What Is Compassionate Love?

Medically reviewed by Dr. April Brewer, DBH, LPC
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The most common definition of compassionate love may be love that combines the principles of both compassion and general love. This can mean that compassionate love involves a combination of kindness, consideration, empathy, care, devotion, and admiration. Many believe that love cannot exist unless compassion is present. Compassionate love can play a large role in long-term relationships, as compassion can keep the relationship going even when passion has died down. Compassion can play a role in platonic and familial love as well. Online therapy can be a helpful tool if you’d like to learn to exercise more compassion in your relationships or daily life.

What is compassion?

Learn to embrace compassion

Compassion is often thought of as a type of concern for the welfare and well-being of others. Compassion may not require a focused love to exist, but it is often considered a form of love in and of itself: a love for humankind. Compassion can be argued to be the bedrock for kindness and selflessness, as it can focus attention outward rather than inward and can be an example of both empathy (putting yourself in someone else’s shoes) and sympathy (feeling sad, sorry, or distressed on someone's behalf without necessarily putting yourself in their situation).

Compassion is generally considered the basis for many religious ideas of love and is often cited as a requirement for true humanitarianism. After all, how can you develop the desire to help people an entire world away without feeling some amount of compassion toward them and wanting to aid in their plight? Compassion is typically regarded as the root of non-profit organizations, social and psychological work, and other entities designed to help others.

What is compassionate love?

Compassionate love can be defined as love that combines the principles of compassion (empathy, kindness, and consideration) and the principles of love (devotion, admiration, and care). Often evident in both romantic and platonic love, compassionate love may not only be found in one corner of loving interactions, but can be used in all types of relationships and all relationship durations. You can experience compassionate love for your neighbor just as much as you can experience compassionate love for your long-term partner. Compassionate love is generally not selfish in its aims and usually works to create an equitable balance of care, attention, and respect, rather than trying to gain something through the relationship.

Compassionate love can be experienced in numerous ways. Compassionate love may be romantic, platonic, or a general, vague feeling directed at all of humanity. There may be no single, distinct way to experience compassionate love.

Compassion: Love in action

It could be argued that all love may be compassionate love. Indeed, some may argue that love is not loving at all unless it is coupled with compassion. Affection and attachment without compassion can be far more akin to infatuation or obsession than love. While it is not entirely true that love cannot be felt without also feeling compassion, love is usually best and most effectively put into practice when compassion is present.

Feeling love can mean a lot of things. Love can be felt for inanimate objects, such as your favorite sweater or a book that you read again and again. However, this love is normally not reciprocated and is not necessarily put into action; you can't demonstrate love for a favorite sweater, aside from wearing it several times. In wearing it, you may be demonstrating your preference for that object rather than expressing a compassionate love for it.

The most clearly defined scholarly example of compassionate love may be that of service or volunteering. Volunteering is often considered a visible example of compassionate love, as it can enable individuals to deliberately set themselves aside to help others – very often, strangers or others with whom you have no direct or lasting ties. This may reinforce the notion that compassionate love can exist without a definitive relationship between two people, but that there may be some amount of consistency within compassionate love. People who love compassionately (whether that is for loved ones, their community, or all of humankind) tend to do so continually and maintain a relationship with others through their service. Using volunteering as an example, a volunteer may maintain a relationship with the object of their compassionate love (humankind, community, etc.) by volunteering on a regular basis, just as a romantic partner might carve out time to take their loved one on a date.

Can love exist without compassion?

Love may not be effectively put into practice and consistently expressed without compassion. Expressing or demonstrating love without compassion can be selfish or poorly communicated. If you express your love for your partner for their ability to calm you down, you may not actually be complimenting their character. You may instead be appreciating them for what they are able to give you. If you demonstrate your love for your partner without compassion, you might find yourself giving a gift that benefits you both, such as tickets to your favorite play. Demonstrating love with compassion often removes you from the equation entirely and focuses on your partner, friend, or loved one instead.

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Learn to embrace compassion

Love without compassion will likely fade away at the first sign of trouble or the first show of flaws. Compassionate love can usually recognize that everyone has flaws, and it may not be quick to write someone off after a fight, a misunderstanding, or an intentional slight. Compassionate love typically realizes that everyone can lose control of their emotional state sometimes, that everyone can be sensitive to criticism, and that everyone can be similarly deserving of kindness and love.

Compassionate love should not generally be mistaken for blind acceptance, however, as a less mature love might think. Devoted love, without compassion, might fall into the trap of mistaking love for consent and could give a wide berth for error in unhealthy or altogether abusive relationships* in the (false) name of compassion. Compassionate love normally sees human beings as vast, flawed, and even incorrect at times. It may not be afraid to offer a corrective word or action, even when it means losing the person you love for a while or losing them altogether. Compassionate love can speak the truth in its love, rather than just affirming or adoring.

Love without compassion is likely to be a fledgling love, both in terms of duration (it is a new relationship) and depth (even in a long-term setting, it rarely dips below the surface). Compassion can be felt for strangers, but compassionate love typically mandates some consistency of emotion. Even the aforementioned neighbor might experience somewhat consistent communication and a relationship of some kind. Compassionate love does not necessarily have to engage in a soul-baring conversation at each interaction, nor may it demand an extensive show of support.

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

Compassion in long-term relationships

Some studies have shown that compassion usually begins to ebb as relationships age, while others demonstrate that compassion can be one of the key mechanisms at play in healthy, happy, lasting connections. Most studies seem to agree that any relationship without compassion can be doomed to fail. Whether your attachment is romantic, platonic, or some mixture of the two, compassion seems to be the gas that keeps the metaphorical car running when new love or the novelty of a fun friendship has fallen away.

One study also found that romantic partners who reported compassionate love for their partner tended to be more likely to report contentment and peace in their lives. Religion also seemed to play a role in the study, as people who claimed some form of religion were usually more likely to consider themselves partners in a compassionate loving relationship, rather than a standard loving one. These couples were normally also more likely to report experiencing other forms of love, including eros (erotic love) and agape (love for humankind).

Love and compassion

Some say you can't have one without the other. Some say the two are mutually exclusive, but both are better with the other. Whichever side of the fence you stand on, one thing may be clear: compassion can be beautiful and has been the source of many incredible acts of service toward others. Love, too, can be a beautiful thing and has often been the source of incredible connection, acts of service, and kindness.

Creating compassionate love in your life

We might not have learned compassionate love from our families of origin or seen it expressed in our culture regularly, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the capacity to learn it. As discussed earlier, small acts of kindness and volunteering without expecting a return on our investment can be ways to show compassionate love on a consistent basis. Exploring the love we have in our lives with a therapist may be another way to understand the role of compassionate love more intimately. Face-to-face or online therapy can help you tap into and be open to compassionate love.

How can a therapist help me?

When looking for a therapist, you might keep in mind what you want to work on. You might find a therapist who has expertise in compassionate love, romantic love, and familial and intimate relationships. What you may also find helpful is having a therapist you can meet online. This way, you choose when and where to meet with your therapist, rather than having to travel a great distance or encounter traffic after a day of work. Online therapy platforms generally have many therapists who can help you explore compassionate love in your life when and where it is most convenient for you.

As one study explains, online therapy generally has the same rate of efficacy as in-person therapy. Please know that either option can be a valid choice based on your circumstances and preferences.

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Takeaway

Compassionate love is often considered a combination of love and compassion, meaning that it usually embodies empathy, consideration, kindness, devotion, admiration, and care. It may be challenging or even impossible for love to exist if compassion is not present, and compassion can play a significant role in the success of long-term relationships. Aside from romantic relationships, compassionate love can also exist between friends, family members, and in other types of relationships. If you’re interested in inviting more compassionate love into your life, you may wish to try online therapy.

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