Compassion Helps Relationships Last

Cataloguing all the ills of modern society would be a big task.  It might take daily blog posts just to keep up.   And I think, ultimately, in 50 years all the people who now think overpopulation is the root of modern evils will be thinking (and saying), “I knew it.”  And many will be saying, “I told you so,” though I hate it when people think they have to say that; we remember you telling us.

But overpopulation is what we psychologists, who think big words make us look smart, call a distal cause.  There are more proximal (see previous sentence) causes too. Proximal causes are typically ones that we can do something about.  Though true that choosing to have fewer children is doing something about the problem of overpopulation.

So here is my list of what’s wrong with modern life.  And yes, eventually, this is going to relate to lasting relationships.  The problem is that we have too much of some things and not enough of others.  Things we have too much of: greed, greed, greed.  Things we don’t have enough of: empathy, compassion, responsibility.

Now, you may have other things on your lists of too much and not enough (and I’d be happy to learn what they are) but I don’t think you can argue with mine.  Some other time I will write about greed, empathy, and responsibility.  Here I want to write about compassion.

Dictionary.com defines compassion like this:

com·pas·sion  [kuh m-pashuh n]
noun
1.    a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

Compassion is the opposite of schadenfreude (see first sentence of second paragraph), which is pleasure at another’s misfortune.  In a recent article on compassion, Emma Seppala discusses many benefits of compassion.  Of course, the benefits she describes are not just her opinion; rather, “Scientific studies show that being compassionate can have surprising benefits for physical and psychological health (p. 21).”

Not surprisingly, and finally, compassion can help relationships last. There are several ways that compassion can play a role in lasting relationships.  First, research has found that kindness, a trait closely linked with compassion, is one of the most desirable traits in a mate.  Deciding to be kind to others, not just to our partner, can lead our partner to continue to be attracted to us.

Second, there is evidence that it is, in fact, better to give than to receive.  Or at least research has found that giving is as pleasurable as receiving.  In research studies, the reward centers in the brain (those that are active when we are experiencing pleasure) are just as active for acts of giving and acts of receiving.  So, giving itself is pleasurable and then consider the rewards we receive from our spouse when we have communicated that we have received pleasure from making them happy.

Finally, compassion can help relationships last because being compassionate causes us to think beyond ourselves.  Rather than being focused on ourselves, this broader perspective allows us to focus on others, including our partners. So we may be more likely to consider our partner’s needs, see things from their perspective, and act with their well being in mind.

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar it might be because it supports all that we have said in the past about the value of communal relationships–those where individuals are more concerned with their partner’s well-being than with their own.  Much research suggests that relationships that are communal, rather than exchange-oriented, are more likely to be rewarding and lasting.  See our blog post on the value of communal relationships for more information on this idea.

As we continue to learn more and more about the benefits of compassion, we will learn more and more about its potent and positive effects on relationships.  Compassion is powerful because it has a double impact.  The first impact comes from the rewards we experience when we act with compassion.  The second impact comes from the benefits we experience when others, including our partner, express their gratitude for our behavior.  It is almost by definition a win-win situation.

 

In case you are interested, you can read more from Emma Seppala and contact her at emmaseppala.com.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.

More on Gratitude and Lasting Relationships

This is the third time I have blogged about gratitude. You can see the first one here and the second one here. You may be thinking, sheesh this guy must believe that expressing gratitude is really important.  I do. In each of the posts I have said something different about the impact of gratitude.  One consistent theme, though, is that expressing gratitude is a remarkably easy way to help relationships last.

About four or five years ago, I had an experience that I still think about today.  You may be thinking that if it had such a big influence on me I ought to remember exactly when it was.  True, but I don’t.  I was visiting some friends in Columbus, OH.  They had two other friends, Tom and David, over for dinner while I was visiting.  Tom and David were friends and colleagues at work—not partners in an intimate relationship.  They were both in their early-30s. And I think they were both Canadian, which goes a long way to explaining how they treated each other because Canadians are very polite people.

It wasn’t that they were just polite to each other.  Rather, they expressed their gratitude toward each other more often than I have ever seen two men do.  Even the smallest action, like passing the bread at dinner, was received with a sincere thank you.  Now, I am Canadian too and so generally I’m very polite.  But watching Tom and David made me feel like a rude slug.

I think about this experience every time I see a couple that does not typically express gratitude—like the husband who does not thank his wife for making a nice dinner or the wife who does not tell her husband how much she appreciates that he picked up his dirty socks.  (I know…very sexist examples, but you get the point.)  It is a very discouraging sign for the health of a relationship. So often I think how much better off the couple would be by exchanging a simple, “Thank you,” “I appreciate it,” or even, “How kind of you.”

In a recent article in the journal Psychological Science, Nathaniel Lambert, a psychologist at Florida State University, and his colleagues suggest that gratitude, “…signals to the target that his or her communal actions were both useful to and desired by the expresser. Thus, it validates the target’s actions and encourages the target to repeat or even enhance efforts to be responsive to the partner; such efforts, in turn, should please the partner (increasing relationship satisfaction) and enhance the communal strength of the relationship” (p. 5).

That is, saying thank you is more than just a nice thing to do.  It communicates to your partner that they did the right thing and implies that you would like it if they did it again.  This acknowledgement is especially useful for new couples that are still trying to figure out each other’s likes and dislikes, but it is useful for all couples. How often have you heard someone lament “I just don’t know what she wants,” or “I don’t know how to make him happy.”  Clear expressions of gratitude, then, provide useful information to your partner on ways to make you happy.

Now it may seem obvious that expressing gratitude to your partner will help them feel more appreciated and make them generally more cheerful towards you. However, expressing gratitude also provides us with more intangible benefits. The main point of the Lambert article is, in fact, that expressing gratitude not only makes your partner feel more content with your relationship, but it will also make you feel more fulfilled.

Lambert and his colleagues suggest that expressing gratitude fosters a greater sense that we are participating in a communal relationship. By communal, I mean that each person is concerned for the welfare of their partner—perhaps even more so than with their own welfare.  They don’t do a favor only after having received a favor.  In fact, they may do favor after favor, without thought of repayment, because they feel a sense of responsibility to care for their partner. When you express gratitude toward your partner for washing the dishes (even though it was your turn), you acknowledge their actions and therefore recognize that you are in the kind of relationship where people do nice things for each other—not because they are required or expected to, but simply because they want to.

One of the great things about expressing gratitude is that doing so is entirely free.  Unfortunately, many people have lost the habit of saying thank you.  Fortunately, with very little effort, and just a little practice, two little words can help to create a lasting sense of unity and contentment.

In case you are interested…..

Lambert, N. M., Clark, M. S., Durtschi, J., Fincham, F. D., & Graham, S. M. (2010). Benefits of expressing gratitude: Expressing gratitude to a partner changes one’s view of the relationship.  Psychological Science, 21, 574-580.

 

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.

Future Consequences and Lasting Relationships, Part 2

Last week, I suggested that one of the most important things in life is figuring out how to balance those times when we want to live for the moment and those times when we should plan for the future. 
 
I said that there are two aspects that turn these decisions into real dilemmas. The first is that there is no hard and fast rule. That is, sometimes we should be planning for the future and other times we should be living for the moment. But knowing which is which is often very difficult.
 
The second is that when we are faced with a dilemma of this nature, it is not just between an immediate consequence and a distant one.  Immediate consequences tend to be more certain and more concrete.  That is, if I eat a piece of chocolate cake I am sure to enjoy it and I know how good it will be.  But many factors will influence whether I suffer from heart disease and even if I do it is impossible to know what that will feel like or what the outcome will be.  We can hardly fault people for choosing the favorable option when it is more immediate and more certain.
 
I have been thinking about the importance of considering future consequences for almost twenty years now.  I published the first paper on it in 1994 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  My sense has always been that we can divide people into two categories—those who tend to think about future consequences in deciding how to act and those who tend to be more focused on the immediate.  You probably have a good sense of which type of person you are, and the important thing to note is that there is no right or wrong way to be.  At the end of this post you will find the Consideration of Future Consequences (CFC) Scale.  Answer the 14 questions to see how you score. 
 
Even though I have not directly addressed the possible influence of CFC in relationships you can probably see how it might be relevant.  Relationship difficulties tend to arise in relationships, for instance, when one partner is a spender and the other a saver, or when one partner wants to party and the other wants to start a family.  I am not saying that both partners have to be high or low in CFC, but it is essential that each partner understands the tendencies the other has to favor immediate or distant consequences.  Successful relationships require you to consider your partner’s needs and desires and keeping in mind your partner’s tendencies to think in terms of now or later will help you predict how they are likely to think or act in a given situation.
 
The Consideration of Future Consequences-14 Scale
 
For each of the statements shown, please indicate whether or not the statement is characteristic of you.  If the statement is extremely uncharacteristic of you (not at all like you) please respond with a “1” in the space at the beginning of the statement; if the statement is extremely characteristic of you (very much like you) please respond with a “7.”  And, of course, use the numbers in the middle if you fall between the extremes.
1. ___ I consider how things might be in the future, and try to influence those things with my day to day behavior.
 
2. ___ Often I engage in a particular behavior in order to achieve outcomes that may not result for many years.
 
3. ___ I only act to satisfy immediate concerns, figuring the future will take care of itself.
 
4. ___ My behavior is only influenced by the immediate (i.e., a matter of days or weeks) outcomes of my actions.
 
5. ___ My convenience is a big factor in the decisions I make or the actions I take.
 
6. ___ I am willing to sacrifice my immediate happiness or well-being in order to achieve future outcomes.
 
7. ___ I think it is important to take warnings about negative outcomes seriously even if the negative outcome will not occur for many years.
 
8. ___ I think it is more important to perform a behavior with important distant consequences than a behavior with less important immediate consequences.
 
9. ___ I generally ignore warnings about possible future problems because I think the problems will be resolved before they reach crisis level.
 
10. ___ I think that sacrificing now is usually unnecessary since future outcomes can be dealt with at a later time.
 
11. ___ I only act to satisfy immediate concerns, figuring that I will take care of future problems that may occur at a later date.
 
12. ___ Since my day to day work has specific outcomes, it is more important to me than behavior that has distant outcomes.
 
13. ___ When I make a decision, I think about how it might affect me in the future.
 
14. ___ My behavior is generally influenced by future consequences.
 
 
Scoring the Scale:
 
For items 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12 take each score and subtract it from 8.  So if you originally answered Item 1 with a 7, cross out the 7 and replace it with a 1 (8-7=1). Then add up these seven new numbers along with your original responses to the other seven items (1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 13, 14) to arrive at one overall score.
 
Your score can range from 14 to 98. The middle of the scale would be a total score of 56.  If your score is higher than 56 then you tend to consider future consequences.  And of course the closer you are to 98 (the highest possible score) the stronger this tendency is.  Scoring below 56 indicates that you tend to consider immediate consequences to a greater extent and the closer to 14 (the lowest possible score) your score is, the stronger this tendency is.
 
If you have any trouble with this please feel free to email me. I would be happy to help out.
In case you are interested…
 
Joireman, J., Shaffer, M., Balliet, D., & Strathman, A.  (2011).  Promotion orientation explains why future oriented people exercise and eat healthy: Evidence from the two‐factor Consideration of Future Consequences-14 Scale.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1272–1287.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.