A Buddhist struggles with impermanence vs. marriage
BY: Susan Piver
This past summer, I went to a meditation center to practice for several weeks together with my community. At dinner on the first evening, I struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me. He looked to be in his early sixties and I found out he was a longtime student of Buddhism. We told each other a bit about ourselves, including what we did for work, whether we were married, had a family, etc. He was wondering about moving in with his new girlfriend—much younger than he, more enthusiastic about living together than he—hoping, he feared, for what we all eventually discover is impossible—to stabilize a relationship. He was also concerned about giving up his solitude and really didn’t know how long he would want the relationship to continue. Given all this, should they live together, could this work? he asked.
I was totally ready with “I have no idea,” when a voice popped into my head and said, “Of course it can work. As long as you don’t expect it to make you happy.” So I reported these words and we had a moment. We were kind of embarrassed—yes, Buddhists are supposed to know that craving creates suffering, but I guess we still secretly hoped that a relationship could make us happy, if only we could get the circumstances just right.
My new pal and I talked about this, about how relationships can blind us to the dharma quicker than anything. As we said goodbye and I watched him walk away, I wanted to call out, “Don’t be afraid to tell yourself the truth about relationships.” And then I wondered, well, what is the truth, exactly? Do I really believe they’re not supposed to make you happy? And when we long for a lasting relationship (as most people I know do), what happens to the second noble truth? Why do we forget that craving creates suffering?
When my husband and I first started to talk about getting married, we covered lots of topics: who would marry us, who to invite, what to wear, whether or not we would be able to convince our favorite Cajun band to learn “Hava Nagila.” (We were. Shout out to Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.)
Then the most important question came up: what would we say to each other to mark this commitment? What were our intentions and which words expressed them best?
We spent time reading various liturgies, Buddhist and otherwise, and talking about what we liked and disliked about other people’s weddings. As we read the words that other couples had spoken to each other, I became increasingly uncomfortable. Most of them ended with “I do.” I do…what?
Marriage is a commitment to share love, have sex, and try to stay together with this one person, right? Well maybe, but I couldn’t promise to do these things. I knew I couldn’t say, “I do” to love—feelings change, and keep changing. I also knew I couldn’t say yes to wanting to have sex with him for the rest of my life—desire is unpredictable. And ask him to commit to me? Which me? I couldn’t commit to remaining the same me. So if you can’t say yes to love, sex, or remaining the one each fell in love with, what are you agreeing to when you commit to a relationship?
It’s just now, eight years later, that I’m finding out what, apparently, I said yes to.
I said yes to the unfolding, impenetrable arc of uncertainty. I guess I thought that finding love was an endpoint, that some kind of search was over and I would find home. We would leap over the threshold together into whatever we imagined our ideal cottage to be. But really we stepped through a crazy looking glass. No matter how hard we tried, how madly in love we were, or how skillfully we planned our life together, there was complete uncertainty about what the connection would feel like from day to day. I could give all the love I had (with great joy) and get back a blank stare. I could wake up as my crankiest, most sullen and narcissistic self, roll over, and greet the face of unconditional acceptance. Or not. It’s like the weather: you can try to read the signs and guess about atmospheric conditions, but really there’s no telling.
As far as I can see, the relationship never stabilizes, ever. In which case you can’t actually promise each other anything. This is how it works. I have no idea why. But like when I’m listening to a meteorologist explain why it’s going to rain, I think, “Who cares why? I’m just trying to figure out what outfit to wear today.”
It seems that I committed to a lifetime of delight and sadness, inseparable from each other. Every time I look into my dear one’s eyes and feel how deeply we’re connected, the moment disappears before I can actually hold it—and I have to watch that happen. It’s excruciating. It’s much easier to do this with your thoughts when you’re meditating than with the feeling you get from his breath on your shoulder as you fall asleep. But now I get that I have to repeat this until the end of my life, and that somehow this is love’s road.
I wish I had known that when you live with someone for a long time, there is continuous, mind-blowing irritation. (Okay, I did know this, but I forgot.) Often the irritation arises when you try to replace your actual partner with a projection, because they always figure out a way to tell you how unlike your projection they really are. Once you pick yourself up, that gives you yet another opportunity to choose between who this person is and who you sort of hoped he was. No matter how many times I prompt my husband with the correct lines for his role, he does not get into character. This irritates me. We have to throw away the script and just begin to improvise. You’re playing you and I’m playing me. Go.
I didn’t really understand that love does not arise, abide, or dissolve in connection with any particular feeling. It has almost nothing to do with feeling. (Nor does it seem to be a gesture, a commitment to stay, becoming best friends, or anything else I might have thought.) Love has become a container in which we live. Through time, riding mysterious waves of passion, aggression, and ignorance (and boredom), I think we began to live within love itself. At least I did. Each time I have opened up, extended myself, accepted what was being offered to me, stepped beyond my comfort zone to embrace him, the structure has been reinforced. I no longer have any idea if I love my husband or not. I can’t imagine what the feelings I have for him could be called. I’ve even given up trying to love him. Our relationship is what gives us love, not the other way around. This is how it is.
And finally we’re saying “I do” to goodbye. This bond will end. Hello can only mean goodbye, one way or another. Some relationships are just mistakes. Or people grow and change. Relationships crater and nobody knows why. And if all else fails, we will certainly part at death. Saul Bellow once called this acknowledgment “the black backing on the mirror that allows us to see anything at all,” and isn’t that just the key to the whole thing? The deeper our connection becomes, the more I know the reality of its ending and the more passionately I’m able to feel his touch. I know this even when I hate him (and he can really be an asshole—I’m not kidding) and when I love him so much that I plead for the opportunity to be married for all our lifetimes.
Each time my love expands by a molecule, it grows a molecule of sorrow. The more I love, the edgier it all feels, and the more courage is required. Where you get this courage, I really don’t know. Surprisingly, it just seems to be there. And if you’re looking for a crucible in which to heat compassion, this is a really good one. Someone once told me that compassion is the ability to hold love and pain together in the same moment. So at least we’re learning something, which is what I tell myself. It sort of helps, but not really.
Here’s something else I’ve learned about a relationship: Okay, so it’s not what you think it’s going to be, the feelings are always changing, and you’re going to have to say goodbye someday. But when you find your true love, there is something inside that simply and inexplicably says hello to him. Yes to him. Of course to him. Certainly. Obviously it’s you. There is no choice. I do.