After watching a TV show that extolled the idea of the Middle Way, as in Buddhism, it seemed like a very nice solution to life in general … and, for couples, marriages/partnerships, in particular.
In this sutta, the Buddha describes the middle way as a path of moderation, between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. This, according to him, was the path of wisdom. It is not called the middle way because it lies between too much and too little, but, because it rises above them, because it is free from their errors, from their imperfections, from the blind alleys to which they lead.
~The Noble Eightfold Path, Buddhist Doctrine
What would happen if “winning,” being right, being first, the great American pastime, were not the perpetual way to settle differences? What if listening and balance became the norm in relationships instead of control and/or dominance?
Why is balance so hard to achieve?
Historically, male domination and superior position as the “bread winner” and primary provider in the couple relationship caused an imbalance of power in many couples until the r-evolution of the family of the last 20-30 years. With more women making or equal or near-equal financial contributions to the family, they have also achieved a more equal voice in the relationship, feeling more able to challenge and address imbalances in the power and organization.
The balance of power leads to more equal rights to assert opinions and be heard without fearing some sort of loss … either in closeness, power, or place in the couple dynamic. That balance is delicate and shifting; as changing as the relationship is changing, as the individuals are changing. It could be called fragile given the myriad number of variables involved.
Right or Wrong?
In most exchanges and/or interactions there is a moment, where there is agreement or not. Perceptions can easily escalate to become about winners and losers; for someone to be right, someone has to be wrong. What could it be like if there were no right or wrong, no winner or loser?
The Middle Way would support give and take; would promote balance and mutual integrity, holding the whole as more important than the parts. That would mean for the couple, the well-being of the relationship would override individual needs in service of preserving the relationship. And, ironically enough, the health of the relationship supports the health of the individuals in it. The same principles hold for the family over the individual.
So, if all of our interactions and, dare I say, arguments could focus on the return to balance, there would need to be quite a different way to relate. The desire for balance would override the need to win or lose. We would listen to hear the argument, listen to hear the motives and feeling behind the argument, consider our own thoughts and feelings, offer feedback designed to promote a balanced decision, and feel whole even if our opinion is not received as “the answer” or as the outcome of the exchange.
The Whole Can Only Become Greater When the Parts are Whole
Assuming there is reasonable balance in the relationship in most dimensions, each individual also needs to have personal balance, being responsible for that balance in the interest of the couple. AND, the couple needs to be in service and supportive of the individual. Meaning that sometimes sacrifice is needed by a member of the couple to achieve the needed balance either in support or in agreement.
This is the opposite of Conscious Uncoupling, first mentioned in the popular Goop blog in 2014. It is staying present and in the moment together. It is listening for what is being said and felt while not thinking about the response. It is imagining our partner has the best interests of our relationship in mind as well as his/her desires and mine. It is relaxing defenses and judgment in order to be open to hear and receive what is being said. It is taking responsibility for mistakes or lapses in judgment and thoughtfulness. And most of all, it is the knowledge that the whole is greater than the parts.
A tall order for the average human being, but to the extent that we keep this as our noble intention, is the extent to which we achieve balance in the relationship and the closer we come to The Middle Way.
Lesley S. Cunningham is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute
specializing in relationships and attachment issues. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or