Because Buddhist teachings have been passed on by celibate monks, we often get the impression intimate relationships are no more than a distraction or hindrance to the spiritual life. But the Buddha himself described marriage as potentially a source of great happiness:
Both husband and wife are endowed with faith, charitable and self-controlled, living their lives ethically, addressing each other with pleasant words. Then many benefits accrue to them and they dwell at ease.
He went as far as to claim that a happy marriage was divine or angelic in nature when he said that a couple can be like two devas (angels, gods) living together.
Moving in the direction of having this kind of fulfilling relationship involves recognizing what I call “The Four Noble Truths of Relationships.”
1. Suffering is a part of all intimate relationships.
Some of this is inevitable, but most of it is unnecessary.
Our task here is to recognize this suffering in the first place, and to understand that we create most of it ourselves, taking responsibility for our own actions.
2. Relationships are unnecessarily hard when we cling to unhelpful conditioned beliefs and patterns of action.
We often act in ways that cause us, and our partners, pain. This includes blaming, wanting to be “right,” keeping score, thinking that the other person “makes” you feel things, seeing your partner as the source of your happiness, using passive-aggressive “hinting” instead of direct communication, withdrawing affection as a means of punishing our partner, and using sex as a substitute for emotional intimacy.
- The Dharma of intimate relationships
- How meditation can do wonders for your sex life
- Three forms of suffering, reinterpreted
- Attachment in intimate relationships
These are all forms of attachment. Most of the problems of attachment in relationships involve us clinging to our own desires rather than to our partner. It’s this clinging to our own wants that causes most of the problems in intimate relationships.
Our task here is to let go of these unhelpful patterns, so that we can make room for more creative, kind, and helpful ways of being.
3. Relationships can be a source of joy, fulfillment, and of personal growth.
This statement comes with a caveat: it doesn’t mean that every relationship has this potential. If one partner is abusive and unwilling to change, then joy and fulfillment likely lie elsewhere. But assuming that both partners are open to change and growth, and genuinely want a fulfilling relationship, then this is possible.
Our task now is to learn to accept any current difficulties without seeing them as defining the relationship. This involves having the faith that the relationship can blossom, perhaps in unexpected ways, should we commit to mindfulness, honesty, courage, and kindness.
4. There is a path that consists of developing mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom, which leads to the realization of this potential.
This is the “eightfold path of relationships.”
This eightfold path starts with:
- exploring our views about relationships, discarding those that hinder our growth and adopting those that facilitate it. It continues with
- clarifying our intentions, expectations, and core values. It involves
- cultivating truthful yet compassionate speech and
- ethical action, as well as
- balancing work and family life. It includes
- making an effort to grow in every aspect of our lives, and to
- develop greater mindfulness. And it involves
- taking time out in order to meditate, reflect, and transform ourselves.
Our task is to walk that path.
Being in a relationship involves the direct realization of interconnectedness, where we recognize that our own personal happiness is inextricable interwoven with that of another person. Instead of focusing narrowly on our own happiness, we have instead to consider our mutual wellbeing as partners. Intimate relationships thus present us with an opportunity for self-transcendence.
To do all this isn’t easy. An intimate relationship requires constant attention and constant “work.” It requires us to courageously accept uncomfortable truths about our own unhelpful views and habits. It requires us to let go, again and again, of those unskillful tendencies. It involves the humility of accepting that we don’t have all the answers, and that we maybe don’t even know what the important questions are. It involves taking risks, and exposing our own vulnerability. But it’s from these challenges that joy and fulfillment come.