BY MICHELLE MURRAIN, PH.D.
In my years of Buddhist practice, I’ve learned a lot from the four Brahma Viharas, also known as “beautiful relationship qualities” — loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to understand that cultivating these qualities can be very beneficial for your relationship. And although it’s especially powerful when both members of a relationship agree to cultivate these qualities together, it can also have a lot of impact when just one person cultivates them.
Loving-kindness is a feeling of benevolence toward another person, and the wish for them to have what they want and need. Relationship expert Stan Tatkin talks about the importance of a “couple bubble,” in which both partners agree to prioritize the needs of the relationship ahead of their individual needs. Ruth and I create our bubble a little differently, by each holding space for the other person’s needs. For instance, if I want to spend the day with Ruth, but she has something else planned, part of my loving-kindness toward her is feeling glad that she’s doing something she wants to do, even if it wouldn’t have been my own preference. When Ruth also extends this same kind of loving-kindness toward me, it creates a sense of freedom and well-being in the relationship. For instance, there are days when Ruth wants us to do Conscious Girlfriend work, but she knows I need a day off, and because of loving-kindness, her desire for me to have what I need wins out over her other desire.
Another manifestation of loving-kindness is the “micro-acceptance” which sexuality coach Charlie Glickman writes about. Micro-acceptances often show up in small statements of appreciation, like “Thanks for putting the dishes away,” “That shirt looks good on you” or “I like the way you talked about that.” The more loving-kindness we cultivate, the easier it becomes to make these kinds of genuine comments throughout the day. Loving-kindness also makes it easier for us to avoid “micro-aggressions,” small negative comments and criticisms — like “Why did you buy that shampoo? You know it’s cheaper at Trader Joe’s,” or “You shouldn’t have taken the freeway; it’s always slower at this time of day,” — which, though small, can accumulate and create hurt and mistrust.
Compassion is the desire that another person’s suffering will end — but it also includes a willingness to be present with the suffering just as it is. Cultivating that kind of compassion toward your partner can create a safe space for her to be in, even when she is struggling with something.
Sometimes it’s easy for us to want an end to our partner’s suffering, but it’s harder to just be present with that suffering. We may instead start taking care of her, or wanting to solve her problems. But that isn’t really compassion. Compassion includes knowing that we cannot fix anything for anyone else; instead, the most helpful thing we can do is offer support, acceptance, love and presence.
For instance, I have chronic arthritis in a few of my joints, which does sometimes cause me suffering. As part of her own process of cultivating compassion, Ruth has had to learn to stop looking online for herbal remedies for me, and just accept the fact that I do live with pain — even while being present with me when I’m hurting, or when I’m frustrated by my physical limitations.
You might have heard of “mirror neurons.” They are a relatively recently discovered group of cells in our brains that get activated when we observe someone else doing something. The fascinating thing is that these cells fire just as they would if we ourselves were doing or experiencing that thing. For instance, when we watch someone laugh with joy, our mirror neurons respond as if we ourselves were laughing with joy. Some scientists now theorize that it’s because of our mirror neurons that we are able to feel empathy for others.
Often, when we love someone, empathetic joy comes relatively easily to us. For instance, if your partner gets a raise or has some other kind of success, it may come naturally to you to celebrate with her. But at other times, envy or jealousy can get in the way of empathetic joy. If you’ve felt frustrated in your own career, for instance, it might be harder to respond with enthusiasm to the news of your partner’s success. Or if she makes a new friend, you might feel threatened, rather than feel joy on her behalf. In these cases, the desire to cultivate empathetic joy can help you move out of the discomfort of envy and back into a more genuinely loving response.
One small example of empathetic joy comes up between Ruth and I around food, since we each have different food allergies and sensitivities. I can’t eat wheat, so one day when I watched Ruth eat a really delicious-looking sandwich on crusty wheat bread, it was easy to feel a bit envious. But then, because I knew she was enjoying it, I found myself able to enjoy watching her eat it.
Empathetic joy requires you to be present to the other person’s experience of joy — to touch in with her feelings, and then let those feelings fill you, too. The great thing about cultivating empathetic joy is that it actually feels good – because who among us doesn’t want more joy?!
Equanimity is a quality of emotional stability. When we cultivate equanimity, we become more able to stay centered and at peace through the inevitable ups and downs in our lives and relationships.
A big part of cultivating equanimity involves accepting things as they are, and people as they are. Now, don’t get me wrong — there are some things that we should never accept in relationships, like abuse. So there are times when equanimity is not appropriate. But often, much of what we struggle with in our partners is not objectively wrong, it’s just difficult for us to accept for our own reasons — and in these cases, cultivating equanimity can be helpful both for our relationships, and for our own sense of well-being.
Of course, it’s generally easy to be equanimous about ways you and your partner are similar, or do things the same way. It can be harder to cultivate equanimity in areas where you’re different!
For instance, Ruth and I left for vacation last week. When I travel, I’m kind of obsessive about making sure I have everything (and checking five times), and leaving with a lot of time to spare. But since someone was going to be house-sitting for us, Ruth felt more concerned about leaving the place clean for her, and more lax about what time we would leave. I had to work on myself and my own fears so I didn’t lash out at her, or get really grumpy about leaving later than I wanted to. And Ruth had to work on her equanimity around things I’d missed in cleaning up.
Cultivating these four beautiful relationship qualities is definitely a process; it’s not always easy. But the alternatives are feelings like anger, frustration, bitterness and envy, which make us feel bad as well as poison our relationships. So when a relationship is basically good, cultivating these beautiful qualities can make it even better, creating more ease, joy, trust and intimacy.