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Ask A Buddhist: Marriage and Attachment

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By Sarah Conover

I have seen a lot of explanations about why attachment is unhealthy and what components of it should be avoided but I don’t see a lot about what romantic relationship celebrating those ideals DOES have or what it would look like. I’m am very curious to hear a perspective about what a relationship looks like from the inside and what kinds of things are different from relationships rooted in attachment rather than a free love for one another. Some more specific questions might be; How do you deal with small disagreements? What are your perspectives on jealousy and monogamy? On marriage in general as compared to a common traditional American marriage?

Thank you for your question Dear Reader. I’ve written on this topic in two different Ask a Buddhist entries , but I’m happy to make a go at it from a few years’ perspective later in the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) and in marriage. Is the Noble Eightfold Path applicable to a sustained romantic love, a committed relationship?  Yes.  The Dharma offers a world view and psychology fundamental to supporting all relationships, including the adventure of love we call a partnership.

There are similarities between Western psychology and Buddhist psychology in dealing with personal growth: both provide methods of de-conditioning all the storied baggage we bring to a relationship (do you know that joke about how many people are really present in a marriage—mothers, fathers, siblings and beyond). Add to that the co-conditioning of partners through their lived experience together, and there’s a lot to figure out about loving well.

The fundamental difference between a Western psychological perspective on the interpersonal and my Dharma training is that the Western perspective confers validity to selfhood, whereas Buddhism claims that we continually misperceive the nature of self. From a scientific and Buddhist standpoint, we are temporary, self-aware eddies of biological reactions dependent upon innumerable causes and conditions. Perhaps the hardest and subtlest learning in Buddhism is to remember that our minds, and all the personal characteristics we identify as me, are also transitory processes without permanence.  The passion as well as the reactivity between a couple arises from fiercely identifying with our thoughts, feelings and perceptions, and believing that they are us. That’s attachment.

Over time, with meditation, study and contemplation, a more accurate understanding of self emerges, one that is much larger than a circumscribed personality.  Our ideas of personhood slowly reframe and loosen beyond the confines of a single self, and so do our views of our partner. When we recognize our inter-being (as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls this wider perspective) with all creation, there’s lots more room for love. That’s non-attachment.

To understand this conceptually is not the same as experiencing it in one’s bones across the arc of a committed relationship. My husband and I benefit from a shared language of the Dharma to unravel conflict—a psychological frame that depersonalizes the behaviors and miscommunications. We begin to understand the words and behaviors of both people aren’t personal at all but a storm of baggage (we Buddhists might say karma) and conditioning. I look at Doug and know he’s defending himself against his father’s ghost who often criticized him. I pause, look within, and see that because I was an orphan, I have an existential need to gain control of a situation. Seeing this clearly, the reactivity and stories can fall away—we come back to a living mystery of presence.

Essentially, we’ve gained a deeper and deeper grasp of the First Noble Truth of suffering. Our reactivity to our partner’s words or actions, is a crucible to watch the hardening of a delusional belief in Self versus the Other. In this tangle, who is really suffering? If you are truthful, the answer is both, equally. The natural outcome of fully understanding suffering is always compassion. All that fury and hurt swirling about is a crux point: either it will break your hearts open to one another or fortress them for further battle. Despite that we each want so much to be good, kind and loving partners, we find that changing our own unhealthy patterns (that baggage mentioned above) continues to be the hardest task we have before us, the work of a lifetime.

Perhaps this is all too abstract. What does this look and feel like in real life? No one necessarily to take on a particular religion to understand. Aren’t all spiritual paths a remembering of our greater ground of being, that we are more than the circus of personality? How does it feel in your body to click into reactivity? Has reactivity ever spoken a word of wisdom? You might feel strong and irreproachable in an argument, but how does that really feel? As the Buddha said, holding on to anger is like holding a hot ember in one’s hand. Further, righteousness is a short-lived intoxication. The hangover is no fun either.

Contrast this bump into Self versus Other with the feeling of staying attuned to one’s heart, even during a conflict—time slows way down, our bodies soften, and suddenly we are paying attention to what matters most in life. In the last few years, whenever my husband and I feel disconnected from one another or sense a squall brewing, one of us will touch a hand to our heart. Often that alone will cause an immediate shift in perspective and mood for both of us. We then ask each other, “How’s your heart?” That simple question seems to undermine the whole Me versus You stalemate. When the heart is included our dialogue, the petty stuff gets diffused fast—the stories simmering in my mind that he always does such and such, and Doug’s stories about me with the same flavor. We are slow learners. It took us years to have compassion for these deeply ingrained reactions to be our default. Nurturing that default straight to the heart is our work now.

Both love and conflict are far more of an inside job than external—as the Buddha said, “The mind is the forerunner of all things.” Meditation of some sort is essential: without distractions, we see clearly that the eye of the storms we let blow us off course are in our mind. I’m going to end with a quote by Nicole Daedone from a recent Tricycle online magazine article entitled “Love Becomes Her:”

We believe that love is to be found within another person. But, in truth, love is found in the animating quality of our attention. In Buddhist practice, we discover that mindful attention can reveal a deeper truth in whatever object we are paying attention to. The same is true in romantic love. When we use our attention to touch and open the deeper truth in a person, we not only catalyze the experience of love, we become love.

Sarah Conover

About Sarah Conover

Sarah Conover is a writer and teacher who, despite a fierce wanderlust, calls Spokane home. She has an MFA in poetry, and is the author of seven books on world wisdom traditions and spirituality. She and husband Doug Robnett are parents of two remarkable children long-ago nicknamed: “Swaminathan and the Material Girl.” Conover, getting old now, has enjoyed multiple careers. The best one yet is the latest: teaching creative writing, a course called “Making it Matter," to the eldering through Spokane Community College ACT 2 program. She hosted the Ask a BuddhistFāVS column for several years.

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