Happy, healthy relationships are vital for our wellbeing, and for many of us, our relationships are the foundation of purpose and meaning in our lives.
Musicians, poets, writers, and anyone who has ever had their heart broken have all strived to understand the heart of why some relationships thrive while others languish.
From decades of scientific study, relationship researchers such as John Gottman have discovered that lasting and satisfying relationships are determined by consistent kindness and generosity. From both lab and real time research, Gottman identified “masters” in intimate relationships who demonstrated this consistent kindness and therefore could maintain love and intimacy over time.
Those most skilled at relationships showed low physiological arousal (a low stress response) even when they fought with their partners. They felt calm and connected, which translated into warm and affectionate behaviour, including during arguments. This climate of trust and intimacy made them both more emotionally and thus physically comfortable. What was their secret?
Their skill was to show kindness and generosity to their partner many times each day. They would both initiate, and respond to, their partner’s connection requests. These requests for connection are called “bids” by Gottman. An example of a bid could be saying, “I’m enjoying this book ….”, or “I’m making tea, would you like some?” The actual topic is not important. Rather, it is the connection process that matters – the initiator thinks it’s important enough to bring up in conversation, and the bid is whether the person’s partner recognises and respects that. “Tell me about it”, or “I’m glad you are enjoying it” reflects “turning toward”, whereas “Don’t interrupt me, I’m watching this” or “Uh huh” (showing disinterest) reflects “turning away”.
With thousands of couples, Gottman’s research has shown that a higher rate of “turning toward” bids predicted relationship wellbeing, compared to “turning away” from bids.
“Turning toward” sounds straightforward doesn’t it, and yet many of us can find that difficult when we are tired or stressed or feeling irritable with our partner at the end of a long day.
How does compassion for ourselves relate to these findings?
Self-compassion involves being kind to oneself when confronting personal inadequacies or situational difficulties, framing the imperfection of life in terms of common humanity, and being mindful of negative emotions so that one neither suppresses nor ruminates on them.
(Dr Kristin Neff)
Self-compassion means showing kindness and generosity to ourselves, which in turn allows us to better comprehend and respond to the emotional needs of others. Like the Gottman findings, compassion research has demonstrated that self-compassionate people consistently display more positive relationship behaviour – and that compassion predicts relationship success even more than do self-esteem or attachment style. Self-compassion has also been linked with higher levels of compromise and emotional wellbeing within romantic partnerships.
How does this work?
Self-compassion helps us to:
- Manage difficult feelings – to notice rather than react, and to suspend judgment – letting go of thoughts such as, “I should be over this by now” or urges to escape the emotional discomfort
- Observe painful thoughts and feelings, without being entangled in them
- Act “as if” – to behave as we would like to – and to act as “my best self”, even when I may not feel like it
- Correct mistakes – and therefore in relationships to make “bids” to correct interpersonal mistakes – “I’m sorry for being cross with you just now”.
Self-compassion helps us to be kind and generous towards ourselves, keeping our physiological arousal down so we can respond to others with kindness rather than threat. It’s much easier to be kind to others when we are feeling calm.
These upward spirals of love, generosity and kindness show our partners and people in our lives they are cared for, understood, and validated – and they feel loved.
Compassion for ourselves also contributes to a positive habit of mind – we are better able to scan the environment and our partner for things they are doing right and express appreciation, versus scanning for what they are doing wrong and criticising.
For myself, I have found it helpful to know that compassion and kindness are not fixed traits – we can practise and get better at holding compassion for ourselves and showing kindness to those we love. I also try to remember to practise even when I don’t feel like it! It’s at those times of practice that we embed new habits of mind.
To get started on self-compassion practice, have a go with some of these exercises:
Remember to be kind and gentle with yourself as you practise.