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The Zen of Relationships  

Recently a friend of mine, a non practicing Buddhist who has serious doubts about the effectiveness of psychology, emailed me an excerpt from a book entitled Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment.  The excerpt was about relationships and happiness, or unhappiness, as the case may be.  The subject line of the email was “Zen or psychology?”  I responded that perhaps it was both.

The gist of the writer was that unhappiness in relationships comes from striving to make our partners something other than they are and for striving to change the other person so the relationship is the source of our happiness.  The authors position was true happiness in a relationship comes from devoting oneself to trying to make the other person happy.

I don’t entirely buy that.  In fact, if someone bases their own happiness on making their partner happy, that can be a dismal failure as well.  I still think it is important to take responsibility for our own feelings, and happiness, in relationships, and let our partners be responsible for theirs.

The piece that I do think makes sense is that much unhappiness in relationships comes from striving to change our partner into something that better fits what we want.  I’m not championing unconditional love here.  I think that is pretty much mythological in intimate relationships, but I do think that striving to change a partner and the ensuing battles often create much more pain in relationships than the thing that was being attempted to change in the first place.

In a healthy relationship, people express their needs and desires and try to be responsive to what each other say.  They are not likely to be responsive in a way that perfectly meets the needs, and sometimes it is even important to appreciate the will to be responsive itself more than what they actually do. 

Like a good Buddhist practice, relationships need to have a balance between getting needs and wants met and acceptance of each other and each other’s limitations.  Finding that balance is the true Zen of relationships.