John Gottman, Ph.D., and colleagues spent decades researching couples to try to find out the key traits that could best predict happy, lasting relationships.
Their findings, which were widely publicized, told lovers that the key to relationship longevity is to exhibit more kindness and generosity toward one another. When offered authentically, kindness and generosity are closely linked to compassion, which allows us to comprehend the emotional needs of others.
While research in this area is still developing, it’s a fair assumption that self-compassion could be an important mediating factor in one’s ability to act compassionately in a romantic relationship.
A healthy relationship is one in which both members of a couple are able to act in ways that demonstrate both compassion for themselves, and for their partner.
It’s so often said that it borders on trite, but you can’t love another unless you can first love yourself and science proves it.
Studies show that not being compassionate toward oneself can inhibit the ability to be compassionate toward others.
Self-compassion has been linked with higher levels of compromise, feelings of authenticity and emotional well-being within romantic partnerships (Yarnell and Neff 2013). Importantly, research also suggests that a lack of self-compassion predicts less loving, kind behavior toward one’s partner, while the opposite is true for those with self-compassion skills.
So if you work with couples, it’s safe to say that assessing for levels of compassionate behavior and teaching skills to increase where they may be lacking may make sense.
In their book, “ACT and RFT in Relationships: Helping Clients Deepen Intimacy and Maintain Healthy Commitments Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Relational Frame Theory,” Joanne Dahl, Ph.D., and colleagues present four steps that can support clients in developing self-compassion.
Guiding clients toward developing proficiency in the following processes, adapted from the book, would be time well-spent toward increasing relationship satisfaction.
1. Embracing difficult feelings.
Acting with self-compassion includes making space within oneself for difficult feelings to exist and responding to them with kindness. What does that scenario look like?
When difficult feelings emerge, they’re usually accompanied by physical sensations thanks to the sympathetic nervous system that is preparing to respond to a perceived emerging threat.
When this response happens, one of the most compassionate things we can teach our clients to do is to simply notice that the body is reacting to an internal thought or feeling.
Encourage them to suspend all judgments and reactions, such as thoughts like “I should be over this by now,” or urges to escape the discomfort.
Just as compassion involves making contact with and being aware of the suffering in others, self-compassion allows us to make contact with our own suffering, making way for the potential to access the information that is stored inside our pain.
2. Observing difficult and judgmental thoughts without becoming entangled in them.
Typically, when people are experiencing painful emotions they increase their suffering by evaluating and judging their pain. On top of noticing what it feels like in the body when difficult feelings emerge, teaching clients to notice when their mind is also judging those experiences can help build skills for self-compassion.
With practice, clients will become better at noticing when self-criticism starts, creating a space for them to intervene kindly and without judgment. Because the ebb and flow of painful feelings is constant throughout life, clients can start practicing immediately.
In addition to boosting self-compassion, this practice, known as defusion in acceptance and commitment therapy, lets clients experience the separation between who they are and what they think. The benefits of understanding this distinction are endless.
3. Connecting with a sense of self that goes beyond the way a client sees herself in the present.
The way a client conceptualizes and experiences her self is an important factor in any psychotherapy intervention.
When the focus is on building skills for self-compassion, getting in touch with a more fluid sense of self through shifting into different perspectives can be enormously useful.
Encouraging a client to remember a time when she was particularly vulnerable, afraid, sad or hurt and to recall what it felt like to be alive in that time can help her make the important distinction between who she truly is and any present beliefs about who she is that may be causing her to suffer.
Being able to shift into the perspective of when she was six-years-old, for example, can help her distance herself from the beliefs about who she is in the present.
Encouraging clients to step into the perspectives of their younger selves can also show them how to offer validation and compassion to themselves in times of pain. The distance that is created through this practice, as if our younger selves were an entirely separate person from us, lets us practice extending an attitude of understanding, kindness and compassion to the self of the present.
4. Acting in ways that matter.
Living a life that is misaligned with what matters to us is perhaps the opposite of self-compassion. Conversely, if the goal is to help your client increase their self-compassion, values clarification is a great place to start.
Encourage clients to engage in behaviors and activities that increase his sense of meaning and purpose, which in turn encourages self-validation and increased psychological flexibility.
When a client is clear about what matters to him, he is more likely to be willing to endure difficult thoughts and feelings in the service of a particular value or life purpose. Acting in ways that may allow him to temporarily avoid difficult feelings may feel okay in the moment but may ultimately take him further away from what matters to him in the long run.
Self-compassion is a value that can underlay all other domains in which values are present, including the realms of intimate relationships, work, leisure, family, spirituality and community. Whether a client is in therapy specifically for challenges within intimate relationships or another realm altogether, helping clients build skills for self-compassion will be a worthwhile endeavor.