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Relationships & The Four Noble Truths


Image previewWhen the Buddha became enlightened, the first thing he handed out was the four noble truths and upon becoming a Buddhist, they are your benchmarks.

1. Life is suffering. (Doesn’t mean “life sucks,” by the way. More like, “life changes.”)
2. Suffering is caused by attachment. (Wanting things to be other than they are.)
3. It is possible to stop suffering

4. There is an eight-fold path to liberate yourself from suffering, which includes such things as Right Speech, Right Action and so on.


There have been countless words written on each of these four and you could definitely spend a lifetime in contemplation of just one of them. To apply them to everyday life means to accept that things won’t ever quite work out (at least not in any conventional sense); that when you hold on to anything too tightly (even the idea of not holding on to anything too tightly), it backfires; you can definitely figure all this out and, finally, that there is a step-by-step explanation for how to do so, via practices, insights, devotion and so on.

Okay, all very well and good. It’s not like I can do any of this, but I am fairly diligent about trying to in every area of my life. Well, every area but one. Work — check. Money — check. Family — check. Society — check. Romantic relationships — check NOT.

When it comes to love and partnership, I definitely try to wiggle out of the four noble truths. I can halfway toy with accepting that everything changes, even that I will die and this body will be a corpse. But when it comes to love — I need that to be permanent. There, I said it. When my husband tells me he loves me, that cannot change or I’m going to be very, very upset. When we make a commitment to share our lives with each other, that too must be rock solid. When he disappoints or angers me, I have every right to expect him to change. And when it comes to acknowledging that one way or another, this relationship will definitely end, well, I just need that not to be true. Otherwise it is simply too sad.

(I believe that this, by the way, is why most relationships fail, because to come to terms with this last truth is just too painful. It’s easier to break up with someone because they don’t make you laugh/take you seriously/earn enough money/eat dairy, but really I think it’s because, at some point, we become unbearably precious to each other. But I digress.)

Even among deeply practiced and skillful Buddhists, I can’t help but notice that it is difficult to apply the dharma to anything that involves love + sex. When it comes to relationships, we believe our version of reality is absolutely solid and correct. There is no oxygen when you feel neglected, dismissed, suffocated, or enraged by the one you love. Oddly, it is our intimate relationships that most challenge our ability to be open, non-judgmental, compassionate, and kind.

The hardest people to love are the ones you, well, really love. What is up with that?

Unfortunately, I don’t know, but I still think about it all the time. It may be useful to take a look at the four noble truths again and try really, really hard to language them to apply to relationships. I’ll go first. Let me know what you think.

1. Relationships are uncomfortable.
Right? Whether you’re on a blind date, worrying if you’ll like each other or have been married for 20 years, groaning yet again “why are you doing that thing that I’ve asked you eleventy billion times not to do?” there is a kind of discomfort. Of course, there are also times of sheer delight and deeply gratifying intimacy, but even in the sweet moments, there is the shock of dissolution.

I’ve come to think that the most deeply loving gesture I can make within my relationship is to tolerate my own discomfort — to recognize my feelings and leave the story behind; to cease & desist threatening my husband with consequences should he fail to be the person I need him to be rather than the person he is. There are only so many times you can choose your make-believe husband over your real one before he balks. Hard.

Too, there is something magical, yes magical, about this discomfort. You’re right there, never quite in your comfort zone. Always a tiny bit on the edge, like you’re trying something new for the very first time. Which, when it comes to love, is not such a bad approach. Brilliance and passion and inspiration and everything fresh is discovered on this edge, including how to open your heart beyond what you ever thought possible.

2. Thinking they’re supposed to be comfortable is what makes relationships uncomfortable.
It is pretty hard to get away from the idea that love is supposed to make you happy. No, wait, it is supposed to make you happy — if happy means alive, open, giving, and touchable. When it’s defined as safe and predictable, getting what you want, or finding the perfect man/woman, we run into a few problems.

When we say we’re looking for love, most of us really mean we’re looking for safety, a way to get comfortable. We’re looking for someone to love us first, and then we will love them back. (99.9 percent of relationship self-help books are about how to get love, not how to give it. That’s kind of odd, right?!) “Relationship” is equated with a protective cocoon. It’s understandable. Loving is so vulnerable, maybe the most vulnerable thing you can do. Love is not for sissies.

There is nothing less safe than love. Love means opening again and again to your beloved, yourself, and your world, and seeing what happens next. The moment you try to make it safe, it ceases to be love. Believe me, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be very smart, practical, and skillful when it comes to your relationships. But relationships and love are two separate things.

3. It is absolutely possible to love and be loved unconditionally.
You know this is true. You know it from experience. You are in the house of unconditional love every time you are touched beyond thought by the beauty of your fellow human beings, and every time one has been touched by you. Even something as simple as the smile a stranger gives you when you hold the door for him or her qualifies. Or when you are moved by the success of someone you love and feel it as your own. When you are touched by someone’s sadness and want to help.

When you open your eyes, you see that such moments are taking place all the time. These agendaless instances of opening to another are, IMHO, unconditional love. I mean, they are unconditional, right? You’re not putting any conditions on things when you simply feel them spontaneously.

I rest my case.

4. There is a path that teaches you how and it really works.
You can practice becoming comfortable with discomfort. The sitting practice of meditation teaches you how, exactly, directly, perfectly.

You can practice letting your dear ones — and yourself — off the hook for not being perfect. The traditional practice of Maitri (also known as Metta or Lovingkindness) teaches you how — exactly, directly, perfectly.

And you can practice letting life in, allowing people, circumstance, your own brilliance, and your own foibles to touch you deeply. When you know how to navigate from discomfort back to equilibrium through the practice of meditation and can extend yourself to others fearlessly by cultivating loving kindness, you can stop looking for love. You have made your life into love itself.

OK, your turn.

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Thank you.

I have to thank you for this wonderful article. I have been having a difficult time with discomfort in my new relationship. We have been together almost eight months and bickering has become a regular occurence. Anyway, I was not at my best last night - pushing him away again. This morning I had the epiphany that perhaps the thing I fear the most is how precious he has become to me. When I googled for some insights and "internet therapy", your article was first on the list. It did the trick and I have printed it to remind myself, it is in how precious he is to me, that I love him most and then the discomfort or as you say, "being on the edge", that I grow the most in this relationship. This relationship has forced me to confront and face down many internal and external demons. Your article reminded me that it is okay to crumble once in a while. Thank you.


I really like how bold you are about flying in the face of non-attachment with your expression of wanting your love and commitment to be unchanging. I bet, from reading this, that you are more flexible than you might think. However, I think that there really is a little something to intimate relationships and bending our Buddhist approach to attachment. It is like an agreement to do the best we can with all this perfect imperfection. Even though the truth of dukha seems to teach us to let go of our expectations of the other, in relationship it is the negotiation of these expectations, and our attempts to live up to them that are the bitter and sweet fruit of intimacy. I like this. It is philosophically funky and juicy. And it seems to be how life works. We actually commit to explore life, and suffering, when we commit to a relationship. And we commit to do our best, even though we may not all the time. That is a noble intention.

One of my core teachers, who recently died, said to one of my other teachers, "well, in relationship, maybe just a little bit of attachment is ok."

I am about to go do a couple's session for a couple who has "lost" their feeling of intimacy. I feel a little more ready to help now. Thanks.

What I think

1. Relationships are uncomfortable.

Relationships cannot be uncomfortable unless a person decides what is comfortable.  That is, one invisions what they expect our of the other person in a relationship.  This is what generates the suffering.  This notion of expecting a person to be what we want them to be and then being taken out of our comfort zone when they are not what we expect.  It is also important to remember that people are not going to stay the same as they were the day we met them.  People change and one must be accepting of these changes.  I think the best way to deal with being uncomfortable is to no allow the relationship to get to this idea of what is uncomfortable.  Communication is the key to sustained comfort with another person.  People are often embarassed to discuss certain emotions or fear presenting themselves as being vulnerable.  I suggest talking more about the things that people often are afraid to speak of or wrongly assume should not have to be said.

2. Thinking they’re supposed to be comfortable is what makes relationships uncomfortable.

Relationships are not going to make one happy or comfortable.  Happiness is not obtained from external causes and conditions.  It can only truly be created from inside of one's own mind and spirit.  There is not a way to find happiness, happiness is the way.  This comes from compassion and acceptance.  One who does not accept things for the way they are will never truly be happy with the results of anything in life.  One may find joy, but it is short lived.  One may be saddened, but it is short lived.  Until one is able to stop trying to become happy, they will cease to create it for themselves.  I agree with this statement as you have presented it.  The expectation of comfort will not allow a person to discover it.

3. It is absolutely possible to love and be loved unconditionally.

Compassion without limitations.  It is possible to be in a state of unconditional love.  It should not be something that one must strive to accomplish.  It is a choice to do so or to not do so. 

4. There is a path that teaches you how and it really works.

The best path one can follow is to be mindfully present.  Harbor nothing of the past and do not expect things to be a certain way in the future.  Nothing exists without our saying it does.  Our mastery of our present mind state is what leads to our reaching nirvana.  To be able to no longer look at things as being comfortable or uncomfortable.  To see things as they are or more accurately as one thinks they see things.  Be here.  Be now.  Be nothing more.  Be nothing less.  Do not be anything, just simply be.....

love this line

"the most deeply loving gesture I can make within my relationship is to tolerate my own discomfort — to recognize my feelings and leave the story behind;"

everything you need to say about taking personal responsibility for your relationships with yourself and others is contained in that line. thank you Susan.

love that you love it

Thanks for seeing so clearly into this line. Even though I wrote it, though, I still don't know how to do it. We soldier on...

Love isn't hard for me so I don't get it

I guess the question might be what is love? to me love is respect and sefless service. maybe i'm just lucky on my 2nd marriage, maybe i shouldn't get too attached to the good thing i have. But I don't think we should assume love is hard. Love is a piece of cake with the right person. If its hard, well, then do you really need to choose suffering?? I'm not saying bail about dirty socks on the floor but if a person is daily confronting trying to find peace living or partnering or parenting with a person whose fundamental outlook on life is say, negative, or aggressive, or passive, or dysfunctional, then what is love then? as judith hanson lasater says, empathy for yourself first....

I don't disagree with most of what you said but don't understand the part about having expectations that it will be hard so just toughen up.....

I covet your ability to not get it

I have never tasted the cake of which you speak, but I still feel that I'm with the "right" person. I definitely know people for whom being together is easy and I completely believe that is true and possible. Personally, I've never experienced that. I don't hold that as a positive or a negative.

I agree that if you're trying to find peace with someone who is negative, aggressive, or passive, then it is quite difficult. However, I am all 3 of those things. Sometimes. My beloved husband is, too. Sometimes.The difficulty comes in flowing with it all and, in my case, agreeing to include what hurts my feelings, frustrates me, and disappoints me, without blaming, accepting, martyr-izing, or giving up. Each time I step outside my comfort zone to embrace him (as opposed to the person I imagined him to be), love deepens. It just works  that way for me. In this way, love is a living, indefinable, uncontainable thing. We never reach peace. Until we do. And then it's gone. Until it's back.

Of course if your lover is abusive in any way, then all of this is moot. That isn't to be tolerated, although I understand how even that can be quite confusing.

I'll have to go back and reread the piece, but I don't think I said it will be hard, so just toughen up. Maybe more like it will be hard, so just soften up, open up, and it's more likely that love will arise spontaneously. But I'm going to go back and reread it myself.

Thanks for taking the time to comment!

That's really fascinating to

That's really fascinating to hear your different experience.. Mine is definitely along the lines of what Susan is describing (i.e. plenty of attachment and ego here). Could you say more about respect and selfless service - your experience of this? Sounds great.
Warmly, Camille


Hi Susan,

I agree relationships is the hardest area to apply the buddhist teachings, but when you say there is no oxygen when you feel neglected, dismissed, suffocated, or enraged by the one you love, It's our ego getting in the way and we are totally blind to the knowledge and realization of change and impermanence in all things; objects, beings, views, feelings, emotions, ect...

Many people don't acknowledge, understand, and realize the impermanence in all things & beings, the perpetual flux of forces incessantly interacting and changing. And why is it that the ones that are aware of this can't accept that a lovers feelings towards us will change? Not might change, but WILL change. The problem is when a person sees their feelings changing for the other, maybe losing their attraction to the other, they jump to "I love this person, but I'm not in love with them anymore", they immediately react thinking they must leave, break it off, and usually do. I feel if they sit with the feeling for a while and keep an open mind they could change again, redeveloping their love.

Also, humans can't get the hang of being truly happy alone first...really spending a good amount of time single, not being in a relationship, which is why they'll always be dependent on another for their happiness. They see a partner who brings them a happiness they couldn't find on their own, they cling to them, and if the time comes that the partner leaves the happiness is taken away too, which is why they freak out and suffer so much.

Another way I see it. The first few things human life experiences is connection from the moment we're a fetus in the womb via umbilical cord being fed. Then from the moment we see our first light of day we're being wrapped up in warm fuzzy blankets, held, kissed, and loved. Then at some point when we 'grow up' we lose those ties, that feeling of connection, and spend the rest of our lives trying to gain it back through a girlfriend or boyfriend expecting them to hug us, kiss us, hold us, tell us they love us. When we get that, we're happy, but if we don't get what we expect we're unhappy. And if we get it, the next step it to attach and grasp onto it trying to make it 'forever' with marriage, vows like 'till death do us part'. People think marriage is some magical contract that won't change our partners feelings, can't be broken, and will make this feeling last forever.

Other reasons I feel relationships don't last long is because people have too many expectations,
too many needs they want met, and not enough acceptance of who their partner is and who they're becoming as they change. Another reason, not many people have the necessary patience, attention, or willingness to work, that it takes for a relationship to go the distance. They want quick and easy gratification and satisfaction.

I think I've said too much. I must stop now.

All really excellent points

I really agree with all your ideas. I can't do them, but I agree with them and continue to try, fail, forgive myself, try, succeed, try again, and so on.

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