Relationship Advice from The Buddha

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I am definitely not qualified to give relationship advice, or for that matter, advice of any kind. In fact, even when asked I hesitate to give advice to anyone. Yet, I am happy here to pass along a piece of advice that I found to be helpful.

When I was between relationships, I read a wonderful book called If The Buddha Dated, by Dr. Charlotte Kasl. It’s a discussion of how to approach your friendships and romantic relationships in a spiritual way. Kasl is a Quaker/Buddhist and approaches things in a peaceful, kindness-based way. She posits that being kind to others is a way to be kind to yourself, as we are reflections of one another.

I found a lot in the book which resonated with me, but the one I try to carry with me, not always successfully, is the importance of “letting go of attachment to outcomes.” In other words, she warns us to let go of expectations of other people.

So much of what goes wrong in relationships is caused by having expectations that people should behave in certain ways. Back when I was a teenager I remember getting furious with friends who would cancel our Saturday afternoon plans because they “Had to” stay home and wash their hair. That was a “thing” that people did back then, because washing your hair also meant putting it up in rollers and waiting for it to dry, then teasing and styling it. Since I would simply wash my wild hair and go out with a wet braid down my back, it would drive me crazy when others would make a big deal about hair. They shouldn’t do that, I thought, because I wouldn’t.

Things get even more complicated when we are dealing with our partner. Back when I was first married to Alec, we lived on an army depot in Utah on the Salt Flats. Our home was a drafty barracks apartment overlooking miles of sage brush and tumble weed. The snow would blow in through the cracks between the walls and the floor. Our trash can was located across a desolate yard, home to rattle snakes and scorpions in the warmer weather, and deep snow drifts in winter.

We were newlyweds and were establishing our mutual housekeeping responsibilities, and a friend advised me to set the ground rules early and not back down, or I would be bogged down for the rest of my life. My belief then was that carrying out the garbage was Man’s Work, and the scary yard that had to be traversed reinforced that notion. Apparently, however, Alec did not share that belief, and our tiny apartment was smelly with greasy grocery bags full of garbage.

One day I got fed up and yelled, “Your mother spoiled you! If she were here, I’d give her a piece of my mind!”

Alec picked up the phone, dialed his mother back in Vermont, told her, “Stephanie has something she wants to say to you,” and handed me the phone.

I was steaming! My expectation was that husbands took out the trash. Didn’t everyone believe that as well? “Dora,” I said, “Your son isn’t holding up his end of the bargain. He doesn’t help AT ALL, and he doesn’t even take out the trash!”

I expected her to be sympathetic (Why???), but she sniffed the way she did whenever she had something critical to say to me, and said, “But why would he take out the trash?”

Now I really was angry! “Why??? Not take out the trash? Then who do you propose take it out across that menacing yard?”

“Well,” she said calmly, “Get your maid to do it. That’s what we always do.”

I felt as if I were a balloon that someone had just popped with a needle. All the hot air leaked out of me. So. That was it. My expectation was that my husband take out the trash, but he obviously had other expectations, as did his mother.

I really don’t remember how the trash issue was resolved. I think we each did it some of the time, but it was a lesson in letting go of attachment to outcomes.

In later years, I took my attachment to outcomes to the juvie prison where I tried to teach English to incarcerated boys. I planned my lessons with care and came to class ready to stand on my head if need be to get the students to get involved in the lesson and to move forward with their educations. It seemed that the more I was invested in getting the boys engaged, the quicker they would fold their arms across their chests and feign sleep.

When I realized that my attachment was to get someone else to behave in a particular way (ie the students engage with the material and learn something), I understood the problem. The only way I could feel successful was if I switched by attention back to myself. I became attached to maintaining my effort and enthusiasm without knowing if the students learned from the lessons. It was a good day if I found something to laugh about and saw “That of God” in the boys despite their annoying behaviors.   

Nowadays, I show up at the shop and make sure it looks as welcoming as it can. I greet customers and am happy to get to know them. I let go of attachment to their buying something while they are here, but I am particularly delighted when someone spends money in the store. In these cold days of winter in Black Mt, where some days only 2-3 people even walk through the door, letting go makes my life sweeter.