The role of compassion in relationships

Welcome to a series of blog posts that explore the profound impact of compassion on romantic relationships, specifically when a partner demonstrates the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. This initial installment sets the stage by looking into compassion and its underlying neurobiology. In the upcoming posts, I’ll dive into the patterns of individuals with narcissistic personality disorder. I’ll then examine their impact on relationships and discuss strategies you can incorporate into your healing journey as you move forward. Hopefully, this series provides valuable insights into the dynamics at play regarding compassion within a relationship with someone demonstrating narcissistic personality disorder.

Compassion: The Neurological Underpinnings and Its Role in Relationships

Consider compassion as the prosocial moral compass guiding our interactions. Compassion stems from many different brain regions, neural networks, and chemistry working together in reaction to suffering. This neurological response, except in certain neuropsychiatric conditions, initiates feelings of empathy, as well as our motivation to help, problem-solve, and ease the pain of others.

With compassion, the focus is on the other rather than the self. We feel concern, care, or distress regarding the suffering of another. In some instances, compassion also includes courage (e.g., offering protection, survival needs, support, or standing up for another).

For example, I saw a driver stop traffic because a mother duck was trying to cross the road and three of her ducklings were far behind the others. They were sure to get hit. Although other drivers, who were unable to physically see the reason the man insisted they not move, honked their horns; he detached his feelings from their disapproval and the distress of the frightened ducklings, to save the animals. Typically, compassion will require some distance from ‘feeling with’ the distressed party; empathy is like chapter one in the book of compassion, it’s not the full story.

It is important to recognize that compassion is not only situational or an off/ on occurrence —it can also be a stable trait within our personalities. For many, compassion permeates our very existence, shaping our careers, the causes we support, and our interactions.

Let’s look at a portion of neuroscience. For an individual to experience compassion, the following brain areas will typically activate or communicate with each other (abbreviated list):

  1. Regions of the Cingulate Cortex (e.g., Anterior Cingulate Cortex) – associated with social emotions, mentalizing the emotional state of another, and conflict monitoring & resolution.
  2. Anterior Insula – associated with emotional connection, affective empathy, social emotions, and pain processing.
  3. Amygdala – associated with threat responding, emotion processing, aggression, fear, and conditioned responses.
  4. Temporoparietal Junction – associated with empathy and understanding the perspective of another.
  5. Regions of the Prefrontal Cortex (e.g., Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex) – associated with mentalizing the emotional state of another, decision making, understanding/ learning from the consequences of our actions, impulse control, affective empathy, problem-solving, regulation of emotions, moral reasoning, moral judgments, and attention.
  6. Regions of the Reward System – associated with anticipated pleasure, positive emotions, motivation, drive, & prosocial approach

(Three points to keep in mind regarding the above list: 1. These brain regions engage in more functions than what is listed. 2. There are more systems, areas, and interconnections within the brain associated with compassion than shared above. 3. Neuroscience researchers continue to investigate this topic, which means the fascinating concept of ‘compassion and the brain’ is still developing.)

Now that we’ve touched on a few regions of the brain associated with compassion, let’s go toward the chemistry. The neurochemistry most prominent in compassion are oxytocin and dopamine. Dopamine likely provides motivation, positive feelings for the helper, and the sustained drive behind the prosocial approach to alleviating the suffering of another. It is through oxytocin that variables such as attachment, bonding, stress reduction, and heightened attention to the distress of others enter the picture.

Romantic relationships

Compassion is essential to any healthy relationship. We need to feel that we are cared for by our partners, especially if we are in a vulnerable state. Within a romantic relationship, when our mate is distressed or suffering, the brain should be able to

  • recognize their distress,
  • feel it,
  • respond with concern and care (all likely oxytocin-related),
  • move forward (approach/ motivation) to attempt to alleviate their pain (likely driven by dopamine & oxytocin combined),
  • problem solve, and
  • experience positive emotions regarding extending help and benefit to the sufferer (likely driven by dopamine).

The act of compassion is usually a rewarding experience for the person demonstrating the compassionate action. However, for the individual who has fallen in love with someone with narcissistic or antisocial personality disorders, compassion from their partner will be minimal or nonexistent.

Dr Rhonda Freeman is a clinical neuropsychologist specializing in relationships. 

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