Question: We have many ups and downs in life, particularly in relationships. Buddhism seems to teach that we should keep trying through all relationship challenges no matter what. But is there a point at which I can say the relationship is over?
Answer: It’s true that Buddhism offers us immeasurable spiritual riches and practical skills for meeting all our fellow humans with loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity—no matter what. Yet, when we’re mindful in a relationship, we see how difficult it is to stay open-hearted and sensitive to each other and ourselves. Yes, it’s essential to have a conscious commitment to staying connected even through the inevitable disconnections that happen, for without overarching loving awareness and intention, as soon as there’s a big disappointment, all of the love and trust we’ve built together can go down the drain of reactivity, making it harder to reconnect in a tender way.
When a relationship has become truly unhealthy, it may be time to leave and acknowledge it’s over. Then it’s not about failing to try hard enough; it’s just that the experience of pleasure and pain, love and hurt, peace and conflict has tipped out of balance for too long. Any rewarding relationship, whether with family, friends, coworkers, or partners, has nonharming at its core. Metta, or loving-kindness, is essentially about protection—protecting oneself and each other from inner and outer harm. I was actually surprised to discover that the Buddha said clearly that while it’s best to balance caring for self and others, if that’s not possible, protecting oneself comes before protecting others! Keeping this in mind, you can make decisions about what may ultimately serve you, and others, best. And remember that no one can tell you when it’s time to leave a relationship, so this is where our practice of mindfulness and metta can be our guide.
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