Love, sex, and non-attachment

handsIs it possible to be in a committed sexual relationship and follow the Buddha’s teaching on non-attachment? Does loving someone deeply by definition mean we’re attached to them? Sunada doesn’t see these ideas as contradictory, and explores what an enlightened relationship might look like.

This year, my husband David and I will mark 27 years of being happily married. Am I attached to him? You bet I am. If he were to die tomorrow, of course I would be devastated. And am I completely unselfish in my regard for him? If I were honest, I’d have to say no. After all, what if he were to come home one day and say, “Sunada, I met a new woman and we love each other very much.” A completely other-regarding response would be, “I’m happy for you!” No, I couldn’t possibly imagine saying that.

 My understanding of attachment is that it’s not about what we have or don’t have, but what our expectations of them are.  

So does that make me a bad, overly-attached Buddhist? I would argue no.

First of all, let’s clarify what the Buddha said about sexual relationships. He said that a man and a woman in a loving, supportive relationship are like a pairing of a god and a goddess.1, 2 Hardly sounds like disapproval, does it? It turns out the Buddha encouraged people to engage in relationships and enjoy them to their full extent. His teachings imply that all human relationships are wonderful opportunities to practice loving-kindness, generosity, and mutual support. A long-term committed one was all the more an opportunity to go deeper in one’s understanding and cultivation of these qualities.

So then what is non-attachment in a loving, committed relationship? My understanding of attachment is that it’s not about what we have or don’t have, but what our expectations of them are. As unenlightened people, we live with a persistent delusion that people and things will provide us with more happiness and satisfaction than they really can. And this is where we get tripped up.

 …real contentment can only come from within ourselves. A partner can’t provide that for us, and to expect it will only lead to disappointment.  

So for example, how much am I using my partner’s love to fill a void in my own love and acceptance of myself? A truly healthy individual is one who is complete by herself, and doesn’t need to depend on anything or anyone else to feel whole and content. I don’t mean we should go it alone and isolate ourselves from others. I mean simply not to depend on someone or something external to me as a necessary condition for my happiness.

But the fact is I’m not enlightened. Sure, it’s great to know what the ideal is, but very few people are actually there. I’m sure not. We all have times when we come up against feelings of loneliness, inadequacy, or insecurity. It’s a very normal human response to try to compensate for these unpleasant feelings by using a partner’s love to cover them over. But the truth is, real contentment can only come from within ourselves. A partner can’t provide that for us, and to expect it will only lead to disappointment.

But does that make it wrong to succumb to our habits of attachment? Perhaps this is the subtle effect of Judeo-Christian conditioning on the Western mind, but I often hear people judging our very human imperfections as somehow wrong – things to be ashamed of or gotten rid of at the very least.

 A relationship with a partner, because it’s by nature where we open ourselves completely to another person, is a great working ground for understanding the true nature of self and other.  

I see it differently. I’m not enlightened, I’m not perfect. I still live under the delusion that David will be with me forever. I depend on him from time to time to fill emotional voids that I’m unable to fill on my own. But through my growing understanding of non-attachment, I’m seeing more clearly what I’m doing. And I understand, at least intellectually, that my views don’t accurately reflect the way things really are. For me to be out of alignment with that reality is to create my own suffering. There’s nothing wrong with that – maybe uninformed and unwise, but not wrong. So I continue to work toward becoming a more complete individual who is capable of standing on her own. There is no good or bad here — simply a natural, human process of growth as it’s taking shape for me.

So let’s not get caught up in our ideas of what attachment should or shouldn’t look like, what’s right or wrong. Let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees. A relationship with a partner, because it’s by nature where we open ourselves completely to another person, is a great working ground for understanding the true nature of self and other. When we have our defenses down and allow ourselves to be vulnerable to another person, we have the opportunity to explore deeply the nature of our own egos, desires, and expectations. We can challenge ourselves to aspire toward an enlightened relationship — one which is marked by a pure, unselfish, and unconditional love. What emerges is a partnership of strong individuals who don’t NEED each other, but openly give and take in loving support of one another.


1. Anguttara Nikaya IV: Punnabhisanda Vagga: Pathama Samvasa Sutta.

2. As an aside, I don’t interpret the Buddha’s use of the words “a man and a woman” here to mean that he disapproved of homosexual relationships. In this particular case, he was speaking to a group of husbands and wives. Although there’s no record of him explicitly addressing the topic of homosexuality, more generally, it seems his criteria for a positive relationship is that it’s between two individuals who love, respect, and support each other.


Sunada
Sunada not only teaches the online meditation courses at Wildmind, she runs her own business, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching, through which she coaches people toward finding their innate strengths and goodness, and living in accordance with them.

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32 Comments. Leave new

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Real love vs. Egoic negotiation » Awake in This Life
January 22, 2009 8:18 pm

[…] via Love, sex, and non-attachment | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation. […]

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Introduction To Buddhism
January 24, 2009 5:05 pm

[…] Love, sex, and non-attachment-Buddhist Meditation […]

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great Sunada! And a nice angle from where to see relationships, not as hindrances but surely also as opportunities!
“It’s a very normal human response to try to compensate for these unpleasant feelings by using a partner’s love to cover them over.” It is refreshening to read this, thanks….
all the best!!

Arthakusalin

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thank you very much for this article. i have been married over 18 years and was going through a roughish patch, but with the help of teachings like yours i have been able to see things more clearly, although i am not able to say ‘ok darling you go off and do what you want’ the normal knee-jerk panic reaction is quitening down, so at least i can stop and think calmly.
thank you

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thanks, good your thinking is great you see e new point of life.
you like happy and luck in your life.

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Henrique Pires
June 28, 2009 6:27 pm

Not being attached to attachment! Good.
Honestly speaking, your words were like a precious medicine to my mind.
Your speech seems to be in accordance with the Dharma — which is rare and wonderful from the beginning to the end.
Pleasem accept my thanks; and may you keep going on benefiting all sentient beings.

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so refreshing, thanks… there is a lot of misunderstanding of these issues, but i reckon you’ve captured the essence of the buddha’s teachings. :)

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Loving and letting go « Living as a River
October 17, 2010 4:24 pm

[…] should also have pointed this reader toward Sunada’s excellent article on Love, Sex, and Non-Attachment. October 17th, 2010 | Category: The […]

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Real love vs. Egoic negotiation | Infinite Smile
November 2, 2010 3:04 pm

[…] via Love, sex, and non-attachment | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation. […]

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Hi, I just read your article and felt touched. Thank you for sharing your views with me. Also I added this page to my favorites but noticed your webpage is lacking a favicon (little image that appears on the top bar of the browser). I think you can easily create a beautiful favicon using the green spiral on the top of this page with a blueish background.

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Love, Sex and Non-Attachment and the Way of the Buddha « the NamaSpirit TN
February 15, 2011 8:39 pm

[…] a man and a woman in a loving, supportive relationship are like a pairing of a god and a goddess.1,2 Hardly sounds like disapproval, does it? It turns out the Buddha encouraged people to engage in […]

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Thanks so much for this article, I am in a new relationship after being single for 2 years having taken up Buddhism as a deep practise in the meantime and have been struggling a little in how imprtant this person I have met has become to me, worrying that I am not as ‘good’ a Buddhist as a single one, but your article has really put my mind at rest and made me see how this relationship can really be a true opportunity to practise loving kindness.

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That’s great Jules. Enjoy your new relationship — and may it be an opportunity for both of you to grow in loving-kindness!

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Thank you so much for this article. It was very helpful to me during a difficult time in my relationship with my partner. Provided a lot of insight and comfort. Thanks again.

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Thanks for that, Karebear!

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Thanks, this brought me some happiness and motivation I lost from feeling so alone after not being able to connect with someone I (mistakenly, I suppose) thought could bring me happiness in almost any worst case event that may happen in my future.

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Completely needed to read this. Thanks so much!

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I was thinking along the same lines… & you’ve articulated it so well here! :D
I SO agree with these parts of your article….
“So I continue to work toward becoming a more complete individual who is capable of standing on her own. There is no good or bad here — simply a natural, human process of growth as it’s taking shape for me.”
and
“When we have our defenses down and allow ourselves to be vulnerable to another person, we have the opportunity to explore deeply the nature of our own egos, desires, and expectations. We can challenge ourselves to aspire toward an enlightened relationship”

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Enlightenment – Loving Non-Attachment « The Ho I Know
May 30, 2012 10:14 pm

[…] Buddha says that a committed relationship is a great opportunity to explore your love for one another and practice loving-kindness, generosity, and mutual support, as mentioned in this pretty insightful blog here. […]

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Great article. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

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attachment by non-attachment? « rainbow.connection
September 3, 2012 8:16 am

[…] friend shared this article with me just […]

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The Heart-Rose Meditation | this time - this space
July 10, 2013 10:34 pm

[…] All human relationships are opportunities to practice compassion, loving-kindness, generosity and mutual support. A long-term relationship is an opportunity to go deeper and cultivate these qualities.  When we have our defenses down and allow ourselves to be vulnerable to another person, we have the opportunity to explore deeply the nature of our own egos, desires, and expectations. We can challenge ourselves to aspire toward an enlightened relationship — one which is marked by a pure, unselfish, and unconditional love. —  Love, sex, and non-attachment […]

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Heart Rose Meditation Redux | this time - this space
July 13, 2013 11:21 pm

[…] All human relationships are opportunities to practice compassion, loving-kindness, generosity and mutual support. A long-term relationship is an opportunity to go deeper and cultivate these qualities. When we have our defenses down and allow ourselves to be vulnerable to another person, we have the opportunity to explore deeply the nature of our own egos, desires, and expectations. We can challenge ourselves to aspire toward an enlightened relationship — one which is marked by a pure, unselfish, and unconditional love. — Love, sex, and non-attachment […]

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The Buddhist doctrine of non-attachment is insightful and very helpful in many ways. However i feel it is extreme when it comes to loved ones such as spouses or children.

We are not islands. We are surrounded by people and we prefer companionship. Like it or not, companionship comes with attachment. As does good parenting. Can this can lead to dukkah? Of course! If David left you for another woman, you would certainly agree. Or worse, the loss of a child.

But there is an old saying, “It is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.”

Anything taken to an extreme is unhealthy. Even non-attachment.

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Sunada Takagi
August 25, 2013 8:20 pm

I agree with you, Bryan. Non-attachment, taken to an extreme is not healthy. And I don’t think the Buddha was advocating that we become unemotional islands unto ourselves. To me a healthy non-attachment means loving someone completely, but also being able to let them go appropriately when the time comes — such as through death or a breakup in the relationship. The Buddha always struck me as very wise, compassionate, and commonsensical. If something seems cold and “wrong” with a teaching, it usually means I’ve misunderstood it.

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Attachment – conditioned, learned, or inherited? | [ euphorium ]
March 15, 2014 12:24 pm

[…] way. As of this post I haven’t arrived at my own take on the topic but I did come across this blog post which sums up what feels right for me at the moment. To quote her, “…real contentment can […]

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“My understanding of attachment is that it’s not about what we have or don’t have, but what our expectations of them are. ” THANK YOU! This gave me a lightbulb moment. This article is pure gold for someone like me finding it so hard how to handle attachments and relationships. I bookmarked this page and plan to read it from time to time to remind myself. :)

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One things that has confused me in terms of relationships in general and in context of the Dharma is, does one need to have sexual attraction within a relationship in order for it do be authentic. The reason why I ask this is because I am not completely attracted to my partner any more, however we don’t fight, we enjoy each others company, we care about each other, there may be some discontent, but given the quality of our relationship, sometimes it seems shallow to just throw it away because the lack of sex life??? I’m confused about this one?

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Great article.

What about attachment to your kids? In uncertain times i feel very attached to my young kids because of the stress and uncertainty what could happen.

Any advice on that? Thank you!!

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I have been stretching my ability to continue to feel compassion, and detached, unconditional love towards my relationship. It is not a stretch for me to love the person whom I am in relationship with – I am stretched because of the circumstance of our relationship. We have been in a relationship for 5 years but not living together. She has young children who are now teens and it seems I have to accept that we will not be able to live together for another 5 years. I can intellectualize about the need to accept this but it doesn’t feel right. It feels like I am in a relationship with someone who is already in a relationship, which is in fact true as it relates to her kids. I have been nothing but supportive and I recognize it is best to leave them in the relationship but this makes me feel alone, sad depressed and wondering if I am indeed in a relationship or just alone. I am beginning to feel that I should completely detach myself in order for them to fulfill their relationship to the fullest without me getting in the way; feeling on the outside and effectively not in what I feel I need in a relationship. Have you any comments?

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This article gave me answers that I have been looking for. :) I knew that buddhism teaches us non-attachment, but in love you are attached to your loved one. But this view, to not expect from your loved one, makes me more calm person. :) And it’s true, if you expect too much, your feelings get hurt, when you are not satisfied.

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Relationships - One Mind Dharma
August 20, 2016 12:19 pm

[…] relationships, sex, and marriage go against many traditional Buddhist views. I recommend reading this post on Wildmind about love, sex, and nonattachment. The Buddha gave different teachings to his […]

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