Secret to lasting coupledom?

There is an old Chinese saying: “Honor each other as if honoring guests(相敬如賓).” This is used to describe exemplary couples. It emphasizes the importance of respect between husband and wife. It is much easier said than done.

It is relatively easy for two people to enjoy each other’s company as lovers who meet on an “as needed” basis. But living together over an extended period of time is quite another matter. When we live together with someone, it is easy to take the other person for granted. Habituation takes its toll. In addition, close proximity often means daily friction. One downside of proximity is that we get to know each other’s faults and weaknesses. Such knowledge may lead to contempt. Very often, one’s spouse is also one’s constant critic, one with definite “inside information.” Even if the partners have no major personality flaws, they are likely to have different preferences. Several months ago, I had a casual talk with a colleague — a fellow teacher — who does substitute teaching once a week so that she can “get away from the house.” She and her husband are both retired. They have spent some 40 years together as a married couple. They have children and grandchildren together. Even in that situation, living together is not exactly easy. According to my teacher friend, sometimes the conflict is about how one hangs a towel in the bathroom. Retired couples may spend an inordinate amount of time together in the house. It makes sense to seek a reprieve from each other for mental health purpose.

Can we overcome such obstacle to a good relationship? Perhaps. But it takes hard work. It also requires the right attitude. It helps if we view an intimate relationship (or a marriage) not as a ticket to constant amusement and pleasure, but as a crucible. For it requires much compassion, love, understanding and forgiving. It also requires the acceptance that people typically don’t change. It is perhaps futile to try to change someone in a major way.

There is no question that marriage is romanticized in our modern age. Young people have a tendency to think of marriage as a way to perpetuate romance and sensual pleasure. But those who regard a marriage or intimate relationships as an ego or hedonist pursuit probably have never had one. In reality, intimate relationships are both heaven and hell. Instead of thinking of it as an aspect of one’s pursuit of happiness, it would help to view it as an integral part of one’s spiritual path. The late Zen master, Charlotte Joko Beck, wrote in her book “Everyday Zen,” that “relationships don’t work.” They are not there to serve our ego. If we think of them as ways to gratify our ego, then we would be opening the door to many disappointments.

To honor your partner as if he or she were a guest is good advice. It does not mean that you have to keep a distance, or that there is no real physical or emotional intimacy. But it does mean that you have to treasure the relationship and regard the other person with proper respect. Your partner is not there to serve your ego needs. Rather, the relationship is an opportunity for you to work on yourself and to practice serving others. You cannot trash your partner without trashing yourself and debasing yourself.

If you see a couple who actually honor each other as guests, not just in public but also in private, you are probably seeing a couple who take a spiritual approach to their relationship. To the extent that you can manage to practice this, you are on your way to a lifelong coupledom.

Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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