Zen and relationships – part 3

When couples repeat traditional wedding vows, they say “For as long as we both shall live.” I don’t imagine they’re crossing their fingers behind their backs. Assuming they mean it, why do so many relationships fail? According to the latest stats I’ve seen on heterosexual marriages in America, the chance of finding a lifelong partner now hovers in the neighborhood of a coin toss: 50/50. What does Zen, or any spiritual practice, have to offer that could improve the odds? I think the answer is: A lot.

I think lots of relationships hinge too much of the time on three things – emotional attraction, favorable circumstances, and getting a good deal – while missing the element of relationship as a spiritual practice. What I mean by emotional attraction is some degree of falling in love. The spell of the magic is powerful and it usually continues to fuel the relationship. By favorable circumstances I mean the conditions and circumstances – home, kids, jobs, friends, families – that form a web of connective tissue that helps hold the relationship together. What I mean by getting a good deal is the overall assessment each person makes that the pros (what I’m getting out of the relationship) outweigh the cons.

The spell of emotional attraction is powerful and pleasurable, but people change and the spell may weaken over time. The same is true for favorable conditions and circumstances. Everything changes, and when essential connective tissues dissolve – kids leave home, jobs are lost, families feud, etc. – the relationship that depends on them is threatened. The third element – getting a good deal – is the trickiest.

Among other things, relationships are means to fulfillment, pleasure, satisfaction, and meaning. This expectation is so basic we may never express it out loud to a partner or to ourselves. If we expect no fulfillment, pleasure, satisfaction, or meaning, we look elsewhere. It’s a self-centered calculus, but not necessarily self-centered in a mean or greedy way. It’s self-centered in that we’re seeking positive outcomes for ourselves. We weigh the relationship: How’s this working out for me? Given what I’m putting in and what I’m getting out, is it a good deal for me? What’s the probability the balance of effort and reward will improve in the future?

If we pay close attention, we may discover this calculator to be running more often than we realized, quietly in background mode. We unconsciously tally things up and it’s in a crisis that we notice. When we collide we defend ourselves, assigning fault and blame. Which of us was less considerate? Yes, I admit to my mistake, but what about the fourteen mistakes you made? I can list them. And besides, your mistakes are worse than mine because….and so on. More distressingly, the stress, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness that has been building up over time, may be quite unknown to us. We may be out of touch with our own feelings, in which case, there is simply an explosion of some kind that injures or even destroys the relationship.

From a Zen perspective, this is the Buddha’s Noble Truths coming in for a landing. It’s the calculus of craving, leading to suffering. Do I think we’re all craven, self-centered creatures, out to maximize gain, even at the expense of the partner we’ve vowed to love and care for? No. It’s not that simple. We all have important and wholesome needs to be met. Intimate long term human relationships encompass a complex web of positive and negative feelings and forces, some conscious and many below the surface. Still, some degree of self-centered orientation is a fact of life, reinforced by a culture which regards the accumulation of “goodies” as one of the highest values.

From this perspective, it’s interesting to think about the extent to which an intimate relationship can come to resemble a commercial transaction, an implicit trading relationship in which the parties measure, consciously and unconsciously, what they’re getting versus what they’re giving and arrive at a kind of net profit assessment. In relationship terms, instead of calling it profit, it’s called happiness. “I have a happy marriage.” Or, “I have an unhappy marriage.” It’s not so different from the way we relate to many other aspects of our lives, to work, to friendships, to church, to community. It doesn’t mean we never do anything altruistic or kind. It does mean, however, that the calculator can turn whatever we do into a variable in a larger equation that measures whether we’re gaining or losing. In my own life, examining these three elements of relationship have helped me begin to understand the nature and value of a fourth element: intimate relationship as a spiritual practice. More to follow.


  1. Hope Fellows says:

    I am with you on this. I have for a while been realizing how self-centered relationships are and how in the end it seems to be about getting our needs met while at the same time meeting someone’s needs which can then often led to a conflict of needs. Likewise I ask myself the question is what I get back from my relationship greater or at least equivalent to what I give. Then I realize life cannot be put on a scale and it is in the living together with others and whatever that brings that grows us; and that is in fact,, at least for me, what ‘it’ is all about.

  2. Peter says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.