Building A Compassionate Marriage How empathy in action can transform your relationship. BY ESTHER BOYKIN, LMFT
There's not a limited supply of pain or suffering, nor is there a limited amount of compassion and empathy.
“ Compassion is not about fixing. Itís about understanding and comforting.”
At the start of the year I adopted a theme for the year. A single concept to help direct my projects, personal and professional, as well as a guidepost to help me get centered again when life got overwhelming or out of control as it inevitably does. My theme for this year is compassion. Itís a simple idea really, but I have found that not only has it helped lend some order to my otherwise crazy life, it has become an essential theme to my clinical work with married couples.
So, what is compassion exactly and how can it help bring harmony, joy and a deeper love into your marriage? Letís start with the definition: "Compassion is an emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another's suffering."
In simple terms, compassion is empathy in action. So then what is empathy, really? For many of us, empathy is a sometimes-elusive concept. Similar to sympathy, empathy takes us from feeling bad for someoneís predicament to a place where we actual put ourselves in their shoes and feel what they are feeling as if it were happening to us.
I think Actress Rosie Perez said it best in the movie "White Men Canít Jump" when she said, "When your wife is thirsty, empathy says, 'I too know what it is to thirst.' Compassion says the same thing and then gets up and gets her a bottle of water."
If empathy is to feel another personís suffering, compassion is to feel it and then try to comfort them as if their pain were your pain. Simple enough, right? Well not exactly.
Compassion is not about fixing. Itís about understanding and comforting. For many, husbands who have to hear their wifeís complaint about a co-worker or a problem with one of the kids now positions themselves in a role to now become the "fixer" and immediately offer solutions or make decisions to solve the perceived problem. These poor guys and gals (there are "fixer" wives out there too) are missing the most essential key to a compassionate marriageóunderstanding. Compassion begins with understanding on an emotional level, the reason for our partnerís suffering. The trouble is that understanding our spouse means that they have to understand the root of their suffering first.
Recognizing Compassionate Moments
Now I know that suffering may sound like an extreme description for a tough day at the office or a minor misunderstanding between spouses, but I use this word on purpose. When we are stressed, overwhelmed, upset or emotionally disconnected from our loved ones (even briefly), the emotional response is one of suffering. It is real and it is powerful and the first step to truly understanding our partner and ourselves is to acknowledge the magnitude of "minor issues" on our well-being. The interesting paradox is that the more compassionate we are with ourselves, the more we begin to appreciate that everyone around us is suffering too, and suddenly we are more compassionate with everyone.
For many, the most difficult part of living more compassionately is learning to be compassionate with ourselves and trusting that our partners will do the same. How many times have we gotten into a debate about who had a more stressful day at work? Husbands and wives are not bickering over who has a tougher day because they really think that one of them will win, thereís no prize for having the crappiest day. They are fighting for the right to be comforted. It is as if we believe that only one person can be comforted at a time and we must fight to claim it for ourselves. There are not a limited number of spots for compassion or special criteria you must meet. There isnít a shortage of comforting unless we create one. The unfortunate reality is that suffering is everywhere and with everyone. And just as suffering is in endless supply, fortunately so is comfort and compassion.
The trouble is that we are often taught to minimize our problems. We compare our issues to someone elseís and feel that we are not worthy of compassion because our problems arenít that bad. We tell our children, and ourselves, to stop complaining because someone else is worse off than you? How often do you chastise yourself for feeling upset about your husbandís lack of help around the house when you know that your neighborís husband just moved in with his mistress? This is a common response but it keeps us stuck. When we force ourselves (and our spouse) to defend our experience of suffering we build resentment and create a cycle of increasing pain. In order to move forward we must learn to shift from a mentality of shortage to one of abundance. Just as there is an abundance of pain there can be an abundance of love and understanding but we must begin with ourselves.
Putting Compassion Into Action
Of course there are degrees of suffering. Your frustration with your husbandís lack of bathroom cleaning is not the same as someone elseís struggle with infidelity; but dismissing your experience as unworthy of compassion sets you and your spouse up for even greater distress. Many times we think that by allowing ourselves to feel upset or sad or hurt by minor issues (however you choose to define that) we are being self-indulgent or giving power to these experiences. The truth is that our pain gets its power from our denial or minimization of it. Like a small area of mold in your basement, left untreated our pain only grows and spreads, it will not resolve itself without our attention. When we validate the suffering in our lives, no matter how small or "insignificant" they may seem, we are suddenly able to accept the comfort we so desperately seek and let it go. Moving on means first acknowledging where we are.
When you can gently acknowledge that your suffering over the dirty bathrooms is real, you are then able to go deeper and learn to understand more about yourself. Maybe the pain about housework is just a tangible example of loneliness you feel when your husband is preoccupied and too busy to take care of you and the house. By being compassionate with yourself first, you can help your husband understand that experience, enabling him to offer comfort to your emotional pain rather than solutions to a physical problem. Hiring a cleaning person to clean bathrooms once a week in not likely to alleviate your sense of abandonment; however hiring someone and then using that time to go on a date together could give you the comfort you seek, and keep those toilets sparkling.
This is where the magic of compassionate living happens, as you learn to be compassionate with yourself, you create a space for your spouse to be more compassionate with you. If you can learn to look at each other with compassion rather than competition, you will find that there is more than enough to go around. And as you learn to stop fighting for comfort your suffering is relieved and you are better able to offer your spouse the compassion that he seeks. And so a new cycle begins, one of understanding, validation, and loving connection. A compassionate marriage is built on the idea that everyone experiences some level of pain everyday and that by honoring that and seeking to really understand it you can grow closer to one another. And together, you can create a life and relationship in which you are able to put empathy into action and love each other more fully.
Eshter Boykin is the co-owner/founder of Group Therapy Associates and is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Virginia. Eshter graduated from Virginia Tech (Go Hokies!) and earned many of my residency hours working with some wonderful therapists at Gainesville Professional Counseling Center. After years of working in a group practice Esther began Group Therapy Associates with Llouana Harper. Esther has a special interest in couples, adolescents, and womenís issues. In addition to clinical work, Esther is also a part-time writer and full-time mother and wife.