When my partner, John, suggested we paint the interior of our house ourselves I laughed. My patience for working slowly, methodically and evenly only extends to words. Paint’s uncontrollable nature, how it drips, rolls and runs while you try to quell the damage, held no allure for me. A veteran of the construction industry, John looked disappointed. “It will be fun,” he promised. The next thing I knew I was decked out in a white coverall rolling paint in the dining room. I had no idea that after eight years of a terrific romance our relationship was about to leap to a whole new level. However, the science behind what makes a good relationship might have predicted it.
The importance of self-compassion
Anyone who’s delved into a home improvement project knows that accidents and mistakes inevitably occur. Almost immediately I spilled a pan of paint all over the floor, used eggshell instead of gloss on the baseboard, and rolled before I cut-in a closet. Rather than berate myself for the errors I shrugged, cleaned up and started over while John cheerfully exclaimed, “You’re not the first person to do that!” We have a long history of emotionally supporting each other. In a short span of time, however, we both had to frequently support ourselves, too, and that’s where a new study sheds interesting light on what makes a good relationship.
Educational psychologist and international self-compassion expert, Kristin Neff, explains in a University of Texas at Austin interview, “Self-compassion refers to the ability to be kind and understanding toward oneself when faced with personal inadequacies or difficult situations.” According to research co-authored by Neff and published in the journal Self and Identity, self-compassion not only makes us healthier, happier people but also predicts healthy romantic relationships.
The findings, based on a survey of 104 couples who self-assessed their own levels of self-compassion plus their partner’s relationship behavior, also revealed that a) offering kindness and support to ourselves makes us better at giving those gifts to our partners; b) study participants who described themselves as self-compassionate were frequently described by partners as affectionate, intimate and accepting; c) the level of self-compassion (versus self-esteem) predicts healthier relationship interaction.
These results deepen previous research about the benefits of self-compassion. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychiatry earlier published a study co-authored by Levi Baker and James McNulty, which questioned whether or not self-compassion helps or hurts a relationship. Too much self-compassion, for example, can reduce the motivation to correct interpersonal mistakes. The study found that the positive effects of self-compassion in a relationship resulted from the presence of internal characteristics that motivated correcting interpersonal mistakes, and that these characteristics were separated by gender. For men, a higher degree of conscientiousness linked self-compassion to a greater desire to repair interpersonal mistakes and more constructive problem-solving behaviors. Alternatively, in women self-compassion was always positively associated with the motivation to correct problems with a partner.
How to be more self-compassionate
By the time we’d finished painting the house John and I found our relationship punctuated by a deeper bond, connection and trust. Partly this came from the satisfaction of completing a major project together. Partly, research suggests this outcome due to how we treated ourselves and each other through fixing some very large (as in, “Honey, we need to repaint the living room!”) mistakes.
Neff’s work advocates the imminence of increasing self-compassion. Recommended exercises include:
1. Exploring self-compassion through writing, by a) identifying what about yourself you don’t like and that makes you feel inadequate, b) writing a letter to yourself as an unconditionally loving imaginary friend, c) allowing yourself to feel comfort and compassion as you read the letter to yourself.
2. Changing your self-talk by recognizing when you are being self-critical, softening that voice with compassion (versus judgment), and reframing self-critical observations in a more kind way.
3. Finding a more kind and gentle way to motivate yourself than through self-criticism. When you notice yourself being harshly judgmental recognize the discomfort that causes and shift your inner dialogue to a more supportive perspective.
Neff writes on her website, “…if you really want to motivate yourself, love is more powerful than fear.” The same is true in relationships. Perhaps that philosophy explains more than any other interpretation of the data why self-compassion can be such a terrific predictor of what makes a good relationship. The more we live in love with ourselves the more we exude loving energy, behave from a place of loving kindness, and remain open to both giving and receiving love in a manner that creates, supports and sustains lasting romantic bonds.