As a married lay practitioner, I find the Buddha’s words in the Upaddha Sutta (SN:45.2) particularly inspiring and reassuring. When Ven. Ananda came to the Buddha with an insight he had received that admirable relationships, otherwise known as kalyana mitta, formed the basis of half of the holy life, the Buddha corrected him. “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that,” the Buddha told him. “Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is the whole of the holy life.”
Since friendship, companionship, and camaraderie are also fundamental pillars of marriage, it seems the Buddha is pointing out that we don’t need to separate our spiritual aspirations from our relationship aspirations. Both can go hand in hand; and effort directed for seeking fulfilment in one area will naturally bring fulfilment in the other area as well. By striving to practice dhamma and maintain sila (“discipline, restraint”), we are bound to show up in our marriage in more wholesome ways; simultaneously, by striving to be a loving partner, we are likely to develop wholesome qualities and grow in our dhamma practice. Therefore, nurturing a fulfilling marriage is certainly a worthwhile cause.
Nonetheless, navigating the veritable minefield of emotional upheaval, misunderstanding, and conflict of day-to-day married life requires great skill and mindfulness. In my experience, the noble eightfold path can serve as a dependable road map for this tricky, meaningful journey.
Applying the teachings in daily interactions with my husband has over time yielded the fruit of fewer arguments, faster relationship repair, and deeper trust—imparting a sweetness, resilience, and solidity to our marriage that I also wish for others.
With this in view, I have been integrating the teachings of the noble eightfold path and the Pali canon in my work with couples, and have found to my delight that if both partners make a sincere, wholehearted effort to follow the dhamma-based guidance—even at a relatively mundane level—long-standing knots of misunderstandings, mistrust, and resentment can start melting away in a handful of therapy sessions.
I believe this is because the eightfold path provides a practical method for carefully overhauling the weak, shaky foundation on which most marriages are unconsciously built—our ego-centered cravings, aversions, and delusions. In my experience, when these unskillful ways of thinking and behaving are identified and recognized as being detrimental to the relationship, the motivation, chanda, to replace them with more wholesome ways of relating to one another can arise from the heart quite naturally. With the right effort and encouragement, the relational space between a couple—until now, filled with ego-centered fabrications of wrong expectations, misperceptions, and judgments about one another—can begin to draw in mutual compassion, understanding, and forgiveness, offering the relationship a fresh lease on life.
Of course, this happens only when both partners genuinely care about each other and take responsibility for working on their personal dysfunctional patterns. If each partner is focused mainly on influencing the other to change, while being unwilling to review their own behavior, the relationship—held captive by the ongoing battle of opposing egos—can become a source of suffering rather than joy.
The hold of our ego with its defilements can be so strong and convincing that dhamma practitioners too can unknowingly fall into this trap from time to time.
Fortunately, by following the noble eightfold path, we can stay alert, making skillful, timely corrections to our attitude and behavior toward each other—thereby creating the supportive conditions for a fulfilling marriage.
Right view is the foremost path factor that must be cultivated. If marriage is likened to a garden, right view is the fertile earth on which the seeds of our wholesome thoughts, words, and actions can bear fruit and flower.
The Buddha defines right view in terms of the four noble truths. Applying this to the field of marriage, right view can be defined as: the understanding of marital suffering (dukkha), understanding of the origin of marital suffering, understanding of the cessation of marital suffering, and understanding of the way leading to the cessation to marital suffering.
For the purpose of couples therapy, I have distilled this into the following working principle: Right view is the understanding that ego-centered attitudes and behaviors lead to marital suffering, while heart-centered attitudes and behaviors lead to the cessation of marital suffering. A preoccupation with “me” and “mine” with excessive attachment to my needs, likes, dislikes, beliefs, and way of doing things is damaging for relationships. Nor is it beneficial to be overly focused on our partner’s needs and deny your own—a challenge for many dhamma practitioners.
Rather, we need to train ourselves to generously expand our perspective, extend lovingkindness (to our partner and to ourselves) and focus on “us” and “ours,” especially during disagreements and emotional distress. Even if your partner is being angry, defensive, critical, or evasive, the situation may be defused and turned around by responding mindfully from the heart. From the Dhammapada, 17: 223:
“Conquer anger with lack of anger; bad with good; stinginess with a gift; a liar with truth.”
One of the main obstacles to developing right view, in my experience, is the erroneous belief that we are entitled to our partner’s attention, energy, time, and care whenever we need it. This can lead to righteous indignation and anger if our partner fails to live up to our expectations—which may happen at times, despite their best efforts.
To replace this with right view, I find it valuable to frequently remember and contemplate the Upajjhatthana Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya: 5.57):
“…All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.”
Recognizing that our partner does not belong to us and our time together is limited can lead us in the direction of gratitude instead of entitlement. We begin to realize that it is in our best interest to take responsibility for our actions and responses instead of focusing on our partner’s.
By repeatedly reflecting on these teachings, along with examining the cause-effect of our thoughts, words, and actions—ego-centered versus heart-centred ones—on the quality of our relationship, our conviction in their veracity is likely to grow, enabling the ground of right view to become firm and steady.
Right intention, the second path factor, is the reliable compass that points us in the direction of the heart, when we are adrift amidst ego-borne currents of emotions, insecurities, and judgments. Broadly, it is the wholesome intention to lead with the heart, sublimating our ego, even when we are provoked by something our partner says or does.
In practical terms, this may include several noble intentions such as: the intention to be loving, kind, gentle, and openhearted even when our partner is agitated or angry; the intention to refrain from criticism and harshness; the intention to listen deeply without getting defensive when they complain or give feedback about our behavior; the intention to be generous, appreciative, grateful, humble, patient, and forgiving toward our partner. The Pali canon contains boundless inspiration for expanding this list.
Right speech, in a relationship, would be gentle, truthful, pleasant to hear, loving, soothing, not critical or harsh, timely, and beneficial for your partner and yourself. From the Anguttara Nikaya, 10:176:
“He avoids harsh language and abstains from it. He speaks such words as are gentle, soothing to the ear, loving, such words as go to the heart, are courteous, friendly, and agreeable to many.”
Right action, in a relationship, is refraining from acting upon the impulses of the ego such as: seeking to control or manipulate each other, being disrespectful, demanding, possessive, or unfaithful. If in challenging moments, we cannot bring ourselves to act from an open heart, we must at least refrain from acting in unwholesome ways.
Right livelihood is being involved in a vocation that is ethically in line with the dhamma. A couple I was working with was locked in perpetual conflict because the wife, an advocate, was opposed to her husband’s means of livelihood—an illegal gambling company, which he refused to shut down.
Right effort is the work we put in to be self-aware, vigilantly investigating our motivations and intentions on a day-to-day basis so we can release those driven by the ego without acting upon them. Yoking ourselves to right intention when we are triggered can keep us safely anchored in our heart, from where we can offer a loving response to our partner.
Right mindfulness is the steady watchfulness over our unfolding bodily sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts so that we can apply right effort, enabling more frequent right action over time. For instance, having become more familiar with how anger is experienced in my body—constricted throat, tight jaw, throbbing temples—and mind, it is now possible for me to recognize and soothe it in time before it leads to wrong speech.
Right concentration, in the context of relationships, is the one-pointed attention we give to a wholesome mental or physical object when we are experiencing overwhelm or emotional distress to calm our body-mind. Once the scattered mind is unified and poised, an insight bearing fresh perspective on the issue at hand has a chance to emerge. Suppose we notice we are getting agitated during a discussion; it would be skilful to disengage and focus on the breath till we are calmer. We may also choose to focus on the positive qualities of our partner during this time. Both in conjunction can have a beneficial effect on the mind and the heart in a short time, leading to a more productive dialogue.
In one of my sessions, my client Yuri had been experiencing sleepless nights, anxiety, and depression ever since he discovered Amanda, his high school sweetheart and fiancée, had been involved with another man. Amanda, although remorseful and keen to mend her strained relationship with Yuri, would get defensive, agitated, and shut down whenever Yuri expressed his anger or pain.
During individual sessions with each of them, it was agreed that the pathway to healing was through empathy, nondefensiveness, and a willingness to listen deeply to each other’s pain. Yet during our next joint session, when Yuri began to share how deeply betrayed he felt, Amanda got defensive and angry. Despite being reminded of her right intention to focus on Yuri’s pain, she was unable to do so.
I offered Yuri the chance to listen to her feelings instead, reminding him that at least one of them needed to follow through on right intention so a heart-to-heart dialogue could take place. As Yuri listened compassionately, validating Amanda’s feelings and apologizing for the role he had played in their drifting apart, her wall of defensiveness came down—she offered a genuine heartfelt apology.
The repair to the relationship had begun, reaffirming my conviction—by following the noble eightfold path, we can forge a fulfilling bond, withstanding the gusts of dukkha that may threaten every marriage from time to time.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.