Heart to Heart: The Importance of Freedom and Commitment in Intimate Relationships

The key to working skillfully with desire and intimate relationships is to develop mindfulness of our emotional patterns -- particularly how we handle the many manifestations of our desire.
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Whether you believe in having more freedom or more commitment in intimate relationships, desire is involved, and it's a heart-to-heart matter.

When we look at the whole range of emotions we're capable of -- passion, anger, jealousy, aggression, anxiety, fear, and so on -- the one that stands out the most and marks our whole lives is desire. There's nothing new in this. This human world we live in was called "the desire realm" by the ancients of Asia, including Buddha Shakyamuni, because desire was seen as our most fundamental emotion. Since Freud, Western psychologists, too, have recognized the central role of desire in human life. Freud even saw it as the primary "drive" behind our behaviors.

What is this troublesome "desire"? It's simply the basic sense of wanting, of longing or craving for something, whether we can name it or not. And this "wanting" can be very strong. Look at the ads you see on TV and in magazines. Everything, from food to cars to beer to allergy medications, is trying to tell us that it can satisfy us better than the next product -- its beauty, its yumminess, its power becomes ours when we hook up with it. Because of desire, we have a lively and profitable world of commerce. Because of desire, we have a whole world of pleasure and pain, romance and delusion, that we can't fully control.

Our desire may be to help others, to create something of transcendent beauty, or to realize union with God. It may simply be to find a perfect love in our life. Or we may desire success, wealth, fame -- the usual suspects. Whatever it is, in its purest form, that desire in itself is neither positive nor negative. Yet it can become either, depending on how we work with it. The Buddha taught that desire (and its close and more popular relative, passion) can help us wake up to our life and experience greater freedom and joy, or it can lead us into further suffering and misery.

When desire and passion run amok, our happiness evaporates and we can turn into jealous, possessive, angry or fearful creatures. Even those desires tied to our noblest beliefs can cause widespread suffering. What war has not been conducted in the name of honor or righteousness? The flip side is that our desires and passions are also the source of much of the joy and happiness we find in the world. The love we feel towards another person and the pleasure we take in it, as well as the compassion we feel for all beings, also come from this same fundamental sense of desire.

So it's really up to us -- how we handle our desire determines whether it will bring us happiness and joy or suffering and pain. And of course, how we handle it has a lot to do with our habitual patterns. It's very important to pay attention to our conditioning and habitual tendencies around desire.

If, in our intimate relationships, we tend to exaggerate or magnify our desire until we become obsessed, possessive or a bundle of compulsions, then we'll for sure get carried away by the neurotic side of our emotions. Our life will be like a rollercoaster ride, with lots of ups and downs and screaming. But unlike an ordinary rollercoaster, the ride of neurotic desire just goes on and on, and you can keep screaming forever. That's not a healthy way to be in any relationship. Across the board, bringing that kind of neurotic desire to the table is a recipe for an unhealthy relationship. Ultimately it doesn't matter who you are -- man, woman, straight, gay, lesbian, transsexual, black or white, whatever. It's not about those issues. It's about how you work with your mind.

In any close, loving relationship, we need to find the right balance of personal freedom and commitment. When two partners can be together in a way that respects each person's individual space and at the same time expresses unequivocal commitment, then both parties can relax and be who they are. What does that look like? You could say that half of each partner belongs to the other one. When the two halves come together, they form one whole person: that's what we call relationship or family. Yet there are still two other halves left over. Your partner may be joined to you, but he or she still has that other half that isn't joined to you. That other half might include different religious beliefs, social activities, favorite hobbies or sports, and TV shows.

Maybe your partner's other half likes to watch "Will & Grace" reruns, and you can't stand that show. You should respect your partner's freedom, the needs and preferences of his or her other half. Yet, at the same time, the two halves that are joined together are clearly united, and so each has some responsibility for the health of the relationship and for the other person's welfare and happiness. It's not like you're fully free to do whatever you want. You have some responsibility towards the half of your partner that's joined to you, but you don't have to try to control and change the half that's not.

So we need some balance between autonomy and commitment, between individual space and shared bonds. Commitment is very good because it helps us to not go wild, to not lose all sense of self-discipline or mindfulness of our speech or actions. But respecting individual space is also very important. Otherwise we become possessive and controlling, which is not healthy. If the relationship is too tight, both partners feel suffocated. But if it's totally loose and there's no sense of commitment or discipline, no awareness of common ground, then there is no real heart connection. And that's what a relationship is: a heart-to-heart exchange.

The key to working skillfully with desire and intimate relationships is to develop mindfulness of our emotional patterns -- particularly how we handle the many manifestations of our desire. Am I aware of how I react when I'm feeling jealous or neglected, or how predictable am I when disappointed? Do I become angry or clingy or begin to plot emotional revenge? What helps me to be open? What sparks my sense of generosity or forgiveness? If we can't even see how our emotional habits are manifesting from moment to moment, we don't have much hope for transforming them or developing a healthy emotional life.

With mindfulness, we don't have to relinquish or run away from our emotions. What we want to do is to develop a straightforward and honest relationship with our emotions. We want to see them for what they are as well. Bringing a moment or two of mindful awareness to a situation that's about to carry us away can "save" us from taking another rollercoaster ride. And developing a strong habit of mindful attention can help us keep our emotional life in a proper balance. Finding that balance in our intimate relationships is not only a better way to live; it can be our path to a more enlightened and joyful existence. When you look into any attraction for its power source, desire is there -- and desire's most enlightened and irresistible form is joy.

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