI: 10.1037/0736-9735.22.2.224

Kohut, H. (1971). The analysis of the self. New York: International Universities Press.

Kohut, H. (1977). The restoration of the self. New York: International Universities Press.