Most marriages don’t die suddenly in a big explosion. Most die slowly from a lack of compassion.
Compassion is a basic, necessary quality of being human. When compassion is lacking, a hard heart and/or resentment take up residence.
Steven Stosny has done lots of work with people who become abusive, especially in marriage.
He says: “Compassion is sympathy for the hurt or distress of another. At heart it is a simple appreciation of the basic human frailty we all share, which is why the experience of compassion makes you feel more humane and less isolated.”
To develop compassion, stop and think about the other person first when someone does something that seems hurtful or irritating. Think about what they may be feeling or experiencing. Why are they doing what they are doing?
If they sound harsh, what stress are they under, what is happening in their life?
Another step towards compassion is to express sympathy when someone expresses a struggle or stress in their life. “I am sorry that you are hurting.” You may think that their situation shouldn’t warrant their reaction but compassion doesn’t judge or discount the feelings of another.
We don’t do as we have been done unto, we do as we would want others to do unto us.
Our ability to show compassion originates in the heart of God. His compassion towards us and others gives us an example and an imperative. His Spirit that lives in us gives us the power to be compassionate.
The COMPASSION of GOD
- The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. Psalm 103:8
- The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion. Psalm 116:5
- For the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones. Isaiah 49:13b
- When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them. Matthew 9:36a
- The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. James 5:11
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:32
Once I have been hurt in a relationship, it is harder to practice compassion. I blame the other person for my hurt. Rather than trying to talk about the hurt, I withdraw or attack.
When I “one up” the conflict, compassion becomes more scarce. When hurt is left unattended, it grows into bitterness and resentment.
When I justify my resentment, contempt settles in. We are afraid to show compassion. Mutual contempt makes them both feel chronically criticized and attacked, although neither really wants to attack the other.
To live with an uncompassionate heart, I harden my heart. A lack of compassion is contrary to what it means to be human. So, I must justify the hard heart or it becomes too painful.
How do I turn this downward spiral around?
I have to start with forgiveness — releasing that person from punishment for the hurt they caused. I have to be willing to let the LORD deal with that person. I don’t require an explanation or apology to forgive.
Forgiveness happens within my heart, between me and God. I don’t have to express it to the other person. Forgiveness is possible because of the cross.
I can forgive because God forgave me. I can forgive because of the power of the Holy Spirit in me.
After forgiveness, I seek to see and understand the hurt or attitude in the actions or demeanor of the other person.
I care about what that person is feeling — even if they do not show that they care about me. I not only care, but I want to alleviate their suffering.
WHAT IT IS, WHAT IT IS NOT
Compassion is often lacking because people confuse it with other qualities.
- Pity - if I feel sorry for someone but I look at their suffering as a result of their own defects, I project pity not compassion.
- Agreement - to feel sympathy and compassion with another person, does not mean that I agree with the decisions that they made to get to their point of suffering or the way they react to the obstacles in their life.
- Excusing bad behavior — having compassion does not mean that I let people take advantage of me or continue to involve me in bad behavior. Having love and compassion does not mean that I let others manipulate me or that I try to manipulate them with my emotions (including anger).
Even in the midst of conflict, I can show compassion through using a kind touch, an affectionate phrase or name, or identifying with how the other feels.