Compassion in Intimate Relationships: It’s A Choice

We’re happy to be able to share an excerpt here from Michelle Becker’s new book, Compassion for Couples, available now from Guilford Press. Learn more and purchase the book here.

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What I want you to know is that compassion in relationships doesn’t depend on your partner. It’s a choice. A choice you make, over and over. One you fail to make, then right yourself again and begin anew. Over time the choice becomes a habit and our relationships become safer, more intimate, more satisfying. And that’s good news! Compassion can improve our relationships, even if our partner never changes. Truth be told, when we show up with compassion in our relationships, it spills out into the relationships and into our partners. What we bring to the relationship can change the entire course of the relationship. And rather than waiting for our partner to change so compassion can arrive, we ourselves can find it. And that changes everything. 

It’s also a skill. I used to think that it was just something we were or were not born with. It’s true that we are wired differently and some people just have a natural capacity for compassion. Lucky them! And lucky for the rest of us, compassion is a skill that can be cultivated. Like maybe you were a scrawny kid, but you went to the gym and lifted weights and now you’re a badass body builder. Sure, there were times when you were injured while trying. So you rested, cared for yourself, asked for help. And then you tried again. Each time you failed or were injured you learned something you needed to know, about how to do it in a safer, more effective way. What works, what doesn’t. When it matters deeply to you, you keep going, keep showing up.

“We need to know that we can count on each other rather than turn on each other.”

Failure is just part of the process. It can deepen and strengthen us if we let it. As an LMFT, I’m sometimes asked about how to know if a particular relationship is right for someone. I always inquire about whether they’ve had difficulties and disagreements yet, and if so, how they were addressed and resolved. We need to know that we can handle difficulties and disappointments together. We need to know that we can count on each other rather than turn on each other. Most of the couples in my psychotherapy practice are working on how to show up in a way that each partner can feel confident they will be met with care and understanding rather than be labeled as the problem. Frankly, what most often brings people in the door is a desire for me to fix their partner. In fact, what actually empowers my patients and helps them to heal their relationships is tending to the places they themselves are wounded and learning how to tend to themselves and each other, rooted in kindness and compassion, rather than letting reactivity run the show.

Our primary relationships are ground zero for reactivity. Even if we are compassionate in most aspects of our lives, it’s harder for most of us in our primary relationship. The more important our partners are to us, the deeper our fear of losing them, the more desperate our desire to be loved by them, and the more active our threat/defense system becomes. We can get into a “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” quagmire. Afraid to leave and afraid to get closer. Learning how to strengthen ourselves with compassion gives us both the courage and the motivation to face our fears and tend to ourselves and our relationships in a way that actually makes it safer to be vulnerable with each other, to get closer. To allow ourselves to be known and to be loved. It also gives us the courage to see when our relationship is toxic and we need to leave.

If you’d like to explore this topis more fully, we highly recommend checking out Michelle Becker’s brand new book, Compassion for Couples: Building the Skills of Loving Connection, from which this excerpt was drawn. The book is available now from Guilford Press. Learn more and purchase the book here >>

About Michelle Becker

Michelle Becker, LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice, founder of Wise Compassion, LLC, and creator of the Compassion for Couples program which teaches couples mindfulness and compassion skills to build a stronger relationship. Michelle is also a senior teacher trainer, and co-developer of the teacher training program in Mindful Self-Compassion, and a senior teacher in Compassion Cultivation Training. You can learn more about her work through her Well Connected Relationships podcast, or her website.