As the title of a 1955 film goes, love is a many-splendored thing. Love stretches wide and deep to encompass the passionate affair you experience as your first love, the heart-pounding love you feel when you see your child for the first time, and the gentle love you feel for your parents as they grow older. A common thread throughout each of these types of love is care and consideration for someone. Ultimately, that care and consideration are best expressed through the word "compassion."
What Is Compassion?
Put simply, compassion is a concern for the welfare and well-being of others. Compassion does not necessarily require a focused love to exist but is often thought of as a form of love in and of itself: a love for humankind as a whole. Compassion is argued to be the bedrock for kindness and selflessness, as compassion focuses attention outward rather than inward, and is 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 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 help in their plight? Compassion is typically regarded as the roots of non-profit organizations, social and psychological work, and other entities designed to help others.
What Is Compassionate Love?
Compassionate love is love that combines the principles of compassion (empathy, kindness, consideration) and the principles of love (devotion, admiration, and care). Evident in romantic and platonic love both, compassionate love is not only 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 not selfish in its aims and 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 is no single, distinct way to experience compassionate love.
Compassion: Love In Action
It could be argued that all love is compassionate love. Indeed, some would argue that love is not loving at all unless it is coupled with compassion. On the other hand, affection and attachment without compassion are 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 best and most effectively put into practice when compassion is present.
Feeling love means a lot of things. Love can be felt for inanimate objects, such as your favorite sweater or your favorite book that you read again and again. This love is not reciprocated, however, and it is not put into action; you can't demonstrate love for a favorite sweater, aside from wearing it several times. Even in wearing it, however, you are demonstrating your preference for that object, far more than you are expressing a compassionate love for it.
The most clearly defined scholarly example of compassionate love is that of service or volunteering. Volunteering is considered a visible example of compassionate love, as it deliberately sets aside oneself to help others – very often, strangers or others with whom you have no direct or lasting ties. This reinforces the notion that compassionate love can exist without a definitive relationship between two people but that there is some amount of consistency within compassionate love. People who love compassionately (whether that is for loved ones, their community, or all of humankind) do so continually and maintain a relationship with others via their service. Using volunteering as an example, a volunteer is maintaining 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 cannot be effectively put into practice and consistently expressed without compassion. Expressing or demonstrating love without compassion is likely to be selfish or poorly communicated. If you express your love for your partner for their ability to calm you down, you are not actually complimenting their character. You are, instead, 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 (shared) play. Demonstrating love with compassion removes you from the equation entirely and focuses on your partner, friend, or loved one, instead.
Love without compassion will likely fade away at the first sign of trouble or the first show of flaws. Compassionate love can recognize that everyone has flaws and will not be quick to write someone off after a fight, a misunderstanding, or an intentional slight. Compassionate love realizes that everyone has the ability to lose control of their emotional state sometimes, that everyone is sensitive to criticism, and that everyone is similarly deserving of kindness and love.
Compassionate love should not 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 relationships that are unhealthy or altogether abusive in the (false) name of compassion. Compassionate love sees human beings as vast, flawed, and even incorrect at times and is not 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 speaks 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 in terms of 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 would experience somewhat consistent communication and a relationship of some kind. Compassionate love does not have to engage in a soul-baring conversation at each interaction nor does it demand an extensive show of support.
Compassion In Long-Term Relationships
Some studies have shown that compassion begins to ebb as relationships age, while others demonstrate that compassion is actually one of the key mechanisms at play in healthy, happy, lasting connections. Most studies do seem to agree on one thing: any relationship without compassion is likely 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 having a compassionate love for their partner were also more likely to report contentment and peace in their lives. Religion seemed to play a role, too, in the study, as people who claimed some form of religion were more likely to consider themselves partners in a compassionate loving relationship rather than a standard loving relationship. These couples were also more likely to report experiencing other forms of love, including Eros (erotic love) and Agape love (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 is clear: compassion is a beautiful thing and has been the source of many incredible acts of service toward others. Love, too, is 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 see it expressed in our culture on 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 are ways to show compassionate love on a consistent basis. Exploring the love we have in our lives with a therapist is another way to understanding 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, keep in mind what you want to work on. Find a therapist who has expertise in compassionate love, romantic love, and familial and intimate relationships. What you might 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 in traffic after a day of work. BetterHelp has many therapists who can help you explore compassionate love in your life when and where it is most convenient for you.
“Working with Ashley is a great experience. She’s attentive, compassionate, and insightful. For the first time in decades, I really feel like I’m making progress with my therapy goals.”
“Ashely has a great vibe which I think is key to being a good counselor. She has empathy and insight and I look forward to talking to her weekly.”
Learning about and incorporating compassionate care into your life will enrich the love you already have in your life and bring a greater understanding of how we are all connected. To gain an even deeper understanding of how compassionate care affects your life, speak with a therapist. Take the first step today.