My partner has become quite difficult and quarrelsome. Our relationship doesn’t work very well anymore, but he never wants to talk about our problems. How should I deal with this?

Lama Ole’s answer:

If talking is not possible because the levels of experience are too different, then one can apply a few tricks to relax the situation. You can tell yourself, “I only spend a few hours a day with him, whereas he is with himself day and night, poor fellow.” You might also remind yourself that you can train patience with people like him, and without patience there’s no enlightenment. You can try to see everything he says as a mantra. Even when he grumbles and grouches, you only hear Om Mani Peme Hung or Karmapa Chenno, Karmapa Chenno.

As to why people are difficult, this is often because they have problems with themselves. They have so much pressure inside themselves that they try to create external counter pressure by starting an argument with others. You can consciously remove the pressure—for instance, by leaving the room every time he is about to start to argue with you. Tell him, “This isn’t my table; I’m not serving here today.” You are friendly, but act very superficially the moment he tries to pull you into his trips. You simply don’t engage.

If he doesn’t find anything to counteract his inner pressure, he will explode at some point. That’s when the inner problems will come up, and only then can you start talking about them, working with them, and thinking about how to go on from there.

Or he may find some other people to argue with. Then you can act as the referee rather than the enemy. You can bring in your female wisdom, and he will listen to you. However, there’s one thing women should be mindful of if they don’t have children. They shouldn’t act out their suppressed urge to educate their partner. This can make him behave in a moody and dismissive way just so that you’ll leave him in peace.

The best we can do in this case is to only share the good things with each other. Whenever things are smooth, you are with him, and whenever they aren’t, you get a couple of books to read. Life is too short to get caught up in bad moods. We go into the garden when the sun is shining, and when it’s raining we stay away. And if we think the sun is shining too rarely, we can still think of moving on to another place with better weather.

Why do we in the West have problems with our relationships so often?

Lama Ole’s answer:

It’s true; problems in relationships appear often and divorce rates are high. There are many reasons for this. In former times, public social welfare didn’t exist, so one had to rely on the extended family and had to stick together. There was no professional training for women either, and quite often they weren’t allowed to have their own wealth. That’s why a woman without a family couldn’t live on her own, and couples who hated each other stayed together anyway. Today, the state steps in, freedom has increased, and people are no longer economically dependent on one another.

However, this newly gained freedom brings disadvantages as well. If we change partners, we often experience the same difficulties we had with the former partner simply because it’s our own personal disturbances that come up each time. We should have dissolved them the first time.

Moreover, consumerism is widespread these days. For instance, cars and clothes are consciously made in such a way that they quickly go out of vogue. We want to have something else in only a couple of years. Unlike in the past, manufactured things today do not last very long and fall apart much sooner. When things can be replaced more easily, I think people consider replacing human beings and partners more frequently too.

A real weakness in today’s partnerships is the attitude of expectation and the thought of “What can I get?” It is better to think, “What can I give?” Space is limitless and those who give will always grow richer. The water stays fresh if it is always replenished from the well. In contrast, those who only take and safeguard what they have will grow ever poorer. If they look down into their well, there is nothing but five dead frogs.

Whenever you tell me that you always have to give so much, I tell you to be happy and to give even more: show your greatness, be boundless, and never expect anything in return. What really counts is to be spontaneous and effortless. Enlightenment is nothing else but to stop hoping, fearing, and wanting.

The moment our mind is spontaneous and effortless, resting in itself without expectation or fear, everything shows itself. It is like a cup of coffee: at first it appears murky, but when the cup is no longer shaking, we can see through to the bottom.

Here’s another good example that may sound a bit cliché—may the ladies forgive me—but that’s why you won’t forget it either. Reaching enlightenment is like trying to get to know a beautiful woman. If you run after her, she will call the police, but if you park your BMW at her front door and leave your checkbook on the car roof, she is going to come on her own. It is just like this with enlightenment: if you run after it, you will not reach it, but if you relax in the here and now, then things will come by themselves.

If a relationship falls apart, should people stay together for the children’s sake?

Lama Ole’s answer:

This depends on the quality of the relationship between the partners. Nobody benefits from ill-tempered, joyless parents who feel like victims because they had children together at some point. In my opinion, this is an escape from life. Neither the partners nor the children feel good about that. Children get along better with a single parent than with parents who argue or even play their children against each other. This way, they can be together with one parent and then the other, as they like.

If the children are small, it is best to try to stay together at first. If this doesn’t work, they should separate rather than gluing together something that doesn’t fit. They should never forget to speak nicely about each other, and for that, a certain distance is essential.

Sometimes people come together only as a result of their shared karmic debts. They make love on a hot summer night, the woman gets pregnant and has the child, and all of this is because of old karmic debts that need to be paid to another being. In this case, they have to work with it as well as possible, but the situation shouldn’t make them and everyone else unhappy.

I would check whether my partner is my friend—whether we are developing together and making good wishes for each other, or whether he or she can only see me in a restricted role. On this basis, you can decide what you want to do. This life is only one among countless lives, and since that’s the way it is, one has to think beyond the present lifespan. What matters in the long run is real development.

No doubt, for the spiritual development of the partner and the children, it’s best if both parents are around and share the work. One parent might look after the children while the other has time for meditation. This way, we don’t have to cut back in any way. We can even develop well, which in turn benefits everybody.

My husband has allied himself with his parents against me and everybody is nagging me. I really want to leave, but I’m afraid they have already influenced the children so much that they won’t want to come with me. Could you give me some advice?

Lama Ole’s answer:

What I am going to say may sound wild, but I would like to introduce a few new thoughts—to add a few keys to the piano so that you have more options to work with. Maybe you’ll make the usual choice of quarrelling with the husband and the parents-in-law. But I’d like to offer you a wider range of ideas, and you can decide what to do.

Basically, I’m of the opinion that one should suffer as little as possible and cause the least possible suffering to others. I suggest you set up your own life with your own friends. Treat your husband like the weather, which you cannot influence. If it rains, at least the grain is growing, and when the sun shines it’s nice. That is, enjoy what you want to have and swallow down what you don’t like.

If he speaks badly about you in front of others and behaves in an unacceptable way, kick him out. Every day is the first day of the rest of your life. One shouldn’t waste time dealing with difficult things. Children prefer to be alone with their mother instead of constantly seeing their father speak badly about their mother.

If the children don’t want to come with you, then consider this an advantage. You can start over again and build yourself a new life. The children will come back when they are old enough and able to think for themselves. There will be some days when your husband plans on doing something but cannot leave the kids with their grandparents. Then maybe he’ll ask you to take them for a weekend.

For the children, it is better to remain in one place until they are able to think independently. At three or four years old, they already know very clearly what they want. If they can be corrupted by their grandparents, who have a lot of money and who can do everything for them, then this is simply their personal karma, which might be stronger with the grandparents than with you. But at least you can be sure that you have done your best.

I want to break up with my partner because the relationship has been deteriorating for a long time, but I know this will hurt him deeply. What should I do?

Lama Ole’s answer:

For relationships that are structurally dysfunctional or have a misdirected path of development, I would like to quote the most elevated English post-war prose: William Somerset Maugham said that a relationship is over the moment you wouldn’t want to use the other person’s toothbrush any longer.

For me, this is the crucial point in love. As long as you are still happy to use their toothbrush, the foundation of the relationship is alright. If you can’t do this any longer, then the relationship is over and it’s best for you to withdraw in a friendly way. End the relationship as well as you can to enable both of you to meet as friends in future lives. It is of no use to either him or you if you hold on to the relationship out of motherly or protective feelings. The quarrel that follows will be ten times worse.

Don’t sacrifice the most beautiful years of your youth for somebody who isn’t open or whom you cannot share anything with. You will waste year after year thinking of Handsome Hans while sharing your bed with Eric. Be honest with yourself. If you stay, it won’t help him either since he won’t be confronted with situations he has to take a stand on. He won’t have the chance to become a better person.

How can we see whether a casual fling has the potential to turn into something permanent?

Lama Ole’s answer:

My first piece of advice is to be careful not to get pregnant. If this happens, a relationship can become closer and more real than one might wish.

My second piece of advice is to find out what sort of relationship arises. Does something timeless develop, such as intellectual interests or the wish to benefit the partner or to benefit others together—something that is beyond personal? If this happens, it isn’t something conditioned or only a temporary connection. Your relationship will always help and benefit yourselves and others.

If the relationship stays based on watching soccer games together or going to the movies and having nice dinners, then you won’t build up anything permanent together and it won’t last long.

In my former relationship, a lot of negative things happened and the relationship ended in an argument. Is it possible to do something afterwards to dissolve the difficult karmic bond?

Lama Ole’s answer:

I only know of one good way to end a relationship so that both partners walk away enriched. We have to get used to wishing the former partner everything good all the time from the outset. If there is any win-lose thinking involved, nobody will be set free. Simply make good wishes as a matter of principle; give everything good and be really generous in sharing possessions. The only exception is if the other person is taking advantage of your generosity. In that case, negative habits would be encouraged in them, and it’s best to cut through instead.

But when two modern, talented, and humanistically minded people separate because their shared good karma is exhausted or they haven’t created new good karma together yet, then I would advise separating in such a way that both people win. Both should feel good afterwards and they should remain friends. Feelings of loss and restriction shouldn’t be connected with it, because then we carry along all the difficulties we experienced. If it has been quite a while since the relationship ended, you can wish the other everything good from a distance.

Why are break-ups so painful?

Lama Ole’s answer:

We mostly think of space as something that separates us—as a distance, a vast nothing between us. In this case, it is logical to experience separation as something unpleasant. My advice to you is to change this perception and experience of space.

Buddhists see space as a container. This is illustrated in a simple experiment: Imagine your eyes weren’t on the front of your head but rather on the back. You would notice that there is always much more space behind you than between you and others. Space is expanding around you by light-years, limitlessly and in all directions. And if you don’t just perceive the space between you and others but also experience the space around you, then there is no separation between you and the others anymore. Space is a container with both you and them inside it.

I myself work like this with my students, with our Buddhist centers, and with everything I am connected to. Every now and then, when I have time, I visualize landscapes and cities as though they were on a map in front of me. I perceive these locations around me. I cannot see exactly what people are doing, but I feel the vibrations and I know what they experience. I make use of space in this way. Space connects. Space is information.

What does Buddhism say about fidelity in a partnership?

Lama Ole’s answer:

First of all, it is important to understand that Buddha isn’t a creator god or a wrathful god wagging his finger at us with some type of moral judgement. Buddha simply wishes us well—that we live, die, and are reborn in a better way, and that we develop. To a very large extent, the Buddha stayed out of people’s bedrooms. This was the smartest thing he could do.

As a matter of fact, there is a lot of variation among people. From a cultural standpoint, there are many approaches to fidelity. In the West, the one-to-one model prevails: one man with one woman, one woman with one man, and they have a few kids. This model has generated the most solid society in the West. And indeed, it looks like it fits best for most people. But often, it can become a bit too tight; there is too much pressure and too many expectations, like a pressure cooker. In other countries, polygamy is practised, where the man has various women partners. But there are also countries, like Tibet, where women have several male partners.

In Greenland, the code of hospitality entails that the host allow the visitor to spend the night with his wife. That’s because the visiter has often travelled over ice for a few weeks, whereas the husband is always around. Of course it is a precondition that the wife agrees to this.

In Arab countries, by contrast, the women have to cover up their bodies since the men don’t want other people to see how beautiful or how ugly they are. Unfortunately, as a consequence, women’s mobility is limited to a high degree, and a lot of traffic accidents happen because they can’t see properly.

Between these models of freedom and limitations, different people find their way. To a large extent, this depends on karma. In most cases, we probably have the strongest karma with the one or two partners we were already together with in former lifetimes.

Incest was the only thing that the Buddha resolutely opposed. On this point, he was absolutely clear. But apart from that, one can live well as a Buddhist in nearly every society without getting into trouble. A sexual relationship that doesn’t cause harm is a good sexual relationship.

However, the moment that children join in, true responsibility emerges. Then we have brought beings into the world who depend on us. In this case, we should try to be a good family or at least have a good relationship with one another.

Which is better, a long-term relationship or a lot of casual encounters?

Lama Ole’s answer:

There are a lot of different opinions here. For instance, the Danes say, “Why make one person unhappy if you can make many people happy instead?” That was a good option before AIDS appeared. As soon as that happened, the days of making love easily and happily belonged to the past. Since then it’s become riskier, and we should watch out and protect ourselves.

We should also take care not to break too many hearts. By that I mean that you should send clear signals straight away. If you only want a brief encounter, be honest and make this clear from the start to avoid burdening yourself with false promises or other unpleasant things. Love should create joy and not difficulties.

I have a very close circle of friends whom I’m strongly connected with. But now I realize that I have to get away from this group. How can I dissolve the connection with goodwill?

Lama Ole’s answer:

The best is to think that everybody benefits the most this way. You can think, “If they disturb me then they will also get bad karma, and I can only help them after I have gotten some distance.” You only need to justify it to yourself. To them you say something that can emotionally pass as a reason, and then you happily walk away. And the flimsier the explanation is, the more they will be forced to examine their own situation.

If you come in with a big, extensive explanation, with points and sub-points, and whys and wherefores, then they can address it on a conceptual level. Instead of this, the best thing is to say something like, “I often got headaches when we were together”—something completely subtle and feminine. Then they’ll start to ask “Why?” But by then you are nowhere to be found.
A gnawing feeling will remain with them. They’ll ask themselves, “What was that? Why headaches? Why would someone get headaches from us?” So you leave something that will keep on scratching and digging for a long time. Then you have left them a good gift. You have set something in motion with them.

Sometimes a relationship only comes about because the person fits our patterns—for example, they represent a mother or father figure. How should we handle this? Should we try to analyze it or just ignore it?

Lama Ole’s answer:

As soon as we give something a name, we make it small. If we say, “that is like this,” we define the thing and don’t give it the chance to be anything else. In this way, we take space away from the situation and rob it of all other possibilities. It is best to stay in the flow. My advice here would be for both people to see for themselves how to best complement each other, how they can best come together. Analysis is a good approach for dead things. If one begins to cut something up to investigate it, then it’s in slices—it’s dead.

But a relationship is always in motion, and we shouldn’t paralyze it. We simply aim for what we want to achieve. This doesn’t mean being dishonest or not wanting to see something. But in every situation, we give an advance—we give space so that the best thing can develop. I call this “dynamic truth.” Each person looks more at the possibilities than at what has already been achieved. It is like water: it flows; it’s alive!

How is it possible to experience a love-hate relationship?

Lama Ole’s answer:

It seems to me that a love-hate relationship is frustrated love. First you love something and then you hate it because you cannot obtain it.

If one loves something and does get it, but then hates it nonetheless, then one might have been confused in the first place and had too many expectations.