Humans are social animals. We live in groups. We care for our offspring for years. We cooperate with each other (the United States Congress notwithstanding). Most of all, we have lasting relationships with other individual humans – what biologists call long-term pair bonds.
Some of these pair bonds, you’ve surely noticed, are healthier than others. That’s where the field of relationship science comes in. Relationship scientists study how to build and maintain strong, intimate relationships. We perform laboratory experiments to understand the factors that make a relationship flourish or wither.
In recent years, some researchers in relationship science, including us, have turned to a surprising resource for inspiration: Buddhism. We say ‘surprising’ because one of the central tenets of Buddhism is letting go of strong attachments, but a relationship is the very definition of a strong attachment. How can these opposing ideas be reconciled? And what does science have to say?
Let’s begin with some basics about biology. In a healthy relationship, you feel good when your partner is around. No surprise there. But you might not know that the good feeling happens because you and your partner regulate each other’s nervous systems.
The process starts with your brain. Contrary to popular belief, your brain’s most important job isn’t thinking. It’s maintaining all the biological systems in your body so your organs, hormones and immune system run efficiently and remain in balance. Your brain does this by predicting and fulfilling your bodily needs 24/7. If you need to stand up, for example, your brain predicts and executes a (hopefully) appropriate change in blood pressure so you don’t faint. If your brain predicts you’re going to be low on salt, you will crave salty foods. And so on.
This ongoing process is like running a budget for your body. Think about your financial budget, where you keep track of your income and spending to try to stay solvent. Your brain does the same thing, but instead of money, it budgets resources such as water, salt and glucose. If a financial budget goes into the red (say, when you take out a loan to buy a car), you have to pay back what you borrowed and, if all goes well, then over time your budget stays mostly in balance. The same is true for your body budget: you can run a race to exhaustion but then must replenish or ‘pay back’ your resources by resting, eating and drinking. The scientific name for this balancing act is allostasis. The brain’s goal is to maintain a balanced body budget most of the time and to pay back any debts that arise. This process must be quick and efficient, because budget-balancing is itself a costly endeavour for the brain.
Now here’s the cool part. Humans help to balance each other’s body budgets. When a baby is born, the adults in her life regulate her body budget by feeding her, cuddling her and talking to her. They teach her when to fall asleep at the right time. They play games with her and read to her. These activities provide the body-budgeting she needs for her brain to develop normally. This is the biological basis of attachment between a child and her caregivers. Eventually, the child becomes able to regulate her own nervous system and balance her own body budget, but the communal body-budgeting never completely stops.
Attachment between adults works similarly. Most of us can clothe and feed ourselves and know when to put on a sweater to regulate our temperature, but we must also deal with the demands of a job, lack of sleep and no time to exercise, eating too many pseudo-foods, maybe living or working in noisy or crowded conditions, and battling the idiots who block our way now and then. Managing a body budget in this world is a monumental task. So, we need other people around us to help keep our budget solvent and stay healthy.
What’s the cost of not having healthy attachments to other people? Scientists who study loneliness have provided a clear answer: a 30 per cent higher risk of death when those reporting isolation at the time of the initial interview were followed up seven years later. That’s higher than the risk of dying from a well-known disease such as obesity. A single, lonely brain spends so many resources trying to keep in balance that it starts running a long-term deficit. The brain then treats the body like it’s sick. If this process goes on for long enough, the immune system gets involved and the result could be earlier-onset diabetes, heart disease, depression, cancer or other illnesses related to metabolism.
Healthy relationships help you to live longer. You and your partner unconsciously regulate each other’s nervous systems to your mutual benefit. Your heart rates synchronise. So does your breathing. Even your hormones align. In moments of stress, a hug, a light caress or a kind word from your partner helps to ease your body-budget burden. Sharing this burden is the biological basis of attachment.
The best thing for your nervous system is another person. Unfortunately, the worst thing for your nervous system is also another person. An unhealthy relationship can screw up your body budget and, with it, your health and your life. So what makes for a healthy or unhealthy relationship, and how do you maintain one? Buddhism offers a set of guidelines for how to treat your partner (and yourself) to minimise suffering. The logic here is not straightforward and requires some explanation, so here’s a short primer on Buddhism.
Buddhism has been around for thousands of years. Some think of it as a religion, others as a set of principles for living a good life. Either way, millions of people in the Western world have realised that you needn’t be a Buddhist to understand and try some of its ideas. Numerous books explain how to apply Buddhism to be happier, healthier and more mindful. But Buddhism is more than just a reason to buy a meditation cushion. It holds some ironic secrets to a more satisfying, quality relationship.
A key idea of Buddhism is that everything constantly changes. Any object, such as a red tulip in your garden, changes moment to moment. Its colours change depending on the light. The sheen on its petals changes depending on moisture in the air. Placed in the wrong location, such as a vegetable garden, a tulip ceases to be a flower and becomes a weed. The tulip has no single, unchanging essence. The same is true for you. You are real – you exist – but, from a Buddhist perspective, you have no intrinsic identity that is separate from the things going on around you. Your identity is constituted in the moment, in part, by your situation.
If you believe that you have a single, consistent, unchanging, core ‘self’ that uniquely defines you, this belief, according to Buddhist philosophy, is the foundation of human suffering. Here, suffering is not merely physical discomfort, like having the flu or shutting a door on your hand. Suffering is personal: you’ll toil to avoid feeling flawed in some way. You’ll constantly worry about your reputation or that you’re failing to live up to standards created by others. In this sense, believing that you have one true self is worse than a passing physical illness; it is an enduring affliction (translation: a chronically imbalanced body budget).
Many people go through life believing that they have an unchanging, core identity. They usually also think that their friends, families, acquaintances and lovers have enduring selves as well. No wonder, because we describe ourselves in this way all the time. We go on dates and quiz each other about what we’re like. In job interviews, the classic question is: ‘Tell me about yourself.’ Zillions of surveys you see online and in magazines ask you to describe yourself: are you an introvert or an extrovert? A dog person or cat person? When we answer these kinds of questions, we are almost always looking to reveal the unchanging features of a core, enduring identity.
Appreciate the tulip because it’s there, not because you’re there
Buddhism warns that the enduring self is an illusion. Instead, your ‘self’ depends on context. It’s normal to be friendly in one situation, shy in another, and rude in a third. When you cling to the fiction that you have a real, enduring and important self – known as reifying the self – this sets you up for a miserable life. You will crave material things that bolster this fiction. You’ll crave wealth. You’ll crave power. You’ll cling to compliments and adoration from others, even if they’re lies. But the real problem here is not that others deceive you, but that you are deceiving yourself. These cravings are golden handcuffs that bring immediate pleasure but also, by reinforcing your illusory self, entrap you and cause persistent suffering, negative emotion, and enslavement to a fragile and fictional existence.
One of Buddhism’s main tools to avoid reifying the self (or objects in the world) is mindfulness meditation. According to certain styles of Buddhist philosophy, all human experiences can be broken down into basic elements, kind of like ‘atoms’ that make up thoughts, feelings and perceptions. Wisdom, in Buddhist terms, means experiencing these basic elements directly, without the haze of cravings and desires that come along with the belief in an unchanging self. Mindfulness meditation can break through the illusion that objects and other people and even you are the same from moment to moment. Then we can see things as they truly are, experiencing each moment as raw sensation without implication beyond the moment itself.
For example, if you encounter an invasive tulip in your vegetable garden, you might be tempted to rip it out of the ground, or pick it to give to your lover. A Buddhist perspective would be that you’re seeing the tulip through a filter of your own needs and desires, which are bound up with your illusory idea of self. To see the tulip as it truly is, you must let go of self-focused stories about the tulip – how it doesn’t belong there, or how much your lover would like it – and experience the tulip in a way that’s unrelated to your own needs. Notice its beautiful colour. Be awed by the power of nature. Experience the irony of a flower thriving among the legumes. Appreciate the tulip because it’s there, not because you’re there. In Buddhist philosophy, this is a key facet of wisdom.
What does this wisdom mean in practice? You can use it to access your own experience more clearly. When you feel furious and have a pounding heartbeat and a sweaty brow, it is easy to get caught up in a story about that fury and even fuel more of it. But meditation can help you attend to the heartbeat and the sweating as purely physical sensations, and let the anger dissolve. In Buddhist terminology, you’re deconstructing your anger – and your illusory self – into its basic elements and gaining wisdom in the process. Deconstructing the self isn’t easy: it can take years to become skilled at it (just ask a Buddhist monk), but it’s possible with practice.
Another practical application of this wisdom is the simple recognition of change. A close look at the tulip reveals constant change, and that’s true of you too. So, for example, you could be scrupulously honest one day and a cheating skunk the next, and neither one represents your true self because you don’t have one. You are simply configured differently in the two situations. This kind of outlook can cultivate compassion for yourself when you behave badly or screw up. You’re not intrinsically a bad person – you just behaved badly in some context.
The idea of a constantly changing self is echoed in modern psychology. Sometimes you represent yourself by your career. Sometimes you’re a friend. Sometimes you’re a parent, or a child, or a lover. Sometimes you’re a musician, an artist, a cook, a handyman. Sometimes you’re just a body. Social psychologists model this diversity as ‘multiple selves’, based on pioneering research in the 1980s by the social psychologist Hazel Markus, who showed that people have a repertoire of different selves for different occasions.
All of these ideas apply not only to your own self, but also to the selves of others. When you reify someone else, you mistake the person who is with you in the present moment as enduring in time, with no change. Thus, that ‘psycho ex’ whom you dated last year is both a ‘psycho’ and an ‘ex’ today and forever. This mindset is seen as a barrier to compassion that enhances suffering in the world. Instead, Buddhism suggests that you try to see other people as they actually are, even your nutty ex. When you don’t reify them in terms of your own needs – think of the tulip here – you can more easily have compassion for them. In the process, you reduce their suffering and yours.
At first glance, Buddhism seems at odds with the scientific evidence that people are social animals. We know that strong attachments to other people are vital for your health; without them, you wither and die sooner. Buddhism, on the other hand, suggests that relationships involving strong attachments can be problematic, precisely because those attachments make it difficult to see ourselves and others clearly. But ironically, Buddhist thought also offers some compelling suggestions for building and maintaining healthy bonds that are echoed in the emerging science of relationships.
The first suggestion is don’t reify your partner. Have you ever heard a friend complain about his partner (or ex), saying: ‘He isn’t the man I thought he was,’ or ‘She’s a different person now’? In Buddhist terms, your friend is suffering because he reified his partner in the service of reifying himself. It’s a common story. Two people meet, they get to know each other, and they experience strong feelings for each other based on that knowledge. In neuroscience terms, strong feelings for another person are always accompanied by the brain’s beliefs of what the other person is like. Those beliefs, which neuroscientists call predictions, are like a filter through which you learn about and experience the other person in terms of your own needs. Such filters set you up to reify your fictional self and your partner.
Buddhist philosophy offers another route. Passion, desire and intensity of feeling aren’t necessarily bad if you harness them to understand who the other person is – not an unchanging self, but an individual in a given situation. Go ahead and have strong feelings, but drop the story about your partner (that is, resist the predictions) accompanying those feelings. Instead, treat the feelings as a signal to learn who your partner is right now, in the moment. Be open to learning something new (or as neuroscientists put it, learning ‘prediction error’).
Relationship science suggests that romantic relationships are healthier when you and your partner see each other in an unrealistically positive light. This phenomenon, called positive illusions, involves exaggerating or even imagining positive qualities in your partner. Oddly enough, there’s evidence that positive illusions can bolster healthy relationships. Couples who idealise one another feel more satisfied in their relationship. From a Buddhist perspective, however, these types of illusions usually emerge from the need to cling to your reified sense of self. In the long run, they can lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointment. Instead, try accentuating the positive without the illusions. People are more satisfied with their marriages when their spouses see virtues in them that they do not see themselves. An easy way to do this is to see your partner’s actions in the most charitable light.
For example, suppose your spouse is inattentive to details, and shoves items into the refrigerator without considering what might get knocked over. You could frame this behaviour as stupidity, or in terms of the inconvenience it causes you, or even as a positive illusion (‘He’s an absent-minded genius’). Or instead, you could frame this behaviour in a more charitable light: that your spouse has a lot on his or her mind, or is getting older. You could even view your spouse’s inattentiveness as a positive quality, like not noticing that new roll of pudge around your middle.
When you view your partner’s actions in a charitable light, you’re not creating a fiction, you’re acknowledging the many possibilities for what your partner’s actions mean. Like the tulip, your partner is ever-changing.
If you decline to fight, the conflict fizzles and provides an opportunity to flourish
But what if you and your partner’s problems are more serious than a battle over fridge space? What if your partner utters snide remarks intended to cause you pain, or even takes a swing at your head? First and foremost, you have to make sure that you’re physically safe. A Buddhist perspective would never be to stand there being mindful. But afterward, Buddhism offers a perspective on what to do next. Partners who let loose with abusive behaviour are trying to achieve some goal, often to make themselves feel better, bolster self-esteem and reify the self. They’re confused about how to relieve their own suffering. If you understand the root of their aggression, it is easier to foster compassion and empathy for them. Compassion doesn’t mean that you agree to be a punching bag. But it gives you space to consider ways to prevent others from harming you further, and from harming themselves.
A great example happened in December 2017 when the actress Sarah Silverman was trolled on Twitter by Jeremy Jamrozy, who called her a ‘cunt’. Instead of firing back or ignoring the Tweet, Silverman responded with compassion. She read Jamrozy’s Twitter profile and guessed that he was being abusive because he was in severe pain. She started a conversation with him, he apologised, and Silverman helped him look for a back specialist. The story went viral, and Jamrozy established a crowdfunding campaign for his $150 in medical expenses. The campaign raised more than $4,500 – all because Silverman took time to understand the feelings behind the insult. A battle requires two opponents, so if you decline to fight, then the conflict fizzles and provides an opportunity to flourish.
Of course, compassion sometimes isn’t enough to help others out of the maze of their own confusion. Wisdom also means knowing when to quit the relationship. A Buddhist approach is to separate without being angry and vindictive. Anger is a form of ignorance of the other person’s perspective. If you cannot dissolve that anger with an injection of mindfulness, then at the very least, try to shower a little compassion on yourself.
The second Buddhism-inspired suggestion for a healthy relationship is don’t see your partner only in terms of yourself. You probably know some people who think everything revolves around them. They do things for others because it gets them what they want. For example, if you received an offer of a new job, your partner might push you to negotiate a higher salary not for your own happiness, but because you are your partner’s meal ticket. You’re treated like an object as your partner reifies his or her self. In a healthier relationship, your partner would see you as a person with your own thoughts, feelings, experiences and needs that are important to you. It’s OK to earn less if it’s a more fulfilling job. This mindset, which relationship scientists call responsiveness, shows compassion for you, and ultimately reduces suffering for you and your partner.
The third suggestion derived from Buddhist ideas is that relationships are constructed by two people in synchrony. A Buddhist concept called mutuality (or shared karma) means that two people can have shared intentions and actions that lead to shared consequences. In relationship science, mutuality is called goal interdependence.
Mutuality is beneficial for romantic relationships. For example, suppose your partner comes up behind you and rubs your shoulders. Maybe the gesture means he or she is grateful to be with you or simply wants to be close to you. Or maybe it’s a request for sex. Either way, as long as you and your partner agree on the meaning – gratitude, closeness, lust – you are constructing your relationship together. In neuroscience terms, mutuality means that the predictions launched by your brain and your partner’s brain in the moment are compatible.
Mutuality is about creating a story together, as more than mere actors in each other’s narratives
Being in agreement is not enough, however, if your partner is also reifying you: feeling possessive rather than grateful, or objectifying you rather than connecting with you. These meanings have nothing to do with you per se, and everything to do with your partner’s cravings. Even if you’re in agreement, your relationship is in trouble. Mutuality is about creating a story together, sharing experiences where you’re more than mere actors in each other’s narratives.
Together with our colleagues Christy Wilson-Mendenhall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Paul Condon at Southern Oregon University, we study couples to explore the connections between Buddhism, bonding and body budgets. When a couple interacts, how often do they cherish each other in the moment? When they successfully cherish each another, does it lead to more kindness, compassion and a healthier relationship? And do they balance each other’s body budgets in the process?
Until our studies are complete, Buddhism remains an intriguing source of inspiration for building and maintaining meaningful relationships. As Markus writes: ‘You can’t be a self by yourself.’
This Essay was made possible through the support of a grant from Templeton Religion Trust to Aeon. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton Religion Trust.
Funders to Aeon Magazine are not involved in editorial decision-making, including commissioning or content approval.