For as long as I’ve been practicing Buddhism, people have been talking about attachment in intimate relationships in a particular way; they’ve talked about the problem as being attachment to the other person.
To be sure, attachment to another person can be a source of pain. When you’re first in love with someone you may find that you make yourself miserable wanting to be with the other person. When they’re unavailable or you’re not sure they’re attracted to you, then this can be agonizing.
In an established relationship, when there’s insecurity along with your attachment you might be jealous of them spending time with others, or fearful that they don’t love you as much as you love them. Those things are painful as well.
Attachment to another person can be such that we fear them changing, because we sense that they’re turning into a different person, and that’s perceived as a threat to our relationship.
And you might just miss the other person when they’re away, although I think most couples healthily appreciate having some time apart.
Those forms of attachment to another person are talked about often, and for many years that limited the way I looked at attachment in intimate relationships. Recently, though, I’ve come to think that a far more important problem with attachment is that which we have to our own habits. Self-clinging is the principal problem we face.
For example, if you’re constantly criticizing a partner because they don’t do things the way you want them to be done, what’s really going on is that you’re attached to having certain things happen in a certain way — and you’re attached to criticism as a communication style. If that’s ongoing and outweighs the positive aspects of the relationship, then you’re going to cause suffering. So the question comes up, are you prepared to be flexible in your own habits? It’s not just a question of putting up with socks on the bedroom floor, or hairs in the shower drain, but of learning new ways of communicating about such things. Can you learn to be more playful, for example, or to use praise and affection as a way of encouraging your partner to change — or are you attached to using criticism?
Wanting to be right all the time is another form of attachment. When this happens we’re attached to a particular kind of “status” (being “the one who is right”), assuming that it’ll bring us happiness. The trouble is that if you’re attached to being right all the time, you’re going to be rigid and unempathetic, and be in an unhappy relationship. Humility and empathy are qualities that are much more likely to lead to a harmonious relationship. So can you let go of your attachment to winning arguments and being right? Can you embrace the need to admit your faults? Can you embrace vulnerability? Vulnerability is an open space in which growth can take place.
Avoiding conflict is another deadly problem in relationships that we can be attached to. We assume that if we ignore a problem it’ll go away. Well, any one particular problem might go away, but it’ll be replaced by a dozen more. Courage requires letting go of the habit of conflict-avoidance.
Grudges are another thing we can get attached to. We get attached to being the victim. This kind of attachment has been described as like grasping a red-hot coal with the intention of throwing it at the other person. Who gets hurt most in that scenario? Forgiveness is a form of letting go of this particular attachment.
These are just a few examples of how being attached to habits can cause suffering in relationships. But any relationship problem I can think of involves attachment of this nature: being attached to drama, being dishonest, ignoring your partner because you’re focused on work or recreation, letting your sexual desire (or the lack of it) conflict with your partner’s well-being—and thus the well-being of your relationship. These all involve self-clinging.
The measure of how deep our self-clinging can be is how painful and how difficult it is to become aware of, never mind change, our habits. It’s painful to admit when we’re at fault, to communicate honestly and courageously, and to forgive. We can put a lot of energy into resisting doing these things, and when we do face up to our habits we can feel raw, exposed, and humiliated.
While attachment to our partners can be a very real thing, it’s attachment to ourselves and our habits that I see as the most destructive force in intimate relationships.