“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.”
"To know how to love someone, we have to understand them. To understand, we need to listen."
A monk is not usually someone I would think to get relationship advice from. What do they know about the frustrations of mis-matched libidos, or dirty socks left for the spouse-as-maid, or stress about how to put the kids through college? I admit typically I trust relationship advice from people who have been there, done that.
But never say never is one of my favorite mottos. So I was pleasantly surprised when I read a book review of Thicht Nhat Hanh's latest book How To Love. In it Nhat Hanh states that “understanding is love’s other name” — that to love someone means to fully grasp his or her suffering. He gives this metaphor:
"If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform."(emphasis added)
What I find so amazing is how right-on he is about this. As someone who has been trying to help others love each other for over a decade and as a person who has been trying to learn to love my own partner better for nearly two decades this just rings so true. To truly love someone is to understand them. To understand their origins, their wounds, their scars and their pains. When you know these things it changes how you feel about their actions, often most of all their "unfortunate" actions. Some of their worst behaviors can be viewed with compassion and love. The spouse who can't seem to ever apologize is seen as the child who was never apologized TO. The partner who closes themselves off is the child who never had anyone available to share WITH. We begin to see that our partner is not so much acting against us or even in reaction to us but tilting at ghosts of windmills from their past. Fighting dragons long gone from their own childhoods. From this vantage point we can expand our capacity to love them even in their "low road" moments (as Dan Siegel would say).
I would also argue that our failure to consider our partner's past often becomes the new wound for them. When I cannot hang in their with the partner who struggles to mend the fence, or tell me that s/he loves me more often, I become a new wound in their attachment narrative. So not only do I miss an opportunity to heal an old wound that came before I ever arrived but I create a new one as well. How sad.
What can be done about this? Thicht Nhat Hanh would say "listen". Listen and this will lead to understanding. Understanding will lead to compassion. Compassion will lead to deeper, fuller and more stable love.
He points out the difference between infatuation and real love. Infatuation prevents us from knowing the other because it projects onto the other person the fantasy of who he or she can be for us. It is based on our own needs and desires rather than truly seeing who that person is. Nhat Hanh goes on to say "Often, we get crushes on others not because we truly love and understand them, but to distract ourselves from our suffering. When we learn to love and understand ourselves and have true compassion for ourselves, then we can truly love and understand another person."
He explains the idea of a two-person system (a concept I learned from Stan Tatkin) by saying "In a deep relationship, there’s no longer a boundary between you and the other person. You are her and she is you. Your suffering is her suffering. Your understanding of your own suffering helps your loved one to suffer less. Suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters. What happens to your loved one happens to you. What happens to you happens to your loved one...In true love, there’s no more separation or discrimination. His happiness is your happiness. Your suffering is his suffering. You can no longer say, “That’s your problem.”
Stan Tatkin teaches that this type of thinking promotes safety and security in the relationship because if I deeply and fully know that whatever I do impacts you, then I will take care in all of my interactions to do what is best for BOTH of us. This short-circuits many of the problems I see in relationships. Most, if not all relationship problems I see have some element of "this is what I need to do to take care of MYSELF" in it. When people can really stop thinking of themselves as totally separate from their partner the relationship goes to a whole new level.
Lest you think I am promoting co-dependency of some sort please see my earlier blog delineating healthy inter-dependency from pathological co-dependency in which there is a link to an interview with Dr. Tatkin on the subject. I am not promoting co-dependency in any way. But I do agree with Dr. Tatkin and Thicht Naht Hanh that "what happens to your loved one happens to you" and vice-versa. And I think in our narcissistically-oriented self-absorbed culture this is a message that is sorely needed. It's not all about us as individuals. It's about subjugating oneself to something larger. To the relationship. And trusting that the relationship is going to circle back and take care of you.
Wishing you deeper knowing of yourself and your partner; deeper compassion for yourself and your partner; and deeper love between you and your partner.
All the best,
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