In The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, Haemin Sunim a fine Zen teacher from South Korea, shares an insightful incident from his life:

In my twenties, I went on a two-week backpacking trip in Europe with a close friend from my monastery. When we arrived at the airport in Rome, our spirits were high. We had known each other for a couple of years and got along very well. I liked his sense of humor and warmhearted nature, and he appreciated my adventurous spirit and optimism. Since he did not speak much English, I felt obligated to stay close to him. After the first seven days of spending every moment together, we’d run out of things to talk about and both became irritable. It was not because of any concrete problem in our friendship; it was just that we longed for some time alone. So the following morning I suggested we take different routes and meet up at the hostel at night. My friend welcomed my suggestion.

As I left the hostel, I felt free—I knew I could choose to do whatever I liked for the day; I did not have to negotiate with my friend about where to go first and what to see next. But as the morning turned into the afternoon, I was reminded of the advantages of traveling with a friend. When I needed to go to the restroom, I could no longer rely on my friend to watch my backpack. Eating alone was no fun; it felt more like a chore than a time for enjoyment and relaxation. I didn’t take any pictures of myself that day because I did not want to bother strangers. When I encountered something beautiful, such as a famous piece of art, I was not as thrilled since there was no one to share the excitement with. When I arrived at our hostel at the end of the day, I was quite happy to see my friend. Over dinner we found many new things to talk about in recounting our respective days.

From this experience I realized that the art of maintaining a good relationship can be compared to sitting by a fireplace. If we sit too close for too long, we become hot and possibly burned. If we sit too far away, we cannot feel the warmth. Similarly, no matter how well we get along with someone, if we stick too close without building in some personal space, we soon feel trapped and burned out; it is easy to take the relationship for granted and feel resentful about not having enough privacy and independence. On the other hand, if we put in too little effort to stay in touch with friends and family, we can’t feel the warmth of their love. Striking a balance is key.

The art of maintaining a good relationship is comparable to sitting by a fireplace.

Another beautiful thing I found in Sunim’s narrative was the use of word chore. Most marriages fall apart because the partners become too serious, too much planning. Almost everything becomes a chore. In such relationships, friendship flees away leaving only responsibilities and expectations behind. The focus shifts from what is fulfilling to what the other person is not doing for you. Before long, people feel resentful towards each other. And when, you experience more resentment than joy with your partner, it’s a classic sign that you are tired and worn out.

Often, most couples think that once they no longer feel love, they just won’t feel it ever. Even I compared growing out of love to an apple going off, in one of my earlier posts a few years back. The truth is that if you want to make a relationship work, you have to offer space to each other. It has to have a certain degree of maturity where you are able to express your thoughts, concerns and fears. The need for and nature of communication varies a great deal between men and women. I don’t wish to stereotype but men and women express and expect differently. It’s almost biological, beyond their control. Hence, with all the good intentions, most people spend their lives unhappy in their relationships no matter how many live-ins or marriages they go through. It all boils down to treating the other person the way they (not you!) want to be treated.

I suppose that’s where spiritual teachings can really help a person. Particularly, developing a sense of loving-kindness with a degree of detachment. Understanding that a commitment to a virtuous life is more fulfilling than twisting the other person to be the way you want him/her to be. Nothing is more beautiful than freedom. No matter who you are, man or a woman, dog or a bird, we all want security, love and the rest, but above all, it is freedom that we seek. When asked about love, I hear it all the time that love is to be able to be yourself, to be able to express freely and so on. Isn’t that freedom?

The feeling of love, in other words, is the privilege to exercise your freedom in the company of the one you want in your life. This is the highest kind of freedom and is only possible if the person you love is also allowed the same. You don’t get to draw their picture of freedom and they don’t get to narrate yours. You can’t force them to like dark chocolate if they like white.

Building a relationship is like cross-stitching. You can make the pattern as complex as you like or keep it as simple as you wish. Either way, though, to create a beautiful pattern, or the desired pattern, you have to give devote attention and time, plus a bit of skill too. The keyword here is desire. Half the time, most of the people don’t know what they desire. Even at that, the greatest human folly is the belief that whatever I desire, its fulfillment is going to make me happy.

I once read a joke by Lee Rosten I’m paraphrasing slightly to accommodate Mulla Nasrudin.

“I sure do wish,” said Mulla to his friend, “I had enough money to buy a nice tall giraffe.”
“A giraffe?” his friend exclaimed. “What on earth is a giraffe?”
“You know, one of those critters with spots all over his hide, big knobby knees, high neck, maybe twenty feet tall.”
“Oh, that…but why?”
“Why what?”
“Why would you be wanting a giraffe?”
“I never said I wanted a giraffe,” Mulla said irritated. “I said I just wished I had enough money for buying one.”

Even in a relationship, for good or bad, not everything the other person says is what they always mean. Not every desire you express, you wish it to be fulfilled. Sometimes, we are just sharing, contemplating, thinking out loud. Most people are not waiting for their partners to go out and pluck the stars and moon for them. They simply want to be heard, they want to be acknowledged that they exist in your life, that they matter to you and are wanted in your life. Oh, it’s those wants again…

Try imbibing Sunim’s advice, if that fails, maybe reflect on Pingala’s discovery (as covered in my last post). If that doesn’t work either, well then, what else can I say, maybe: welcome to the humankind, O earthling!

Don’t look for ways to complain, they come naturally to us. Look for ways to be grateful. By yourself or with someone, take responsibility for your happiness. Go, get a life.