Active Compassion: The Best You Can Do for Your Partner and Yourself

“Would you mind setting the table?” seems like an innocuous request. It is truly amazing how difficult communication can be. Those same words spoken or misheard with a different tone of voice can become a command, or worse, a sarcastic, angry comment, full of disregard. Facial expression plays a huge role in communication, and if the person you’re speaking to isn’t looking at you when you talk, all that visual information can get lost and misinterpreted. These kinds of events are the precursors to miscommunication conflicts, which comprise eighty to ninety-five percent of all conflicts couples have.

Sue was astounded when Jim got belligerent in response to a question which was so simple. “Set it yourself,” he screamed, red-faced, as he stalked out of the room.
 Luckily, Sue was in a pretty good place. She had finally had some time away from the family that day, and was feeling good and relaxed. She didn’t get overly injured at Jim’s behavior. She was able to step back from her emotions about his disregard, and think about what had been going on for him.
    Sue understood that Jim had been maxed out from taking care of the kids all day after a night of little sleep. His work had been especially stressful that week, and then he had taken their two kids (3 and 5 year old boys) by himself all day, to give her a break. The reality of having a family with young kids is that, mostly, there is not enough time and energy to go around for everyone.

    Sue was practicing “Active Compassion.” It is one of the hardest, yet most rewarding practices a couple can do for each other. I define compassion as having the ability or finding the strength, in an intimate relationship, to think about your partner’s injuries when you have been injured by them.

   Most of us, when we are injured, either physically or emotionally, enter what I like to call the Hurt Child ego state. We are angry, scared and sad, and tend to focus in on our own emotional injuries. All we can deal with is our powerful emotions. This is actually a pretty normal response to being injured.
Usually, over time, we calm down and regain a more Adult or cognitive state, when we are more able to consider the facts as well as different points of view about what has happened. When we gain this perspective, it becomes easier to take into account what others may have been feeling. When we can do this, we begin to have the capacity for compassion.

    Active Compassion refers to a couple making an agreement that they will each work consciously to try and move out of the Hurt Child ego state and into the Adult ego state as quickly as they are able, and to think about their partner’s injuries. Additionally, if they are able to recognize their partner’s injury, they will attempt to show up as Good Parent for their partner. This means that they will attempt to take care of and address their partner’s injury.

    Using the example of Jim and Sue, let’s look at what that might look like. Sue, if she was able to contain the injury caused by Jim’s acting out in his Hurt Child, might go ahead and set the table. She might try and reconnect with him after about 15 minutes and check in and see if he was ready to discuss what had happened between them. If not, she would say something like “I can see that you’re upset, and I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I’d like to talk about this when you’re feeling up to it.”

    If Jim is ready to talk, or when he is later, she can ask about what was upsetting him. It is always easier to resolve miscommunication conflicts when both people are in their Adult ego states. It’s never a good idea to leave two Hurt Children alone together and unsupervised. It almost never results in something good happening. Frequently things deteriorate, with the partners simply taking their injury and anger and tossing it back and forth while the whole situation escalates.
When Jim and Sue accomplished the first goal of having two adults to discuss what went wrong, their second goal was to figure out whose feelings were hurt first in this particular conflict. It is important that this be done without the idea or quality of looking for blame or fault. In intimate relationships, blame is poison. The goal is to restore function to the relationship and reestablish a solid emotional reconnection.

    Once Sue and Jim have figured out where the injury began, the person with the first injury gets the first apology from the other partner, acting in the Good Parent ego state. In this case, they agreed that Jim was in a state of being emotionally overwhelmed when she asked him to set the table.
It wasn’t Sue’s fault, but she could recognize the Hurt Child’s need for a guilt-free, blame-free apology. These apologies are like the ones a parent would give a child who falls and scrapes their knee and comes to their parent crying. The parent hasn’t done anything wrong, but their apology recognizes and validates the child’s injury while soothing it as well. That is what these apologies are really about.

Once Jim was able to receive and accept Sue’s apology, it was his turn for apologizing for his acting out behavior.

These types of interactions between couples who are committed to working through conflicts and practicing this kind of Active Compassion inevitably leave them feeling closer once their miscommunication conflict is resolved.

Active Compassion is not for the weak of heart. It takes a great deal of work for a couple to commit to and engage in this type of practice, and it usually takes a number of months of practice for it to begin to come to fruition.

In order to practice Active Compassion, a couple will need to commit to:
  1. Noticing when conflicts begin
  2. Stepping back (Timeouts) when awareness sets in
  3. Actively working to recognize their own individual (and their partner’s) changing ego states
  4. Working to think about their partner’s injuries despite having their own
  5. Commit to following through on conflict resolution without blame.
  6. If you begin work on this with your partner and find you continue to struggle, you would be wise to consult with a qualified relationship counselor. If you commit to doing all the hard work involved in practicing Active Compassion, you will find that the rewards more than balance all of the challenges involved in this practice.