November 22, 2010

Religion & Relationships (MDIV 555)

Journal November 18, 2010

Where in my spiritual formation does another person fit? I’ve been dating recently. This is a new experience. I’ve never really dated or had a serious, exclusive relationship, but a few months ago, I signed up with an online dating site. I’ve met three people and exchanged emails with a dozen more. None of them are Buddhists. The only one with whom I’ve discussed religion was a mildly hostile (to theism, not me) atheist.

Women look to the future. It sounds cliché, but when we meet a guy we size him up for deal-breakers. “Oh, he’ll be bald someday. Can I live with that?” You eye his hairline over your coffee cup. I find it ironic, considering I’m not really the settling down type, but the programming must be genetic. And now I’m wondering, what if he’s not Buddhist? Can I live with that? What if he’s Mormon? Muslim? Mennonite? Could I live with that?

I’ve seen some great Buddhist couples and some not so great. I guess, living in Nebraska, where Buddhists were so thin on the ground, I just got used to the idea that if I wanted to date, it would naturally be across religious lines. The idea of finding a Buddhist partner was about as likely as winning the lottery.

But I’m not in Nebraska anymore. So I have to wonder, why am I going out for coffee with these non-Buddhist guys? Surely, if I can find a Buddhist partner anywhere, it would be here.

And yet, does it matter? Some of my best religious friends aren’t Buddhist. If I wrapped their brains and their theology up in a single, mildly-attractive, age-appropriate male package, could I live with that person? Sometimes I think I could.

Then I think of the two years I worked for the Military Science Department. I was surrounded by handsome, young Army cadets whom I respected, but I never once considered dating. To serve in the military was to accept the premise that sometimes violence is the solution. That was a deal breaker.

Kornfield mentioned relationships in passing, usually noting how someone who isn’t a well rounded individual and hasn’t dealt with their own psychological problems is unlikely to form a healthy relationship. Assume that isn’t the case, assuming one can form a healthy relationship, how precisely does that contribute to each partner’s spiritual development? What role does relationship play? And what happens when your partner’s spirituality is quite different from your own?

Is it enough if that person is as critical with, thoughtful about, and committed to their spirituality as you are about yours? Do you need to share certain fundamental doctrines like compassion or charity? Is more needed, like compatibility of belief on specific subjects such as God or enlightenment? Can a diversity of opinion enrich both partner’s lives? Or are the differences likely to push you apart? Or is it utterly a matter of the two individuals involved and completely different for each couple?

I attended three weddings during the summer of 2008 and they could not have been more different. The Lutheran minister stood before the alter talked about how the happy couple was now “one person” in a triumvirate marriage of husband, wife, and Jesus Christ. The Buddhist teacher sat in the stupa and talked about how we are all fundamentally alone even in (especially in) marriage, where we think we’re supposed to have someone who understands us completely when no one ever really can. The third marriage was just a whispered exchange of secret vows between the couple in a flower garden. Each of those couples were in fundamental agreement on matters of religion. But what if the Lutheran had tried to marry the Buddhist or the non-religious, or any other combination?

Is religion always important in relationships?


Nathan said...

I've had some of these questions around for years. I have had one very short relationship with another Buddhist practitioner, and one long term girlfriend attended my sangha for a little while, but it never quite stuck for her. I think it's important and often helpful to have similar spiritual paths, but maybe not always a deal breaker. The head teacher of our sangha has been married to a man for over 30 years who is interested in philosophy and religion, but I don't think actually is committed to a specific path. They're doing fine. My step mother is Christian and my father a secular humanist. They're ok.

But I think there has to be enough similarities to balance out the differences. And that the differences aren't, ultimately, sources of fear for the partners in the relationship - i.e. if you're afraid of the core values and views of your partner, or those views are threats or used as threats somehow, the relationship is doomed.

I think beyond all of this, though, is getting at what kind of relationship would be life-giving for you. What qualities in a partner are most essential to you?
What is the deepest purpose for intimate relationship for you? Because if you sit with questions like that, and perhaps meet some people who don't seem to fit the answers you're getting from those questions, then you might have a better sense of who would be the right kind of partner. Maybe it ends up being another Buddhist, or maybe it's someone with a different path, but who lines up in the most important ways.

John said...

I don't think religion is important in a relationship. Respect is, and love is. Everything else can be worked out.