Can you teach yourself to be more compassionate in relationships?
August 14, 2015 12:02 PM   Subscribe

Need help in stopping a toxic behavioral pattern in post-divorce relationships. More details inside.

After recently divorcing, I have met someone that has prompted some internal conflicts that I need to rationalize. Apart from the romance aspect and all the positive feelings that come with it, this person has confronted me with some behavioral quirks that I have developed in my past relationship that I need to get rid of - for example, the habit of constantly having to justify my actions and, on occasion, acting as if I am the victim and only taking into account how upset (and right) I might feel about the situation.

So in summary, what I am doing is potentially ruining something that could be nice into something toxic by acting in a nasty way - and not thinking of how this person might feel about being compared to a previous partner - not being considerate/compassionate at all. I have done this a few times with this person and despite enjoying what we have going on, he has made it clear that what I said on those occasions was hurtful and selfish (not in these exact words, but we talked about it at length and I (rationally) completely understand where he is coming from. No one deserves to be compared to someone's previous partner.)

My question is, how can I stop myself from bringing such behaviour into this relationship (or any other relationship I might have in future) and making references to stuff that happened in the past? How can I train my brain to be more compassionate in this specific context and avoid jeopardizing my relationships/hurting people unnecessarily? Insights from people who had relationships post-divorce particularly welcome. Thanks so much for reading my question!
posted by heartofglass to Human Relations (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm divorced and have had two serious relationships since then. One of them ended recently, for many reasons, but unhealthy patterns I had from previous relationships were a factor. I think you need to find a way to process any unresolved feelings outside of your current relationship, whether through therapy or journaling or art or reading self-help books or talking to trusted friends.

You may also be struggling to be compassionate toward yourself right now, which makes it harder to be compassionate toward others. In general, make sure you're treating yourself with kindness and love.
posted by treachery, faith, and the great river at 12:25 PM on August 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think there's an important difference between "stop [threatening] me!" and "I'm feeling [threatened] right now," especially if you can add to the latter a positive assumption about their intent like "I don't think you're trying to [threaten] me, but that's how I'm feeling."

You can't not feel how you feel, but you can be clear with yourself and with them that what you are reacting to are ghosts of the past, in part if not entirely. In an ideal world, the other person might be able to help (next time: "I'm not trying to [attack] you about this, but..."), but ultimately, it's your deal to take care of.

I say all this having been on both sides, but particularly thinking of times when someone was feeling victimized by me and I felt it was unnecessary or unfair (e.g., I completely was not thinking those bad things about them that they claimed I did).

If you frame it that way ("I'm feeling criticized" instead of "stop criticizing me"), it creates space for a more interesting conversation in which you and your partner can be compassionate about those feelings, and maybe curious about where they came from or how to prevent them. (Was your partner in fact trying to be critical?) If you were to instead immediately frame your partner as the bad guy who caused those feelings, that pits you guys as opponents and shuts down the conversation.
posted by salvia at 1:30 PM on August 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

ok, i'm not divorced and i may be misunderstanding the question, but i'm going to chime in because i think the answer is "hell yes". i think this is what a healthy, resilient relationship is all about. you've already done the hardest bit, which is mutually recognising there's some issue (in what seems like an incredibly civilised way). and this isn't just you - at least while you're seeing this guy, it's a joint thing, or should be. the way it works (imho) is that you become more aware, and start "catching" yourself, often after the fact. so there's a fair amount of "oh crap, i just did it again, i'm sorry". but at the same time you're showing you care, and are trying, and perhaps sharing some of why this is happening, and they are understanding and growing to accommodate your "quirks". as you get better at understanding yourself and presenting yourself (change happens on multiple levels - and there's a certain amount of faking it 'til you make it) they also learn more about why you're like that, and can see that you're trying to change. you develop a mutual respect that helps tolerate the mistakes. eventually you reach some kind of happy point from which you can look back and say that you have both changed. and this won't be just one issue. he'll fuck up too and you can call him out on it. none of us are perfect - and you never get perfect. you both learn to adapt and respect. go for it!

sorry if this is terribly naive or something, but it seems to work for us...
posted by andrewcooke at 2:08 PM on August 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

How recently did you divorce? I found for myself that I really needed some time before I could get into another relationship post-divorce. No matter how nice the new guy was, I still had an awful lot of anger at my ex which needed defusing before I could sensibly date someone else. I really had to work on letting go of all that before I could stop being triggered by pretty much any guy I happened to like.

Have you given yourself enough time?
posted by frumiousb at 5:40 PM on August 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

To me it depends on what the issues are. A post divorce "me focus" seems not only reasonable but probably smart.

I still have an absolute zero tolerance policy for jealousy more than 25 years after a particularly bad long term relationship and 10 years into my ongoing marriage. It's not something I can even allow playful jokes about because it just sets off air-raid sirens in my head.

I don't consider this unreasonable at all and women who couldn't accept it just weren't viable partners for me. You learned things from your divorce. What some people might consider toxic behaviors are sometimes actually smart boundaries to develop in order for you to have respectful adult relationships.

So be sure your behaviour is actually toxic before you eliminate it. It might be reasonable and your prospective partner may not be.
posted by srboisvert at 8:27 PM on August 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

You still sound very guarded, emotionally and otherwise. Opening up to and accepting the flow of feelings toward another person isn't something to be forced.

I would suggest not pushing yourself into anything for which you don't feel ready, and by ready I don't mean an intellectual understanding of ready, or intellectually wanting to be ready, but an emotional openness, which signals readiness.

Try slowing down, taking things slowly, and feeling your way one step at a time. You have time.
posted by simulacra at 12:09 AM on August 15, 2015

I was recently on the other side of this. Be kind to your partner. And be kind to yourself as you try to change. Talk about things a lot.

It's interesting, my ex literally called me by her ex's name frequently. But I would let that slide. The bigger deal was the lack of kindness.
posted by persona au gratin at 3:14 AM on August 15, 2015

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