Compassion must surpass love in lasting relationships

Do you ever question the love in your marriage? Do you ever feel that your children or friends don't really love you?

Worrying about love is something all of us do from time to time. We can feel hurt and rejected when something goes wrong in a relationship. We might ask, "Do I have anyone who deeply cares about me?"

While most of us could define love as anything from total madness about a lover to a warm and fuzzy feeling about a favorite uncle, we all know that arguments and anger can enter any relationship.

Love is an idealistic state. Actually, love supports us and works to our advantage if we let it grow into compassion.

If we can extend ourselves enough to overlook flaws and craziness in others, we can have more people in our lives who will support and love us.

A woman we'll call Julie says her husband began to act really depressed after he turned 60. "He talked gloom and doom," says Julie. "He'd sit around and stare at the wall."

Julie says, "My husband's strange behaviors made me feel he didn't love me anymore. I'd obsess about the fact our marriage was never going to feel right again."

Julie finally got up the nerve to ask her husband to confide in her. She gently asked him to share his worst fears about life and getting older.

"When my husband got through talking, I felt true compassion for him," says Julie. "I saw that he needed a lot of emotional support. He was worried about his health. He was worried about his friends who were all experiencing failing health."

After this conversation, says Julie, she tries to look at life through her husband's eyes. "I am determined to have true compassion for him, and I think he can feel that," says Julie. "We all have to imagine what the other person is thinking and feeling. It's a totally different approach to a relationship."

Julie is right. Every relationship has its ups and downs. Compassion is key for stabilizing everything you've invested in the other person. It keeps each of us from being so self-absorbed in viewing what's going on.

For example, if you're forced to deal with an aging mother-in-law you don't particularly like, it's better to manage the situation through your spouse's eyes.

Even if you can't have a lot of compassion for your mother-in-law, it pays to show compassion for your spouse. Knowing how the entire situation affects your spouse will keep you from saying and doing destructive things.

"My husband's mom was always a tyrant," says a woman we'll call Wendy. "But, when my mother-in-law had open heart surgery, I tried to view the situation from my husband's eyes. He really didn't want to give up his weekends to sit with her. I took up some slack myself, but I wasn't going to tell him to love his mother when he didn't."

Compassion means you don't have to change anyone. You simply accept their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as they are. This takes the stress out of a tricky relationship or a tricky situation involving people that don't think and behave in the same manner you do.

A minister we'll call Sam says he hears a lot of confessions. "I realize that every person is on a different level of personal and spiritual growth," he told us. "So, when someone confesses something really personal in nature to me - such as thinking about a married person or drinking too much - I try to have compassion."

Sam says, for example, that some of his older church members who don't have a spouse find themselves thinking about a neighbor or friend who is married to someone else.

"It would be easy for me to quote Bible verses and judge them," says Sam. "But, if I lived alone and had experienced no affection or love in five years, wouldn't I be doing the same thing? We're only human."

When we want pure love, says Sam, we want a perfect version of it. "For instance, most ministers want saints serving on their church boards. But, the truth is that some of my board members think about divorcing their spouses or disowning their adult children who never visit them."

Sam says he counsels his church members to have compassion for people. "Accept them at the level they are on," he explains. "This gives you the best chance to help them grow and move up to the next level."

Looking at life through someone else's eyes takes practice. This doesn't mean you must overlook craziness that affects you or that you must not speak up when things are wrong.

Compassion means that you honestly take time to think about how the other person's mind works. Then, if you must reprimand them or disagree, you can say, "I know how you feel and I respect that, but I need this or that from you."

Compassion means you can preserve the other person's feelings - not making things worse - while gently pushing someone in a new direction.

Julie, mentioned above, says she helped her husband focus on living 24 hours at a time. "I helped him see that none of us know if we have five years to live or five minutes," Julie points out.

"But," she emphasizes, "I helped my husband see that making the most of every 24-hour period ensures we create the best life we can. By living one day at a time, not worrying about yesterday or tomorrow, we can really live our best lives in the moment."

Julie says her relationship with her husband began to improve. "He saw that I cared enough about him to review his concerns and help him move forward on life's journey. Compassion for him kept our relationship growing and changing in a healthy way."