Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Cultivate a Compassionate Relationship With Michelle Becker
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 404 of Live Happy Now. It’s Valentine’s Day. And as the rest of the world focuses on romantic notions, we’re going to get real. I’m your host, Paula Felps, and this week I’m sitting down with marriage and family therapist, Michelle Becker, to talk about how we can become more compassionate in our relationships.
Michelle developed the Compassion for Couples program, is co-founder of the teacher-training program at the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, and a senior teacher of compassion cultivation training. She also hosts the Well Connected Podcast, and is author of Compassion for Couples: Building the Skills of Loving Connection.
Today, she shares with us some of the key ways that practicing compassion can transform our relationships, and then she gives us some tips for getting started. Let’s have a listen.
[00:00:56] PF: Michelle, welcome to Live Happy Now.
[00:00:58] MB: Thank you. Happy to be here, Paula. Thanks for inviting me.
[00:01:01] PF: Well, it’s Valentine’s Day. Happy Valentine’s Day.
[00:01:04] MB: Thank you. You too.
[0:01:06] PF: Yeah. This is a time when we are absolutely inundated with all these images of romantic love and grand gestures, and that’s why I wanted to talk to you because it’s not always that way. I wanted to talk to you about the side that gets overlooked, and that’s this more mature part of the relationship, this later phase of love. So to kick it off, can you talk about how this stage, this later stage of romance and love, is so much different than the love we have who are falling in love?
[00:01:34] MB: Yeah. I think it might help actually to talk about what happens when we fall in love and then how we progress to that mature love. So in this falling in love phase, we are actually dosed with chemicals like oxytocin. What happens is that prevents us. We have this sort of, not all of us, but often this sense of being on cloud nine like, “Oh, he’s so wonderful. She’s so wonderful. They’re so wonderful,” right? Like, “This is the thing that has made my life happy and complete. My happiness rests with them,” right?
The thing is that this hormone cocktail prevents us from seeing any qualities in our future partners that we don’t like. We’re just blinded to it for a while. But the cocktail wears off. When the cocktail wears off, the curtain lifts. Suddenly, we can see that this person actually has qualities we don’t care for and habits we don’t care for. It could be small, little irritating things like they don’t put the cap back on the toothpaste or they don’t pick their socks up or whatever it might be, right?
It’s kind of an uncomfortable thing to realize, “Oh, no,” because we’ve tied all our happiness to this idea that there’s this other person out here that completes us, that is the source, the root of our happiness. Now, to find out that they’re just a human being and they have qualities we don’t like can be really painful.
Psychologist Rick Hanson talks about the negativity bias. He says we’re like Velcro for negative emotions and Teflon for positive emotions. So once we start to notice negatives, we can really fixate on those negatives. The positives that we were so happy about just a little while ago, we’re not so much noticing anymore, right? We’re used to those. These new negatives we see, really we fixate on.
Barbara Fredrickson, a positive emotions expert, she talks about how when we’re in a state of positive emotions, it broadens our field of vision. We see lots. But when we’re in a state of negative emotion, our whole field of vision narrows down to that one thing. So in this kind of second phase, we can get really fixated on all the problems in our relationship and especially all the problems with our partner.
[00:03:53] PF: So as a couples counselor, as a therapist, do you see relationships that could be very good and solid that they come to you, and it’s simply that they are focusing on the wrong thing?
[00:04:04] MB: Yeah, all the time. Most people come into couple’s therapy because they think there’s something wrong with their partner, and they would like me to fix their partner, right? That’s really why they come in. What they learn actually is that focusing on their partner in that way isn’t actually helpful. It kind of feeds this negative relational downward spiral.
But when we pause and start to learn to take care of ourselves, so this is where self-compassion comes in, and it can be very helpful. When we learn that we can meet our own needs and we’re not so dependent on our partner meeting our needs. In other words, we can be a full human being fully ourselves, accept ourselves, our good qualities and our growing edges. That kind of takes a lot of the pressure off the relationship.
Then when we start to view our partner in that same way, when we start to look at our partner as a whole human being that has both qualities that we admire, that we’re fond of, that we love, and also qualities that they struggle with where they’re like a complete human being. Nobody’s perfect, right? We start to understand that when they do things that bother us, it’s not because they don’t love us, which is usually the sense we make of it. It’s because they’re in pain in some sort of way, right?
That actually kind of softens our hearts. Then we can show up for our part – Instead of getting into feeling offended and defensive and whatever the other reactivity habits might be, we can start to see, oh, I don’t have to take that personally. That isn’t actually about me. Gosh, they must be having a hard time right now. It really changes everything. So in this mature love, which was the question you asked me, in the mature love phase, it’s really characterized by a deep love but also acceptance, acceptance of ourselves and our partners as we are.
It doesn’t mean we don’t have qualities we still need to work on and we still need to change. It just means that we don’t have to get rid of the things we don’t like about each other to love each other, to care about each other, to show up.
[00:06:16] PF: That’s terrific. So oftentimes, and I know this has happened in my own relationship, we all feel very aggravated with the other person, and it’s really me. It’s like I’m having a bad day. That same thing would not have bothered me on a normal day or if I wasn’t hormonal or whatever that case may be. So how often is that the case that it’s really not what the other person is doing? It’s just how you’re feeling and how you’re responding to it.
[00:06:43] MB: I love that you said that, Paula, because that’s exactly what I’m talking about that when our partner is not skillful, they snap at us, for example, as you’re saying. Even if they snap at us and say it’s our fault or you’re such a or you never or you whatever, it isn’t really about us. It really is an indicator that our partner right now has some pain going on underneath that that’s causing them to snap. Just like you’re saying that they’re having a bad day, that they’re stressed out, that they learned that they have a health problem or someone they love has a health problem, that something’s going on at work, that they didn’t get enough sleep last night.
As human beings, we’re subject to all these different causes and conditions for how we are right now. Really, I’m just excited that you’re owning that and naming that. What I want you to know is this is just how we’re wired as human beings. It’s not just you. It’s all of us.
[00:07:38] PF: When we’re on the receiving end of that, though, it’s difficult to sit back and say, “Oh. Well, they’re just having a bad day.” It’s easy to fire right back. So how do we change the way that we receive that?
[00:07:52] MB: Well, let me first say that we don’t have to accept bad behavior. It is okay and even important to set limits if somebody is doing something harmful. But when we don’t take it personally, when we realize, oh, this isn’t actually about me, even when my partner’s aiming it at me. When we realize that we can settle a little bit and then we can become curious about what’s going on in them.
Let me give you an example. Your partner comes home late from work, and this is a habit, and you’re having a particularly bad day. You really were counting on them being home on time, and they come in the door, and you snap at them, right? So your partner, they can snap back at you, in which case, you’re off to the races. Things are going to get worse, right?
But what if your partner instead said, “Hey, Paula. You know what? I gather you’re probably pretty stressed right now. But please don’t snap at me. What happened in your day today? I really want to be there for you. Can you tell me what’s going on?”
[00:08:51] PF: That just completely disarms you. It’s –
[00:08:54] MB: Yeah. Changes everything, right? But we have to first catch it ourselves. We have to practice catching. When our reactivity arises, it’s our threat defense system that gets activated when somebody attacks us. When our reactivity arises, we have to notice, “Ah, I’m getting angry. Why am I angry? I wasn’t angry a minute ago,” right? “Oh, it’s not actually my anger. It’s my partner’s. Oh, why are they angry? Ah, because something painful just happened to them, or they’re in the midst of some pain,” right?
The more we practice it, the quicker it happens in the moment for us. The quicker we can be with not catching the anger, but instead noticing that’s not mine. That’s theirs, and probably there’s something painful underneath.
[00:09:39] PF: I love that because that’s an incredible skill, and it’s not just relegated to your romantic relationship. That’s great with your children and your parents, your entire siblings. I mean, everything.
[00:09:48] MB: Your coworkers, everywhere. Yeah, everywhere.
[00:09:52] PF: Yeah. That alone is just a workshop you need to offer us too –
[00:09:59] MB: Yeah. It turns is out that people’s behavior is actually theirs. It’s not about us, right?
[00:10:05] PF: That’s so hard to learn. So you have a new book coming out, which I’m really excited about, Compassion for Couples, and you go into using compassion for yourself and for your relationship. I really want to get into this, but very curious to find out how you became so interested in studying compassion, as it relates to relationships.
[00:10:27] MB: Well, I started actually with a curiosity about relationships. So they’ve kind of always been my thing. So when I went to grad school, I chose to be a marriage and family therapist because that was the one that worked with relationships or was specialized in relationships.
Then as part of that, I took some continuing education, and I learned about mindfulness. I was like, “Oh, there’s a name for that. That was the state I was in when I had been practicing yoga, right? Oh, there’s a name for that. It’s called mindfulness.” Then as part of that, I learned about compassion, and I learned that compassion is actually a skill that can be trained. So it’s true that we’re born with varying degrees of compassion. But all of us, no matter how much or little we’re born with, can learn more compassion.
So I was on a mindfulness retreat when self-compassion just kind of spontaneously arose for me. So I was opening to the pain in my life, and this sense of someone, which was myself, caring about me arose, right? That there was a sense that I could comfort myself, I could soothe myself, I could protect and stand up for myself. It was really very much a big change for me, and I began to –
Well, shortly after that, I found the Mindful Self-Compassion Program. Chris Germer and Kristin Neff’s program, and they invited me to start teaching self-compassion. I thought this is really the thing that changes everything. Then when we co-developed a teacher training along with Steve Hickman for how to teach this program, and on one of those trainings, people were asking me, “Well, how would you use this with couples?” I went, “Oh. Well, in session one, I would do this. And then session two.”
So I developed a program, Compassion for Couples, and that’s what I do. I teach couples how to relate to themselves and to each other with more compassion. Because when we have compassion in our primary relationships, when we have that safety net underneath us, that soft place to land, not only does it change our relationships, but it really changes us. We now can go out into the world with more courage because when we fail, which is part of life, there’s a way to be held, to recover, to be okay. It ripples out, and it gives us the courage to be more fully ourselves and live our lives more fully.
[00:12:47] PF: That’s really powerful. We know what compassion is. We know what it means. But how do we practice it? Especially, how do we start practicing self-compassion? Because I believe you say that’s where it starts. We practice compassion for ourselves first and then for others.
[00:13:02] MB: In relationships, so the research is that most people are much more compassionate toward others than they are toward themselves, that we’re kind of trained in that way. Be kind to other people, right? But a lot of us are not trained to be kind to ourselves. So we have this capacity, and it’s a matter of just learning to include ourselves in our circle of compassion.
So we learn to show up by – One of the ways that we can harness our power for compassion is to – When we realize that we’re suffering in some way, struggling, we’re having a hard time, to actually pause and notice, “Oh, I’m having a hard time right now.” Often, we don’t notice. We just find ourselves three episodes in binge-watching Netflix or whatever our go-to balm is, salve is, right? We have to notice that we’re suffering. Then we recognize that suffering is part of being human. This is a shared human condition.
Then we might ask ourselves what we need. What do I need right now? For many of us in the beginning, we don’t have the answer to that. So we can kind of trick ourselves into finding the answer by asking ourselves, “Okay. If my good friend that I really care about had the same problem as me, what would I say to them?” Ah, now we know what we need, right? Then we can turn it around and say that to ourselves. I’m here for you. It’s okay. It isn’t your fault. We’ll get through this. Whatever it is we might need to hear.
[00:14:34] PF: So do you advise to have a daily self-compassion practice? Or how do they start implementing this and making it a daily part of who they are?
[00:14:43] MB: Well, so in terms of learning self-compassion, I think the Mindful Self-Compassion Program is excellent, and I recommend that because it teaches a lot of practices. We teach some of them also in the Compassion for Couples program, and I’ve got some of them, many of them actually, in my book as well.
But there are two kinds of practices. There’s formal practice, which is where we set aside time just to do that. We’re not doing something else at the same time. There are practices of following our breath. There are practices of saying kind phrases to ourselves, things like that. That’s a good baseline to have and to practice every day. But not everybody can or will set aside the time to practice like that.
So luckily, there’s also informal practice. In informal practices, how we integrate that as we go about our day, how we integrate. So the self-compassion break, it might be an example of that. We can practice that actually both ways. We can pause, do nothing else. We can say this is a moment of suffering. Acknowledge that we’re having a hard time right now. That suffering is part of any life. This is how it feels, for example, when couples are disagreeing. It’s painful, right? Or this is how it feels when we feel unloved, whatever it is, that this is just part of being a human being in a relationship.
Then we can offer some kindness to ourselves. I see you. I care about you, right? So we can do that in a formal way, setting aside time. But we can also do that, in the middle of a conversation with our partner, right? On the go. So our partner’s doing something that we don’t like. We’re feeling abandoned, whatever it might be. We can just notice to ourselves, “Oh, wow. This is really hard. This is really painful. Okay, this is part of being in a relationship.”
Then we can say something kind to ourselves. I’ll get through this. We’ll get through this. We can always work it out in the end, whatever it might be, right? You don’t have to say it out loud. You don’t have to close your eyes. You don’t have to do anything else. It doesn’t have to take a long time. It can be three short statements.
[00:16:49] PF: What I liked when you said that, you put your hand on your heart as you said that, and that’s something I’ve learned. Like Shauna Shapiro was a guest a couple years ago. She really taught me that. Then we had Jeanine Thompson recently, who talked about that same thing of putting your hand on your heart as you make a statement like that. Tell me why that is important.
[00:17:09] MB: So I love that you’re saying this. Dacher Keltner and his team, Greater Good, did some research into what is compassionate, what cultures around the world find compassionate, what’s the common theme. They found three things, and one of them was a kind touch.
As human beings, we are wired. Our physiology is wired to be comforted and soothed by kind touch. So if you think about it, a baby is crying, and you pick them up and cuddle them in a certain kind of way. That’s part of what helps them settle. The cool thing is we don’t need somebody else to activate our physiology. We can activate our own physiology. So often, there’s a spot on the body. You’re right. For me, it’s my heart. For many of us, it’s our heart. But it’s not the heart for everybody. Some people, it’s putting your hands on your cheeks, or it’s stroking the forearm, holding your own hand, all sorts of different places. But people can experiment with that, putting their hands in different places and seeing what effect it has on their bodies, right? What feels comforting and soothing? Isn’t that a cool thing? We can activate our own physiology.
[00:18:18] PF: I like that.
[00:18:19] MB: Yeah, me too.
[00:18:21] PF: Once we’ve practiced some self-compassion, and we’ve gotten more used to implementing it into our lives, how is that going to change our compassion for our partner? Because as you said, a lot of people come in that’s like change that person because he’s the problem. So how will we then start using compassion toward our partner?
[00:18:40] MB: So I love that you’ve said it that way, Paula. Change that person because he’s the problem. When we are in our threat defense system, if something has come up, and we’re distressed, we think the other person needs to change so that we can feel better. Change that person. He is the problem. Then I’ll feel better. That’s the hope, right?
But, wow, does it change everything when we realize I have the capacity to feel better, whether or not this person changes, whether or not this person does something different. I have the capacity to feel better. That’s self-compassion. We can tend to ourselves in that kind of way. We can give ourselves what we need. We don’t always have to get it from our partner. That’s hugely empowering when we figure that out.
Then we can use that to settle our own physiology. So now, we can still go back to our partner and say, “I need something different. It was really painful when you did this,” whatever it might be. But now, we’re saying it with calmer physiology and with some love in our hearts. Our partners can usually hear us better when we’re coming from that place than they can when we’re coming from the threat defense system, and we’re attacking.
[00:19:56] PF: Yeah. That makes perfect sense. I wanted to talk to you because in the foreword of your book, Chris Germer writes about the traps that couples fall into and how difficult it can be to get out of them. I wondered if you could give us an example of one or two of the most common traps that you see and then how we use compassion to get out of those, instead of use our old ways.
[00:20:19] MB: Yeah. So I’m not sure which traps he’s referring to. But what I think of when I think of these traps is I think of our physiology, just how we’re wired for survival. Paul Gilbert has done a lot of work on this. I really love his work. But he talks about that we have these different emotion regulation systems. The primary one, the one that is dominant when we’re stressed, is the threat defense system. People are familiar with that because it’s fight, flight, freeze. That’s where that lives, right?
I looked at, okay, so what happens in relationships when we’re in fight, flight, freeze? Well, fight turns into either blaming our partners or defensiveness. Flight turns into avoidance, right? We kind of disappear, back off. I don’t want to get into it. Which is actually we’re trying to protect the relationship often by doing that, right? Protect ourselves, protect our partners, protect the relationship. Freeze often turns into a kind of surrender, a kind of placating? Yes, dear. Sure, honey. Whatever you want. We don’t agree necessarily, but we think that we’re going to tell them what we think they want to hear so that they settled, so that they calm down, right?
Those are the things that really get us stuck in our relationship. It’s really good for our physical survival. It’s really bad for our relationships and our emotional lives, right? Because fighting doesn’t help anything. Abandoning your partner doesn’t help anything. Really, we do hate to be placated, right?
[00:21:47] PF: Right.
[00:21:48] MB: What we can do instead, and this is where self-compassion is so helpful, is we can notice our own distress. We can show up for ourselves, give ourselves what we need, whether that’s taking a break. But in a kind way, checking out, telling our partners, “Hey, you know what? This isn’t going well. I’m a little bit activated here. I’m going to take a break and tend to myself, but I’ll be back.” We always have to reassure. I care about you. I’m coming back, right? Because then our physiology has settled once we’ve taken care of ourselves. Now, we can actually see the other person.
Before that, we don’t really accurately see the other person. We have our story, and we think that’s it. Toxic certainty and let me just tell you, right? When we’ve settled our bodies, when we’ve opened our hearts a little bit, our minds are open. Now, we can approach with a little more humility, a little more curiosity. I know my experience. I hope you want to hear about that. I’d like to hear about your experience too. Turns out often we weren’t right. Something else was going on for our partner that we didn’t understand.
[00:22:56] PF: Can you talk about some of the things, some of the changes that you’ve seen in couples who start using this? Because I know like I’ve got friends, and you and I talked before we started recording. The pandemic was tough on relationships, and there are a lot of people I know who are really just kind of hanging in there and wondering if they really want to. It’s a difficult time for a lot of people. So would you share with that kind of how it can change relationships?
[00:23:24] MB: It changes relationships. So many things jumped to my mind. So it’s hard for me to kind of accurately describe all, but I’ll tell you a couple things that come to mind. One is we treat our partners generally the way we want to be treated. So use my relationship, for example. When I am distressed, when I’ve had some relationship thing happen, I really don’t want to be touched. I want to be heard. Once I’m heard, I relaxed a little bit. Okay, now you can touch me.
My partner does not want words, does not want to talk about it. He wants to be touched. He wants to be held, to be comforted, to be reassured in that kind of way. Then maybe we’ll be able to talk about it. So when there’s some disagreement, and I show up and say, “Let’s talk about it,” that’s not really going to be skillful for him, right, if he’s upset. So that’s one of the things is actually learning.
For me, learning, oh, when he’s upset, don’t ask him to talk about it. That’s not how he’s wired. Offer him a pat on the back, a hug, something like that. He’ll feel comforted, reassured. Okay, now maybe we can talk about it, right? So that’s one of the things is actually starting to see each other. When we see each other, when we really begin to understand each other, we have a lot more options about how to be skillful with each other in relationships. So that’s one of the ways that it changes.
Also, learning things like these emotion regulation systems. One is the threat defense system. One is the care system where compassion lives. But there’s another one, the drive system, which is about getting things done, achieving, wanting, pursuing, achieving, consuming. Very often, especially men, but not limited to men, have been socialized to solve the problem. Fix the problem, right? So their partner shows up and says, “I’m really having a hard time. Maybe it’s at work. Something else is going on with the kids, whatever. I’m really having a hard time.” I would say husband in this case, but please know it’s not gendered.
The husband says, “Well, you need to talk to your boss about,” blah, blah, blah, blah, or whatever it is, right? The wife just sort of collapses because that’s not what she wanted. What she wanted was just a kind, caring presence. What she wanted was for him just to say, “That really sucks. I’m so sorry that’s happening for you. How are you,” right? So one of the things in this Compassion for Couples program, in the last program that I taught, especially the men were like blown away.
[00:26:05] PF: They know they’re not supposed to fix it.
[00:26:07] MB: No. They didn’t know there was another option. I really did not know there was another option. So when they were like, as we practice communication, and we practice just that compassionate listening, how to actually just stay present while your partner’s talking, I mean, really, they went on and on. Their minds were blown. They’re like, “That’s all I have to do. That’s it? That’s what she wants?”
There just are a whole bunch of different ways that it shows up, and even people who have come into the program with really good solid relationships tell me afterwards that they came closer. They were able to develop more intimacy with their partner and in a way that felt safe. Because that’s the thing is we sometimes keep a little distance because we don’t feel completely safe. So when we have the confidence that our partners will meet us with compassion, we feel safer. We’re a little safer to come close.
[00:26:07] PF: That’s great. As we started the show, we talked about that romantic love and how we just see these great things. Once we start seeing our partner through the lens of compassion, and we start developing these skills, how does it take us back to that? How does it remind us of some of those reasons that we fell in love and why we’re here to begin with?
[00:27:24] MB: It does because we actually can see them more clearly again. So we see the undesirable qualities, but we’re not focused just on those. We see the parts we love about them as well. Because we are showing up in the relationship with more kindness, with more compassion, with more acceptance, they can show us more of who they are. Honestly, sometimes, it’s really we’re just in awe of like this actual human being with these qualities, right? Because we can see them more clearly, they feel safer coming toward us, if that makes sense.
[00:28:02] PF: Yeah, it does. Michelle, thank you for this time today. This is so insightful. We’re going to tell the listeners how they can find your book, how they can find you, learn more about it. But I truly appreciate your time today.
[00:28:14] MB: Thank you, Paula. Appreciate that. Lovely to be with you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:28:22] PF: That was Michelle Becker, talking about how to improve your relationships using compassion. If you’d like to learn more about Michelle, download a free chapter of her book, sign up for her upcoming Compassion for Couples workshop, or follow her on social media, just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
With March just a couple of weeks away, we here at Live Happy are starting to think about our annual Happy Acts campaign, and we’d love for you to do the same. Throughout March, we’re offering a full calendar of daily suggestions to help you make your world a happier place. I’d like to encourage you to visit the Happy Acts section of our website to learn how you can be involved and how you can host a happiness wall in your home, office, church, or school to celebrate the International Day of Happiness. Just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the Happy Acts tab.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:15:59] PF: That was Live Happy Marketing Manager Casey Johnson, talking about the Live Happy gratitude challenge and all the great things we have going on here at Live Happy. To learn more about the challenge, just visit our website at livehappy.com. If you’d like to check out our new merch or by one of our old favorites, you can get 10% off storewide just by entering the code grateful 10 when you shop at store.livehappy.com. That’s grateful 10 when you shop at store.livehappy.com.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day happy one.