Relationship Help: Is Your Lifestyle Making You Less Compassionate?

The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention. ~ Oscar Wilde

We’d like to think we’re in the driver’s seat of our life—that we have the capacity to rise above negative circumstances or life’s stresses when needed, and to act in ways that are consistent with our highest values and aspirations. And we do possess this ability—at times.

Research by social psychologists has shown that external situations (the circumstances of our lives) has a profound impact on the decisions we make and on our behavior. And these circumstances have the power to override how we would like to act (or how we think we’d react).

We may even find ourselves acting in ways that contradict our most cherished values and commitments.

When Kind-Compassionate People Act Like They Don’t Care

“I thought our lives would be a lot easier because of the extra money, but ever since Sophia accepted her promotion at her law firm, it feels like we’ve faced an onslaught of relationship problems. The pressure is getting to her and hurting our marriage. She’s snippy and almost feels uncaring to me at times—this is so not like her. I know deep down she cares, but I’m afraid…lately I don’t recognize her and our marriage is suffering.”

~Javier, describing the impact of his wife’s job promotion on her behavior and their marriage

Javier isn’t alone. Many couples feel and act differently (less relationship-friendly) when faced with external stresses and pressures. And sometimes our capacity for kindness and compassion fall victim to the impact of outside stresses and unwelcome life circumstances. 

Understanding The Power & Impact of Circumstance

The famous Good Samaritan seminary study (by Darley & Batson) shows how powerful one’s environment can be in shaping our behavior. In the study, seminary students were told that they had to go to another building to complete an important task. But unbeknownst to the students, while walking to the other building, they would each pass a man hunched over in an alley and in apparent distress (the seminary students didn’t know that distressed actor was part of the study).

It turned out that many of the seminary students stopped to check if the man was all right—not a surprising research finding since you’d expect that seminary students are altruistic, kind and compassionate individuals. But there was one more part to the study.

Now here’s the fascinating finding: Before leaving for the other building, half of students were told  they needed to rush to the other building in order to finish the project, that they were running late and should hurry—so  a sense of urgency was created in this group of students.

For this hurried/rushed group, only 10% of the seminary students stopped to see if the man in distress needed assistance.

In this study, individuals who value love, compassion and kindness momentarily acted selfishly, unable to uphold their values because of competing priorities.

Is your lifestyle draining your compassion-reserves?

Aren’t today’s couples rushed, over-extended, and overwhelmed by a laundry list of competing  priorities? 

Like the hurried seminary students who momentarily abandoned their ideals and walked right past someone in need, are couples losing the ability to see what they need from each other? 

Are our lifestyles inadvertently draining our compassion-reserves, the reserves that feed our marriages and relationships, the reserves our loved ones count on?

If so, then we have to consider the possibility that our current lifestyles have the potential to suppress the best in each of us (as well as bring out the best in us)—that valuing the traits of compassion and loving-kindness (traits that feed a healthy marriage/relationship) may not be enough to truly honor the love we have for our spouses/partners.

In order to see the beauty of a landscape or natural wonder, you wouldn’t drive past at seventy miles an hour and yell to your partner, “Quick, look at that!”  Instead, you might slow down, circle around and  even pull over and get out in order to see, really see and savor the experience of the moment. In a similar vein, couples need to stop hurtling past one another and slow down—we need to create moments where we can reconnect with our own values (like compassion and loving-kindness) so that we can truly live these experiences with our loved ones.

How will you create moments (even small moments) that will allow you to honor your values as a spouse or partner? 

Wishing you and your partner abundant loving-kindness!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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