Compassion: Tenderhearted Consideration for Healing Broken Relationships

By Ken Wells - 06/25/2020


Compassion is a conscious choice to care for yourself and others in the presence of human suffering. It opens my heart that would otherwise remain closed. A closed heart is a common response to human suffering. In a closed heart, brokenness is sequestered and allowed to fester. Fear dominates. Hate escalates. Shame stalks with intimidation.

Not long ago I was traveling and called an Uber driver to take me to the airport. The driver was an immigrant from Mogadishu, Somalia. He offered me his story as to why he was in Phoenix. He told me that during a past revolution and he, his mother, father and siblings were literally running out of Mogadishu being chased by rebels. He was the only family member who escaped. The other members of his family were butchered by the rebels. Instantly, I had compassion for this man. Yet, to be honest, I also had feelings of hate that boiled to the surface as well. I thought of the seething venomous rage that would be such a natural response to such horrific unspeakable violence. I thought of my Christian upbringing that would argue for forgiveness because Jesus would. I put myself in the space of being stuck with a closed heart. Whenever, I have been hurt, betrayed, abused and broken I responded with a closed heart which seemed to be the safest response I knew.

Throughout the world, hate, bitterness and resentment reside and rule in the face of human cruelty. Relational betrayal leaves one grasping how to face the unthinkable in the presence of deepest pain. Ghastly acts of human suffering abound throughout the world. Listening to broken hearts of betrayal and failure over 40 years as a pastor and therapist have cultivated a sense of compassion. Over the years there have been thousands of times I have wondered, “What would it be like to face the condition of suffering that was just shared”?

So I have endeavored to anchor my healing work toward connecting with the suffering of the broken people who have come to see me. I have never heard a story of brokenness that I have not been able to connect to. Listening to my own broken heart has anchored me and provided the possibility of connection.

Truly, I hope I will never know the unthinkable horror that my courageous Uber driver described. Yet, I can connect to the hate, disgust, bitterness, shame and resentment that remained silent in conversation, but, no doubt existed deep within. No one gets through life unscathed from human suffering. Yet, in the presence of human agony, there is the capacity for compassion that is inherent to all of us.

Pema Chodron shared that “compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals.  Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

A secret to healing in the presence of relationship betrayal is when the partner betrayed can experience equality with the one who broke their heart. The absurdity in this healing process is that you come to a place where you can see yourself as hurting others in principle, not like kind, as you have been hurt. Embracing your own hurtful behavior and its impact toward others can lead to self-forgiveness. With this healing choice, you can then work toward forgiving the one who betrayed you.  In a paradoxical healthy selfish way this work in forgiveness offers release from the emotional prison that previously entombed your existence.

It is a long arduous journey toward forgiveness. It has been my privilege to walk alongside many people who have experienced this healing through tenderhearted compassion toward self and others. Often betrayed partners are enraged about the possibility of looking at their own hurtful behavior. It is understandable. There are times that healers unwittingly prevent this healing, believing they need to protect the betrayed. Sometimes, partners prefer the “safety” in a relationship by being “one up” to the betrayer rather than risk the vulnerability needed to heal the broken relationship. Healing will require connecting to common shared brokenness between two people in a relationship. There are many issues that are complicated and complex. Yet it has been my experience that with partner betrayal, deep healing occurs when two people learn to know their own darkness well. In principle, knowing that you can and have hurt others as you have been hurt is a powerful healing dynamic in couples’ healing. Only through shared humanity do we offer healing to ourselves, partners and others. After my Uber driver shared his tragic story, I sat in silence for the rest of my ride to the airport, quietly comprehending his heartache and suffering. In my own personal recovery from addiction and therapeutic guidance to addicts and partners, there has been no greater transforming healing power than the cultivation of human compassion toward self and others.

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