In Tara Parker-Pope's recent New York Times feature, "Is Marriage Good For Your Health?", she reports on a study that shows the presence of at least one loving, compassionate word or phrase during an argument between a couple can lower a woman's risk of heart disease. Women in arguments where endearment is lacking are at greater risk of developing the disease, regardless of the subject or intensity of the fight.
In relationships, compassion can often take a back seat. Life is busy. We stop making the effort to be in his shoes or to see his point of view when it's one we disagree with, or worse, one we believe is intended to or is actually hurting us. Especially in the midst of disagreements, taking a moment to pause, taking ourselves out of the equation and attempting to see a partner's POV can be crucial.
Like any behavior, reprogramming ourselves to listen and breathe instead of lash out, takes practice.
Here are 6 ways to practice increased compassion in your relationships:
- Stop thinking so much about yourself.
This sounds harsh, I know, but there's an ancient Indian saying that the total amount of unhappiness in the world comes from thinking about ourselves and the total amount of happiness in the world comes from thinking about other people. It's the reason we get so excited, as adults, to give rather than receive. It's also the reason we want to see our children do better than we have, and why cultivating love and compassion for a partner feels so great in the first place.
Be aware. Your partner fails to compliment you on the meal you spent hours preparing. Emotions get carried away so quickly. Suddenly, any logical or reasonable alternative except for "he does not and will not ever understand me" or "this is another sign of how selfish she is" has no chance of winning out in our minds. Reflect on some of your past arguments. Are there any hostile engagements or hasty conclusions you'd redo if you could? Use them to help you monitor the ways the mind can quickly jump from A to Z.
Pause. Once you have awareness of the lightning-fast way our minds turn molehills into mountains, use it. Some say our mood changes every minute-and-a-half. If your partner really hurt you or deserves to be called out on something, it can probably wait a minute, right? And in pausing, you're giving yourself the ability to check out your thoughts and evaluate whether or not they warrant the emotional response you've generated. As Nance Guilmartin writes in her business management book The Power of Pause:
"Today you need the ability to discern what lies beneath people's words, their reactions, or their silence. If you don't build the neuropathways in your brain to pause, to momentarily disengage your automatic reactions, you can trigger a chain reaction that derails your best intentions and strategies... Emotions can also drive illogical reactions masquerading as gut responses. That's why a pause is powerful: it restores your ability to access your intuition and to trust that what your gut is telling you works in a particular situation."
Pausing allows you to double-check with your mind: "Do I really want to go in that direction? Am I sure there's not a better alternative here?" which can make all the difference in business and in your relationship.
Do unto others ... The golden rule: "do unto others as you'd have done unto you" has persisted in so many incarnations throughout time for a reason. If you are untruthful with your partner, don't you find yourself more paranoid that he/she's untruthful, too? Because you understand how it's done. Likewise, if you make a point of increasing affirmation or encouragement to your partner, you'll most likely see a similar response returned to you. When you pause, keep this idea in mind. How would you want to be treated if you'd made a mistake like he/she had? How do you respond to someone shouting at you? And, how wonderfully unexpected is it to see your partner stop and try to see it your way (whether or not he actually succeeds! how great is the effort?).
Do your thing. While compassion depends on selflessness, if you are out of whack, mentally, physically or emotionally, it's hard to see outside yourself. As a culture, we could be well-served to better honor respite, leisure and balance. The benefit of being fulfilled, of having worked out the kinks -- be that during a jog, a power nap, a yoga class, a course of graduate study or night away from the kids -- can't come from your partner. It can only come from you, and being a better, more complete and peaceful you will allow your relationship to follow.
Practice on everyone you know. That annoying coworker? Think about what made him/her that way. What challenges does he face? Put yourself in his shoes and see if you don't feel more connected and empathetic to his plight. Say your wife is constantly "nagging" you to put your dishes in the dishwasher immediately after a meal. You don't see it as a big deal, but to her, it represents [fill in the blank] and at the end of the day, if putting dishes in dishwasher helps her to be happier and less stressed, why wouldn't you do it? When you feel you've made a misstep and acted without compassion? Start over. It's that simple.
Acting compassionately towards the one you love is a practice, not a perfection. Start small. Lay a hand on his shoulder while you're discussing a tough subject, call her "my love" before you point out how she failed to inform you about dinner with her parents, for the third month in a row. Take the highest worldview whenever possible -- is winning an argument worth diminishing your partner? Or would you rather go to all lengths, including overriding your own egotistical needs, to make him/her feel happy and secure?