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What Would Sid Do in an Abusive Relationship?

Many people look to Siddhartha Gautama as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. Every other week in this column we look at what it might be like if Siddhartha were on his spiritual journey today. How would he combine Buddhism and dating? How would he handle stress in the workplace? What Would Sid Do? is devoted to taking an honest look at what we as meditators face in the modern world.

Every other week I'll take on a new question and give some advice based on what I think Sid, a fictional Siddhartha, would do. Here Sid is not yet a buddha; he's just someone struggling to maintain an open heart on a spiritual path while facing numerous distractions along the way. Because let's face it: you and I are Sid. If you would like to submit a question click here.

This week's question comes from "Struggling in MA" - I’ve been with my boyfriend for over two years now. Lately he’s become verbally abusive. I’m a Buddhist and feel like I should be compassionate and patient with him but it’s getting really hard and I want to get out of this relationship. What would Sid do?


Having built a solid foundation with your partner I can only imagine how hard it is to feel such a sudden shift in energy from a supportive to an abusive situation. The most important thing to remember is to take good care of yourself. You have clearly taken the first step in that direction by beginning to analyze your relationship and see if it is something you can continue to be a part of.

As you noted, the Buddhist teachings are based in compassion. Practitioners in the West often have a warped idea of how compassion can manifest. It’s not synonymous with lying down and letting people walk all over you. The Buddha never said that when faced with an abusive situation like yours that you need to grin and bear it.

The meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche noted that many of us see negative actions and think that in order to be a good Buddhist you have to turn the other cheek. However, to ignore behavior that only perpetuates harm to yourself and others is not considered compassion. In fact, he coined the phrase “idiot compassion” for just this sort of occasion. To ignore the behavior you are confronted with only enables your partner to continue down a destructive path.

Instead of looking the other way and waiting for the abuse to stop there’s a few things you can do. One is to address the issue directly. Sit down with your partner and tell him that you feel that his comments have become abusive. After two years of a relationship he may not have realized that he has slipped into such a harmful zone and try to make changes going forward. Not knowing the dynamic in your relationship I cannot say whether that is a conversation that would be successful or not.

If you are uncomfortable having such a conversation or you have one and it goes sour it still doesn’t mean you have to sit there from now on and feel abused. I imagine Sid would say that instead of being patient and letting your boyfriend express his rage the more compassionate thing may be to leave the situation so he can have some space to realize the effects of his actions.

Many great teachers of the past have noted that anger often operates like a disgruntled bull. If you put the bull in a tight, confined situation he will buck and fight and lash out and continue to express his rage. However, if placed in a wide open pasture he will only run around until he exhausts himself.

Sometimes when we butt heads with someone the most compassionate thing may be to give them lots of space to express themselves. I recently saw a clip of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche giving a talk last summer in which he imitates a potential response to someone lashing out: “You better not keep pushing me here. Or else…I’m only going to get more gentle with you!” He said that when we apply gentleness to a situation the other person can jump up and down in anger and tire themselves out but by remaining spacious and kind you tend to outlast them.

However, you are not talking about getting into simple disagreements with your spouse but actually experiencing abuse. The sort of space your boyfriend might need seems to be on an entirely different scale. If you leave the situation, even if for a period of time, he very well might have the space to realize how much he values you as a person and how horribly he has been treating you.

In the midst of all of this it is important to cultivate someone that you trust and can talk to about the situation. It is always nice to receive advice from an outside perspective. If you decide to leave your relationship you may be tempted to go back after a short period of time. Your friend or family member might note that your boyfriend has not worked through his anger issues yet or see true change in how he has been behaving. Second opinions are not just for medical issues, particularly considering how blinded by emotion many of us are when working with issues of the heart. If you do not feel comfortable talking with a friend or family member about the issue of abuse I strongly recommend seeking help from a professional counselor or therapist.

Should you decide to leave your partner I recommend expressing yourself in a very clear way as to how you feel about him and how his abuse has affected you. Even if he is unable to hear your point of view at that time, if he is given some space it may marinate and cause him to consider working with his abuse issues.

In conclusion, Sid would encourage you first and foremost to take good care of yourself. Self-love is the root of compassion. It is only when you take good care of your own emotional state that you have some genuine heart to extend to others. There are times when the most compassionate thing may be to allow space and patience to dominate but in this case it seems that the action of removing yourself from the situation may in fact be the true path of allowing your partner to see the reality of the situation.

Have a question for this weekly column? Email it to this address and Lodro Rinzler will probably write about it in a future post.


photo courtesy of adoptanegotiator.org

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