The Four Noble Truths of Love
 © Susan Piver 2018

Buddhism and Relationships

My 19th wedding anniversary is coming up next month. HOLY CRAP. I never in a million years imagined that I would be with one person for this long. Our marriage has been more than I could have hoped for but nothing I would ever have expected.

Like most of us, when I was young, I dreamed of finding the right relationship. The definition of “right” changed over the years, but the longing to love and be loved did not. Still, when it came to romance, all I could imagine was Part One (falling in love). I assumed that Part Two (the lasting forever part) would naturally arise by some form of magic stemming from Part One. I expected that falling in love was all I needed to do and the rest would take care of itself. Why would I think otherwise? In our culture, it has been proclaimed that all love affairs should become relationships and all relationships should be love affairs. (The truth is, this is extremely rare.)

My focus was on passion, desire, intensity, magic. Right? Part One! Part One rules. Who dreams about Part Two? Who lies awake at night, fantasizing about an intimacy that is both sustaining and awkward, a connection that evokes great healing and commensurate irritation, and the mystery of abiding, unspeakably precious friendship? When thinking about love, most of us are not imagining a giant crucible in which to heat all our brilliance and all our stupidity. However, that is what we get.

When my husband and I started talking about getting married (a conversation I attempted to defer into infinity), I panicked. It doesn’t really seem to work out all that well for most people, does it? I was determined to examine the pitfalls in detail. I didn’t want to end up getting shredded and I certainly did not want to hurt him. I loved him.

I turned to my normal sources for insight: experts, friends, and books. Experts, check. I found an amazing therapist with a deep understanding of relationships. Friends, check. I talked over my concerns with some really smart and soulful people, many of whom were grappling with similar issues.

Books — normally my best pals for ongoing guidance and important insights — really let me down. They were surprisingly mute on the topics I wanted to hear about most:

What forces govern the tides of closeness and distance, warmth and coldness, connection and alienation between two people? What is the algorithm for sweetness? Will this thing ever f*cking stabilize? No, you say? OK, now what?


Are problems that recur (over and over and over) fixable? If so, tell me how and, if not, explain how I’m supposed to live with them.


Why is it that as my love deepens, so does my loneliness?


What evidence is there that just because you love someone, you will be able to create a life you both love? (Spoiler alert: none. They are utterly disconnected.)

I found nothing to address my concerns. Instead, I found a gazillion books about one thing: how to be loved. How to attract love, keep love, get love back when it goes away, and, most especially, how to remove the obstacles that prevent love from coming to you. Some books were pop-y and cute while others were academic and research-rich. (None of them were about how to give love. Which is simply weird. There were some exceptions, but they tended to be associated with a religion.)

I wanted something that felt real and practical and deep at the same time. I hoped someone would give me insights and tactics. But…nada. Instead, there was a lot of info on fixing myself in order to have a good relationship, but I wasn’t interested in solving my psychological problems because that would take forever. There were also a lot of theoretical books that dissected why relationships don’t work. Something about the prefrontal cortex. But I am not all that interested in theories and studies, both of which I find largely useless once boots are on the ground. (That’s me. You may feel otherwise.)

I wanted to understand how hearts work.

As a long-time Buddhist practitioner, I finally realized that I had the resource I needed: 2500+ years of Buddhist wisdom.

The Buddhadharma has much to teach on the topic of relationships, even though it may not appear that way on the surface. I mean, most of the core teachings were transmitted by monastics or forest yogis, neither of whom focused on home life particularly. Still, when I attempted to apply these teachings within the context of love, it worked.

The Four Noble Truths of Love

Relationships have periods of closeness and distance and no one can really tell you what governs their coming and going. It’s a mystery. During one such period of distance with my husband, I thought we might be through. No matter how hard we tried to regain closeness, we clashed. Every conversation turned into a fight. (Even questions as simple as “where do you want to eat dinner?” could provoke divorce-grade tremors. True story. When I posed this question, we were driving on a country road at night and for some reason, we exploded at each other. I made him pull over and let me out of the car. In France. I had no idea where we were. I didn’t care, I just wanted out. I walked into some field until I got scared and went back to the car, arms folded.) Throughout this time, I tried all sorts of great relationship tactics like listening, mirroring, affirming, being clear, giving space, using “I” statements, and so on. Blah, blah, nothing worked. Every conversation seemed to end with anger, hurt feelings, or numbness. I felt so lonely. I’m sure he did too.

One day, I thought I am so confused. I have no idea where to begin fixing this. Then a voice whispered to me: How about at the beginning? (Why are these voices always so simple and correct? And why don’t they pipe up earlier?)

Then the voice said: At the beginning are four noble truths. These truths are taught within the three yanas.

As a 20+ year student of Buddhism, these words meant something to me and I want to share with you what I discovered when I tried to map core Buddhist teachings onto the territory of my love life.

At first I was doubtful. Weren’t these teachings relevant only to ascetics, yogis, and monastics, i.e. people without partners, jobs, and bank accounts? Well, maybe. But it turns out that Buddhism shed radiant light on my darkest relationship moments.

To begin at the beginning meant to consider the Four Noble Truths. These are the very first teachings the Buddha gave upon attaining enlightenment and the entire Buddhadharma is based around them.

The truth of suffering. Life is suffering. This does not mean that life sucks. It refers to the fact that everything changes and there is nothing to hold on to. This is painful.

The cause of suffering. Trying to hold on anyway.

The cessation of suffering. This condition can be alleviated.

The path to no suffering. The noble eightfold path will lead you out of suffering.

How might you apply these truths to love? Here is what I came up with.

Relationships are uncomfortable.

Whether you are about to go on a blind date with someone you have never set eyes on or are pissed off at your partner of 30 years because they’ve done that thing that they promised to never, ever, ever do again, we never quite find solid ground. Whether in big or small ways, moments of fear — of being hurt, disappointed, overtaxed, misunderstood, rejected, or, worst of all, ignored — are a continual presence.

No problem. This is just the way it is. Interestingly, all these things happen, even in happy relationships. No one tells you that it’s impossible to stabilize a relationship because it is impossible to stabilize yourself, nor is it possible for your partner to do so. Thus, it is uncomfortable.

The emotional exchange between two people shifts like grains of sand in the desert: some days you can see forever and some days you have to take cover because something kicks up out of nowhere and you can’t see two feet in front of you. On still other occasions, imperceptible winds cause little piles to slowly accumulate until, one day, a familiar path is altogether blocked. You just can’t tell what’s going to happen. And just like trekking through the desert, it pays to be as absorbed in the present moment as you are attuned to atmospheric indicators. Woe to she whose attention to either lapses.

Have you ever had a rapturous moment with a beloved, arms wrapped around each other, blissful, and thought: I never want this moment to end? Well, too bad. It will. Why? Because you’re both alive. The moment is alive. The air is alive, as is the ground you stand on, the flesh on your bones, the looks you exchange. Everything that is alive also dissolves, whether in a nanosecond or an eon. It really helps — and disorients, shocks, empowers — to recognize this. As the writer Saul Bellow said about death, “(it) is the black backing on the mirror that allows us to see anything at all.” Impermanence actually brings everything into terrifying, brilliant, precious, and accurate focus. If you want a snuggly relationship, please disregard. But if you want to add vitality, genuineness, chaos, depth, sorrow, joy, and meaning to your snuggles, you could contemplate these notions further.

The bad news is you never get where you thought you wanted to go. The good news is there’s basically no way to have a boring relationship.

Expecting relationships to be comfortable is what makes them uncomfortable.

At the root of discomfort is the wish for comfort. We imagine that we would feel fine if only we could find the “right” person. But when you do find the (or a) right person, it’s anything but relaxing. Your neuroses, their neuroses, and all your mutual hopes and fears about love flood the environment. Whether you bargained for it or not, you get introduced to your deepest self while someone else is trying to introduce you to their deepest self. In bumper cars. It can become very confusing. But instead of wasting time assigning blame and thinking that will solve everything (or anything), better to dive right in and try to be kind to each other as you bump around.

What would it be like if, instead of wishing for comfort, we wished for depth?What if the first thing we brought to our disconnects was curiosity rather than judgment? This leads to the third noble truth:

Meeting the discomfort together is love.

The inability to create safety actually plots the path to love. It’s strange but true. When you work with all this chaos (and joy and sweetness and rage and so on), love becomes more than romance. It turns into something way better: intimacy. Romance has got to end, that’s just how it goes. But intimacy? It has no end. You can’t be, “oh, intimacy, we’ve done that.” It can always go deeper.

A great partner is not one who expresses undying love for you at every turn, whether you are in your most radiant or most bedraggled state. (That would be weird.) A great partner is one who, rather than facing off to determine who will win each battle, turns to stand shoulder to shoulder with you to watch the battle rage.

True love seems to exist on some mysterious edge of its own. It can’t be controlled, predicted, or penned in. When you try, it calcifies. To keep it alive, at some point you just have to let go and see what happens. Noble Truth #4 is the way to navigate it all.

The noble eightfold path.

In Buddhist thought, there are as many words for suffering as Eskimos were said to have words for snow (a notion since debunked, but let’s pretend for a second). There is “plain old suffering” (not the technical term), the kind that we all experience when someone dies, we become ill, something precious is lost, circumstance doesn’t break in our favor. All human beings experience these things. Then there is the “suffering of suffering,” the bits we add to the unavoidable variety. The suffering of suffering arises from the stories we tell ourselves and the incorrect judgments we make from those stories. Suffering A is unavoidable. Suffering B is optional. The eightfold path, among many things, is a system for circumnavigating the latter. When it comes to our relationships, rather than using them to build some sort of emotional contract for “meeting each other’s needs” (what does that even mean), they can be a source of liberation. In fact, love and relationships may be one of the most profound paths imaginable, if not among the most arduous.

As with anything you consider important, you don’t want to just show up and hope for the best. You want to plan well. Evaluate clearly. Play the odds. In no way am I suggesting that this is simple. It takes tremendous presence and superhuman commitment to walk into this fire. Instead of flinging yourself kamikaze-like into the flame of love, you can train in working with the heat. The eightfold path can help. My upcoming book, The Four Noble Truths of Love: Buddhist Wisdom for Modern Relationships explores how.


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