Excerpted 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.
One way to make love grow in our relationship is to be more authentic and share more of who we are. Intimacy, to a large extent, comes from revealing vulnerability rather than acting as though we’re always strong and problem-free. Sharing about your daily life and feelings is an antidote to the distancing that plagues so many relationships. Kristin Armstrong, ex-wife of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, wrote an article lamenting the way she allowed her authentic self to disappear behind a veneer of dutiful wife and mother. “The time may come when you realize that the only way to restore the meaning to your marriage is to get back the real you. It requires warrior-size courage to take a stand against the miscommunication, deceptions and emotional distance that breed in the shadows of inauthenticity.”
She ardently hopes that her own young daughters will one day be in relationships where they “speak from the heart”: “If you have a preference, voice it. If you have a question, ask it. If you want to cry, bawl. If you need help, raise your hand and jump up and down.”
Aware of the vulnerability in another human being, most of us are capable of compassion and empathy and the expression of these qualities helps couples feel closer. When couples feel free to express both good and bad aspects of life, they avoid the dullness that sets in for those who only express the good, or only express the bad.
I felt personally challenged by the words of Kristin Armstrong. In the interests of keeping the peace, in the interests of keeping life simple, had I, too, lost the “real me” to any extent? A particular issue between Tomek and me had become too difficult to talk about. Past attempts to resolve it had ended in painful conflict. Had this led to miscommunication, deceptions, and emotional distance? To inauthenticity?
With the passing of time I had begun to withhold information from Tomek—hiding certain papers, not speaking about some of the major events going on in my mind. I will spare readers the details about our long-running issue—that could take another book to explain—but suffice it to say that money was at the centre of it. We tiptoed around our problem, avoiding all mention of it, eventually creating a giant “elephant in the room”—which we had learned to live with. It took me a few months to collect up the “warrior-size courage,” but I did it. This time, however, I remembered what had worked most effectively in the past for our relationship and I put all my thoughts into a letter, which I tweaked and perfected until it became a thorough and sensitive expression of my thoughts.
Remembering the Buddha’s advice about skillful speech being “at the right time,” I waited until a moment when I thought Tomek would be most receptive—about two weeks after writing the letter. I handed it to him before going to collect the boys from a few suburbs away.
“I’ve written you a letter,” I said.
Tomek groaned and said, “You’ve got too much time on your hands.”
I chose to ignore his comment.
The upshot was that after two years of tension around this issue, the letter solved everything. Like magic. Tomek suddenly seemed to understand the situation, and with this the problem literally disappeared. We barely even needed to speak about the letter and its contents. He wordlessly shifted his point of view and I felt thoroughly understood. I had wasted so many months feeling anxious about this issue, when a simple letter had been the answer all along.
To share or not to share?
While intimate sharing can make couples closer, we still need to walk what the Buddha would call “the middle road.” No partner should have to become a full-time therapist. Nor should anyone have to put up with a stream of negativity and complaints day after day. Likewise, every partner has the right to some quiet time alone, too.
We don’t share our vulnerability with the expectation that our partner will remove our pain. Yet if we can provide each other with acceptance for who we are, flaws and all, then our love can only grow. This is unconditional love and makes each of us feel safe and more likely to open up to the other. This need for acceptance may need spelling out to partners who feel they must either “fix” the vulnerabilities they hear about, change the subject, or jump out of a moving vehicle. Such reactions suggest an unwillingness to make space for one’s own negative emotions—if you can’t do it for yourself, it makes it harder to do it for others.
For some of us, sharing vulnerability can seem too threatening. Trust may be the issue for partners who may have reason to worry about their secrets leaking out to others. I remember feeling horrified at a mother who, over drinks, told all the women assembled about her husband’s depression, followed by details from sessions with his psychologist. Alternatively, reluctance to share vulnerabilities may spring from a male need to live up to a gender stereotype of complete self-reliance or emotional invulnerability. Or a partner might have painful memories of times when others ignored, ridiculed, or failed to understand disclosures.
Some of us feel ourselves to be not ready to explore vulnerabilities for fear of where this may lead. Yet suppressing what Jungian psychologists call our “shadow side” can have self-defeating consequences. Our shadow side comes out in ways we are not conscious of, such as when we project the parts of ourselves we cannot own onto others, or our partner, as a way to protect our self-image. I have always been amused to find that those who grumble about the bossiness of others, about how others “insist on having their own way,” tend to be people who I find exceptionally bossy and insistent on their own way. (By the same token, I’m sure there are people who find me bossy and insistent on having my own way.)
With meditation and mindfulness, we become more familiar with our inner world, coming to know our shadow side more fully and taking more responsibility for it. We might also develop a better idea of what we want from a relationship and find the courage to ask for it. We might find that we have been expecting things from our relationship that we should be providing for ourselves. Or we might see more clearly what we can let go of any resentments, gripes or grudges.