Excerpted from the book The Misleading Mind: How We Create Our Own Problems and How Buddhist Psychology Can Help Us Solve Them (c) 2012 by Karuna Cayton. Printed with permission from New World Library.
In modern culture, romantic love is often presented as essential for creating a meaningful, satisfying life. Movies, books, and media exalt and cherish “falling in love” as a kind of miracle of happiness. As the fairytale goes, if we can only “find our soul mate,” then our life will end “happily ever after.” Desire for this wonderful experience is the most destructive arrow in Cupid’s quiver: the notion that our happiness resides in someone else.
Little wonder that love stories in movies and books typically end at the altar, the loving couple glowing in their newly created “oneness.” What happens next? Ask any married couple. Each person changes, moment by moment, day by day, and each person encounters the full complexity of the other’s moods, emotions, feelings, and attitudes. We discover our “prince” still has plenty of frog left in him. Plus, nothing lasts forever, and that includes the mind-state of “being in love” that carries couples through their initial romance. And so, year after year, clients come into my practice disturbed by “not loving their partner anymore.”
At the risk of sounding like a negative curmudgeon, I would say that their problem is that either the person never truly “loved” their partner to begin with or they are confusing desire with love. I’m as much of a sucker for romantic love stories as anyone, but we need to recognize that “romance” is a story. It is a creation of our mind, not a reflection of reality. It is a cultural narrative that we should question and treat with suspicion as it applies to our own life and emotional well-being. We risk making tragic errors if we don’t.
“Healthy love” is the warm cherishing of another person without expectation and clinging. This love “accepts” all aspects of another person and “requires” nothing from them. This love is something we create in our own heart and give as our gift, freely, willingly. With a compassionate, open heart, we truly, sincerely, authentically want the best for the other person: the best seat in the restaurant, the best of ourselves, the best job, the most fulfilling life they can have. We create this contentment in order to share it; we don’t depend on the other person in order to feel it. This “unselfish” love doesn’t need the other person’s happiness in order to exist, but it knows that when we increase someone else’s happiness, everyone’s happiness, satisfaction, and contentment multiply exponentially. Love is an essential part of life. It is the expression of inner happiness and contentment.
But here’s the deal: We do experience authentic happiness in the presence of another, but then we almost immediately cling to the feeling and believe we “need” the other to feel it. We don’t want to lose the feeling. We desire authentic, healthy love, and in our confusion, pursue it wrong-headedly. Authentic, “unselfish” love changes the moment we try to cling to and possess it. The moment of experiencing authentic love quickly gets replaced by self-centered thoughts like, “Is she going to just use me?” “Am I going to get back what I’m putting into this?” “Maybe I’m being taken for a fool.” Pure love and attachment are mutually exclusive. One cannot exist in the presence of the other, just as a room cannot be both light and dark at the same time.
Thus, my suggestion to clients who say they “do not love their partner anymore” is to look within themselves first. They must confront the confusions and disturbing emotions of their desires in order to “find” their ability to love authentically again. We need to become familiar with how the mind works. When we experience authentic love, we feel so good we want to freeze the moment. Clinging takes over. This dynamic is the same as with any other desire or pleasure; we come to feel we need a good meal, a certain income, in order to be happy, content, or satisfied. When it comes to another person, our desire can similarly “objectify” them; they become a “thing” we selfishly require. Naturally, we have loving relationships with our partners, our parents, our children, and so on, and these relationships are not possessed wholly by selfishness. But in all of our relationships there tends to be an element of “What’s in it for me?” If any previously loving and fulfilling relationship comes to feel harmful, toxic, unhealthy, or simply unsatisfying, then we benefit the relationship, ourselves, and the other person by examining our attitudes and becoming aware of our desires, our wants, our needs, and our demands.
KARUNA CAYTON, psychotherapist and author of The Misleading Mind, spent twelve years working with Tibetan refugees in Nepal and studying with Buddhist masters. His Karuna Group practice applies Buddhist psychology to individual and organizational clients. He lives in Northern California. Visit him online at www.thekarunagroup.com.