Buddhism and Relationships: The Four Noble Truths of Love

May 5, 2017   |   11 Comments

Earlier this week, I posted about applying the wisdom of Buddhism to romantic relationships. Is it even possible? Advisable? As a Buddhist and a wife, I would say yes.

Relationships have periods of closeness and distance and no one can really tell you what governs their coming and going. It’s a mystery. During one such period of distance with my husband, I thought we might be through. No matter how hard we tried to regain closeness, we clashed. Every conversation turned into a fight. (Even questions as simple as “where do you want to eat dinner?” could provoke divorce-grade tremors. True story. When I posed this question, we were driving on a country road at night and for some reason, we exploded at each other. I made him pull over and let me out of the car. In France. I had no idea where we were. I didn’t care, I just wanted out. I walked into some field until I got scared and went back to the car, arms folded.) Throughout this time, I tried all sorts of great relationship tactics like listening, mirroring, affirming, being clear, giving space, using “I” statements, and so on. Blah, blah, nothing worked. Every conversation seemed to end with anger, hurt feelings, or numbness. I felt so lonely. I’m sure he did too.

One day, I thought I am so confused. I have no idea where to begin fixing this. Then a voice whispered to me: How about at the beginning? (Why are these voices always so simple and correct? And why don’t they pipe up earlier?)

Then the voice said: At the beginning are four noble truths. These truths are taught within the three yanas.

As a 20+ year student of Buddhism, these words meant something to me and I want to share with you what I discovered when I tried to map core Buddhist teachings onto the territory of my love life.

At first I was doubtful. Weren’t these teachings relevant only to ascetics, yogis, and monastics, i.e. people without partners, jobs, and bank accounts? Well, maybe. But it turns out that Buddhism shed radiant light on my darkest relationship moments.

To begin at the beginning meant to consider the Four Noble Truths. These are the very first teachings the Buddha gave upon attaining enlightenment and the entire Buddhadharma is based around them.

The Four Noble Truths

The truth of suffering. Life is suffering. This does not mean that life sucks. It refers to the fact that everything changes and there is nothing to hold on to. This is painful.

The cause of suffering. Trying to hold on anyway.

The cessation of suffering. This condition can be alleviated.

The path to no suffering. The noble eightfold path will lead you out of suffering. The eight steps are:

Right Intention

Right Speech

Right Action

Right Effort

Right Livelihood

Right Mindfulness

Right Concentration

The Four Noble Truths of Love

How might you apply these truths to love? Here is what I came up with.

Relationships are uncomfortable.
Whether you are about to go on a blind date with someone you have never set eyes on or are pissed off at your partner of 30 years because they’ve done that thing that they promised to never, ever, ever do again, we never quite find solid ground. Whether in big or small ways, moments of fear — of being hurt, disappointed, overtaxed, misunderstood, rejected, or, worst of all, ignored — are a continual presence.

No problem. This is just the way it is. Interestingly, all these things happen, even in happy relationships. No one tells you that it’s impossible to stabilize a relationship because it is impossible to stabilize yourself, nor is it possible for your partner to do so. Thus, it is uncomfortable.

The emotional exchange between two people shifts like grains of sand in the desert: some days you can see forever and some days you have to take cover because something kicks up out of nowhere and you can’t see two feet in front of you. On still other occasions, imperceptible winds cause little piles to slowly accumulate until, one day, a familiar path is altogether blocked. You just can’t tell what’s going to happen. And just like trekking through the desert, it pays to be as absorbed in the present moment as you are attuned to atmospheric indicators. Woe to she whose attention to either lapses.

Have you ever had a rapturous moment with a beloved, arms wrapped around each other, blissful, and thought: I never want this moment to end? Well, too bad. It will. Why? Because you’re both alive. The moment is alive. The air is alive, as is the ground you stand on, the flesh on your bones, the looks you exchange. Everything that is alive also dissolves, whether in a nanosecond or an eon. It really helps — and disorients, shocks, empowers — to recognize this. As the writer Saul Bellow said about death, “(it) is the black backing on the mirror that allows us to see anything at all.” Impermanence actually brings everything into terrifying, brilliant, precious, and accurate focus. If you want a snuggly relationship, please disregard. But if you want to add vitality, genuineness, chaos, depth, sorrow, joy, and meaning to your snuggles, you could contemplate these notions further.

The bad news is you never get where you thought you wanted to go. The good news is there’s basically no way to have a boring relationship.

Expecting relationships to be comfortable is what makes them uncomfortable.
At the root of discomfort is the wish for comfort. We imagine that we would feel fine if only we could find the “right” person. But when you do find the (or a) right person, it’s anything but relaxing. Your neuroses, their neuroses, and all your mutual hopes and fears about love flood the environment. Whether you bargained for it or not, you get introduced to your deepest self while someone else is trying to introduce you to their deepest self. In bumper cars. It can become very confusing. But instead of wasting time assigning blame and thinking that will solve everything (or anything), better to dive right in and try to be kind to each other as you bump around.

What would it be like if, instead of wishing for comfort, we wished for depth? What if the first thing we brought to our disconnects was curiosity rather than judgment? This leads to the third noble truth:

Meeting the discomfort together is love.
The inability to create safety actually plots the path to love. It’s strange but true. When you work with all this chaos (and joy and sweetness and rage and so on), love becomes more than romance. It turns into something way better: intimacy. Romance has got to end, that’s just how it goes. But intimacy? It has no end. You can’t be, “oh, intimacy, we’ve done that.” It can always go deeper.

A great partner is not one who expresses undying love for you at every turn, whether you are in your most radiant or most bedraggled state. (That would be weird.) A great partner is one who, rather than facing off to determine who will win each battle, turns to stand shoulder to shoulder with you to watch the battle rage.

True love seems to exist on some mysterious edge of its own. It can’t be controlled, predicted, or penned in. When you try, it calcifies. To keep it alive, at some point you just have to let go and see what happens. Noble Truth #4 is the way to navigate it all.

The noble eightfold path.
In Buddhist thought, there are as many words for suffering as Eskimos were said to have words for snow (a notion since debunked, but let’s pretend for a second). There is “plain old suffering” (not the technical term), the kind that we all experience when someone dies, we become ill, something precious is lost, circumstance doesn’t break in our favor. All human beings experience these things. Then there is the “suffering of suffering,” the bits we add to the unavoidable variety. The suffering of suffering arises from the stories we tell ourselves and the incorrect judgments we make from those stories. Suffering A is unavoidable. Suffering B is optional. The eightfold path, among many things, is a system for circumnavigating the latter. When it comes to our relationships, rather than using them to build some sort of emotional contract for “meeting each other’s needs” (what does that even mean), they can be a source of liberation. In fact, love and relationships may be one of the most profound paths imaginable, if not among the most arduous.

As with anything you consider important, you don’t want to just show up and hope for the best. You want to plan well. Evaluate clearly. Play the odds. In no way am I suggesting that this is simple. It takes tremendous presence and super human commitment to walk into this fire. Instead of flinging yourself kamikaze-like into the flame of love, you can train in working with the heat. The eightfold path can help.

Next post: The Eightfold Path of love.

I am so excited about this topic that I am writing a whole book about it, “The Four Noble Truths of Love.” It is turning out to be the most powerful and intense thing I’ve ever written. Your reflections, questions, and feedback would be most useful. Comment away!

If you want to keep up with the book’s progress and generally stay in touch, please sign up for my free newsletter, The Open Heart Project.

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  • Posted by:  webmamma5000

    Excellent. However I don’t agree that you cannot make a relationship boring. Some die from lack of spark–the will to continue just goes out. You call into question a lot of unhelpful expectations that people have which lead to restlessness and dissatisfaction, which is great. I can attest that some relationships are bumpier than others. Don’t we all want the ones that seem to drive themselves? Maybe you love someone who is not a good person, doesn’t always have your back. And yet, you cannot stop loving them. There is no rule that only good sincere people get love that lasts. The path can mean loving unfairly. So not only do things end inexplicably, they continue inexplicably too. I very much agree that my relationship got much better when I gave up and let go. Meditation has brought awareness as to how feelings were caused. This knowledge has helped to dispel their force. Now fighting is almost immediately quelled by the knowledge that they almost certainly will not lead to a break up, since now we have faith that almost nothing will.

  • Posted by:  Sam

    Thank you, Susan … I’m all the way over in Australia and your writing on relationships from a Buddhist perspective has been a source of insight, comfort and direction for quite some years now (previously, in my efforts to find ways of dealing with relationship breakups that would help me shift perspective and value the gifts that arise from this phenomenon – one that I’ve navigated many times. And now, in my efforts to ‘stay’ in and contribute to a healthy relationship while observing, and working with, the rainbow of emotions to which intimate relationships tend to give rise … it’s great, but at times exhausting!). I have two of your books and I’m really looking forward to the next one. Write quickly!

  • Posted by:  Matt vero

    This is brilliant. Ive always been interested in buddhist philosophy and ive never thought about hkw it would apply to relationships until now. Ive made a lot of mistakes ib my relationships and ive had a lot of personal issues to get through. My last 3 relationships including 1 which was a marriage was packed full of fear and insecurity, mistakes and guilt, partners who couldnt stand shoulder ti shoulder with me and i’ve always blamed them and myself for the failing of the relationships. Im now in a relationship with an amazing women, she really is wonderful but we have been going through some things centered around my stupidity and mistakes. I have over the course of our relationship so far come full circle in thr changes that ive needed to make however it’s taken it’s toll on her. Looking at this approach i realise that i can accept my mistakes and i can accept that we could move forward together and be very happy in a full relationship worts and all or our relationship could end under some false belief that every day will be bliss. I hope she finds her way to me through this stuff and we can stand shoulder to shoulder. I really feel that she is capable of taking on this belief too and i know we could be happier with a different point of view

  • Posted by:  Mary Ann Espedido

    Looking forward to delving into your books! There are so many levels of a relationship, the most important one eith self. The challnge for me is maintaining the detachment piece. How does one not have expectation, likes or dislikes in a relationship. I fully understand the concept of unconditional love but how does one get around preference? Can or should a budhist go on blind dates without preference? And regardless of the answe being yes or no, what is the purpose of relationship when living presently is the forefront of Budhism. Do you plan a family? Do you plan vacations? Do you plan, period?

    • Posted by:  Kev

      I am in my later years in a relationship with a lady 10 years younger. The word love is used, I think, as a comfort for each other. For me. Actions best display the feelings we have for each other. I’ve been hurt in relationships. So trust is something that plagues and clouds my head. I scared to let go of the side again in love, but understand I must. Love is not a word. It far more complicated, I believe it starts with trusting and being honest with yourself …. in being honest, truthful and clear with yourself, what others say, do or behave like will be controlled in your response. Trust in yourself and those close learn to trust in you too

  • Posted by:  Steven Summerell

    I believe in the mantra if you love something, set it free. My wife and I were married three years but as i was unemployed, money was always an issue. So I said to her you are free to leave anytime, a marriage is not a sentence but a testament to be together. So she left.

  • Posted by:  Rae C Wright

    I read your article, and kept reading to see how you got out of the situation and how your partner responded. Is this my wanting to ‘hear the gossip’ ? I don’t know __ I think rather that specificity of others experience helps me identify, and identification is key to my learning.

  • Posted by:  Dennis M Keeley

    All year I’ve been dealing with the fallout of my relationship blowing up in a way I was not prepared for even though I was aware of my part in it. There were behaviors of mine that even baffled me and I couldn’t understand why I was acting on them when this is the happiest I’ve ever been. We were engaged and I feel we were brought together for a reason. I still do. But through therapy it was discovered that I have PTSD, General Anxiety Disorder and, believe it or not, disassociative amnesia all of which is the result of never revealing decades of abuse I’ve been suffering from my childhood and past relationships. I never told anyone about any of it. Through my Buddhist meditation practice and now, from what I’ve started to read here, I can stop blaming myself for everything. It’s a relief and it’s given me the hope that I needed to believe my fiance and I can heal. I have no control over the outcome, but I’ve ordered an extra copy in the hope that we can find a way to help each other heal together.

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Wishing you all the relief in the world, Dennis. With love, Susan

      • Posted by:  Dennis Keeley

        Thank you Susan

  • Posted by:  mahabet

    My relatives all the time say that I am wasting my time here at net,
    however I know I am getting familiarity all the time by reading such pleasant articles or reviews.

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