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Try a Calm Approach to Your Relationship

An excerpt from Buddhism for Couples by Sarah Napthali

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Don’t Chase the Arsonist

Despite all the pitfalls of expressing anger unskillfully, only last weekend I initiated an angry exchange with my husband. An inequity had been frustrating me but, with our children in the vicinity, I had been reluctant to address it. Finally, I asked Tomek to come upstairs for a quick word where I socked him with it. Conscious of little listening ears, trying to keep my voice down, I delivered my complaint in a quiet voice but through gritted teeth. I imagine my face looked quite angry.

To my amazement he did not say, “Yeah, you’ve got a point. I will behave differently from now on.”

No. He lashed back at me and within a minute had left the room in disgust. Being me, I was plunged into a state of anxiety and distress.

Two hours later Tomek and I were at a fortieth birthday party, mingling among all the happy couples. How carefree they looked, out on the dance floor, so unaware of the tension behind our party faces.

The next day, Sunday, Tomek was out all day at the car-racing track and I picked up a book entitled, simply, Anger. The author, Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, advised me to say to my “beloved”: “Darling, I am angry. I suffer. I am doing my best. Please help me.”

As lovely as this sounds, this is not really our style of communication. We did manage to do a quick patch-up job before work on Monday morning, though. Still, I had ruined my weekend. What had possessed me to address the issue so unskillfully?

Thich Nhat Hanh made this accurate diagnosis of my weekend: “The fact is that when you make the other suffer, he will try to find relief by making you suffer more. … If your house is on fire, the most urgent thing to do is to go back and try to put out the fire, not to run after the person you believe to be the arsonist.” Thich Nhat Hanh believes that we should not act while our anger is at a peak but rather turn inward first to take care of the anger. Fire is an excellent metaphor for the topic of anger: we need to be very careful to contain its spread and its potential for harm. We can address the issue with the arsonist when we have calmed down. A spot of mindful breathing can ease the way. This need not be in a spirit of suppression but with awareness that there is a higher way available to deal with the feelings. Even non-Buddhists advise counting to ten.

Thich Nhat Hanh said that we don’t need punishment for our relationship problems; we need compassion and help. I took him at his word and sought help.

No Need to Punish

We sometimes find ourselves clinging to a state of anger because we believe we need to punish our partner. We believe our partner has made us suffer and must not be allowed to walk free. Forgetting that our partner cannot read our minds, we think that holding on to our anger will teach them a lesson. With this mind-set, we tend to punish ourselves the most by denying our minds freedom from anger. Moreover, that mind-set is unnecessary, for karma means that we will reap what we sow. The Buddha said:

Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart …
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.

The law of karma applies as much to our partner as to ourselves. There is no need for anyone to play God: it’s all taken care of. Many people, including many Buddhists all over the world, misinterpret karma as being about some supernatural deliverance of divine retribution for misdeeds—which is quite a spooky interpretation. The literal translation of the Sanskrit word “karma” is simply “action.” Every act we engage in has an intention behind it, and in Buddhism it is the intention that is critical to our karma. If we act with bad intentions, we are likely to experience unpleasant results at some point down the road. The best example of these unpleasant results is that every time we act with bad intentions, we increase the likelihood that we will do so again because every act creates seeds in our minds that will sprout given the appropriate conditions. In neuroscience, the buzzword is “plasticity,” whereby the more we activate a particular neural pathway, the stronger it becomes and the more likely it is that we will reactivate it again in the future. We end up with some well-worn pathways in our brains because those are the pathways we have reinforced.

Given that our partner will surely suffer, in some way, following any misbehavior, we might even feel compassion for them.

Things to Contemplate . . .

  • What are some of the costs of anger in my household? Withholding of information? White lies? Less goodwill?
  • Are my actions in relation to my partner motivated by cost avoiding or reward seeking? And which of these most motivates my partner’s actions?
  • Do I habitually interpret my partner’s behaviors in ways that enhance the relationship or ones that cause me distress?
  • Do I feel that anger is necessary in order to punish my partner? If so, could I let go of my need to punish and replace it with compassion for a partner who might have some bad karma coming their way?

Things to Do

  • Accept the presence of anger, perhaps labeling it, Anger is here now. Acceptance helps us to avoid adding to the anger emotions such as guilt, disappointment in ourselves, or more anger.
  • Do not act, or speak, when anger is at its peak. Calm down, perhaps by using mindfulness of the breath or body, before taking action.
  • Don’t feel guilty or shocked to discover that you have an inner bully. Just manage it skillfully.
  • Don’t see your partner, or yourself, as “good” or “bad,” for we are all a complex mix of both.
  • Recognize and become familiar with the fear that underlies anger.
  • Don’t fall for the myth of “venting.”
  • Remind yourself that anger is impermanent, even though it doesn’t feel like it at the time.
  • Tune into the sensations of the body in times of anger as a way to detach from the thinking, ruminating mind and return to the present moment.
  • Care for yourself when angry, as you would a houseguest or a distressed child.
  • Recognize the opportunities for learning and growth that can accompany episodes of anger, especially learning about each other’s needs.
  • Consider a role for nature, or gentle exercise, in the process of calming down.
  • Practice RAIN: Recognize, Accept, Investigate, and Non-identify with anger.

Adapted from Buddhism for Couples: A Calm Approach to Relationships by Sarah Napthali. © 2014 by Sarah Napthali. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Penguin Group USA< Penguin Random House.

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