“Not with a bang, but a whimper,” goes the poem, and that is the way many marriages end. A whimper, not a bang. The final break is not caused by anger or abuse or infidelity. Most marriages wither and die a slow, agonizing death from too little compassion.
Compassion is sympathy for the pain and suffering of another. The simple appreciation of mortal frailty makes people human and humane and less isolated from others.
Compassion forms emotional bonds. People fall in love with another person who cares about how they feel. Most often what people fight about now is not money or sex or in-laws or raising the kids. These problems seem insurmountable only when someone hurts. What causes the hurt, that is, what spouses really fight about, is the impression that a partner doesn’t care how he or she feels. An insensitive person seems abusive. This sets in motion a downward spiral. Compassion decreases, resentment increases, common problems seem insoluble. In time, contempt infiltrates the marriage.
Contempt is disdain for the pain of others for any number of reasons (moral standing, character defects, mental instability, ignorance, or general unworthiness). The loss of compassion makes for chronic resentment, anger, or emotional abuse. Partners justify their contempt with what passes (in his or her mind) as “evidence” that the partner is selfish, lazy, narcissistic, crazy, abusive. This feeds on itself. Mutual contempt makes them both feel chronically criticized and attacked. Each feels like a victim and rationalizes bad behavior as reactions to the awful behavior of the other.
Defenses become habits, and they resist change through insight. Their defenses justify their resentment and their contempt that they cannot possibly see each other. Neither can they see that resentment and contempt have made each into someone he or she is not.
The problem is that most couples are afraid to embrace compassion once they’ve been hurt.