Suffering, Divorce and Buddhism

Love relationships have expectations that our partners share their thoughts, insights and desires with us. They are people that believe in each other. When those relationships are romantic, they manifest that bond with intimacy. Most people fail to notices that when those relationships turn into marriage, the purposes, goals and physical relationships change once again.

Where love relationships only required sharing and supporting, marriage relationships require coordination, directly involved support in achieving goals, teamwork. It is no longer enough to believe in your partner, you must actually roll up your sleeves and go into partnership with your spouse.

Unfortunately, entering a marriage without wisdom is like trying to do build a shed without any carpentry skills. You can figure it out, but not without a lot of mistakes, frustrations, and (in many cases) stress with eventual abandonment of the project.

In order to find happiness in a marriage, we must first understand what marriage is, what makes a marriage successful, what sustains a marriage in challenging times, how to build the skills to keep a marriage going.

LOVE: the ultimate self-delusion

“Love is a verb, not a noun” ~Joshua Hudson

How many times have you heard a relationships end with the phrase, “I love you, but I am not IN love with you!”? This implies that love is an external force that we have no control over: people fall in and out of love the same way people get caught in a rain shower. It is a view that our emotional states are fixed in their response and we have no control over them.

The truth is emotions are a collection of conditions that create a psycho-physical response. An unknown tiger walking into a room would probably trigger a primal fear response, activating our “fight or flight” response as well as rushing adrenaline and blood through the body in preparation. We expect that this fear would be standard in all people; however, for someone who trains and raises tigers they may not have any fear. Dealing with tigers daily may have changed the conditions to a point where (wisely or not) no fear exists. Even that “normal” condition can be changed quickly with a tiger having a bad day.

The same is true with driving. A new driver is very alert, cautious and fearful, while seasoned drivers are often more relaxed and perhaps occasionally careless. The conditions change and so does the emotional “state” of the individual.

In Buddhism, meditation is used to build concentration and awareness to see and understand the arising of such emotional conditions. Those conditions can then be investigated during their observation. Are there habits and assumptions that are being made? Are there times where situations are avoided or craved for with no appropriate reason? Are there people we deal with through the filters of our definitions and not directly with who we are at the moment?

Very often the ones we love the most are the people we understand the least. Our attraction to them masks out all the neutral and negatives aspects of who they are. As we get to know them, our filters become even more extreme until we create a definition of our mates that almost certainly does not come close to who they really are.

And even if we could accurately provide a complete and honest definition of who our partner is, that definition will be out of date and inaccurate within moments. That is because we are all constantly changes processes. Each moment, we redefine ourselves, our focuses, our aspirations, dreams, mindsets, etc.

If we do not continually look mindfully and understand the impermanent nature of all things— including our spouses— then is it any wonder you hear the phrases “I don’t know what happened: we just grew apart,” “She isn’t the person I married,” or “I thought he was one thing and he turned out to be another.”

RELATIONSHIPS: Craving for someone else to make you happy

Do not give way to heedlessness

Or to intimacy with sensual delight—

For a mindful person

Attains an abundance of ease.

~ Dhammapada

You see him/her across the room. There is something about the way they look that is hypnotic and you can’t stop sneaking glances. The heart bangs against the inside of your chest and the hands start to sweat. When you finally find an opportunity to talk, every word, gesture and smile just beckons you to surrender to the ticklish high that is desire. When it is sure that the object of your desire feels the same: you are both in love and start a relationship—right?

Wrong! There may be romance in a relationship, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have romance without one. Many “relationships” start and finish having never been a relationship at all.

With the arising of sensual lusts comes the intensifying of cravings and desire. These conditions create emotional conditions, which are intense and intoxicating. They are so enjoyable that we cling to them tighter and tighter. Nevertheless, since they are only a sensual pleasure, they conditions and emotional states fade. As we cling tighter to regain those lines of sensual pleasure, we eventually get rope burn and suffer more.

This is why we must understand the nature of relationships and what they are and when they arise.  A relationship is much easier to see in a friend than it is a lover. There is a certain amount of detachment from intense physical pleasure that clouds our vision.

A romantic relationship, like a friendship, requires interests and goals that can be mutually shared, supported and cooperated on. Where a friendship is almost an entirely mental connection, and romances are almost entirely physical, relationships require that there must be both.

In Buddhism there are five suggestions on how a spouse should treat their mate: courtesy, supporting them, being faithful, sharing decisions, and offering of themselves to the other. These characteristics are actions that not only develop wholesome love towards one another, but create conditions of support and well being for both partners.

So when a relationship is compared to friendship, which share aspects of all of these qualities, they seem similar even though they are not. That is because friends do not normally share the intense cohabitation that requires a level of courtesy that only an effort of mindfulness could achieve. A friend does not have to be ultimately faithful, because they can have many friends. Friends do not have to share decisions, because they are not in a legal and social partnership. Friends also do not have to give of themselves completely.

Romances by contrast often do not seem to share any of the same qualities of this definition of relationship, but often suffer from being too similar. This is because romances only offer conditional attributes to the five suggestions. Courtesy, faithfulness, decisions, and giving are not done as a partnership but as a condition of craving and eventually fear.

How often do you hear, “I need you!” What they are really saying is either, “I am craving to the feelings I get when you are here” or “I am afraid that will not give me what I am craving and so I will cling to you.” These are both aspects of clinging and craving that arise from greed, which is one of the three poisons of Buddhism.

Relationships are partnerships, not amalgamations. They require that each partner assists in creating conditions that are wholesome and supportive of the other, without the filters of ignorance, aversion or clinging/greed.

Marriage: “Share my life, but do I have to share yours?”

“Young people in love think of nothing but their emotions. They see themselves only in the light of feeling of the moment. Everything they think and do is romantic and has little bearing on the practical affairs of the life they must lead after marriage. If the lovers are fortunate enough to have compatible personalities, to have sound and similar ideas about life, to share interests, to enjoy harmonious family relations on both sides and to be financially secure even after the first passion has calmed down, they will still have a basis for a good life together. If they are not so blessed, they may face marital failure.”

~ M. Gandhi

If there is one logical fallacy in life that is proven every day for the past 10,000 years (and ignored) it is that “marriage makes people happy.” That is not to say that there are not happily married people; however, these people are happy not because they are married. They are happy because they are happy people. When two of them get together, they both support each other to continue being happy.

They reality is that marriage makes happiness more difficult. In Buddhism, we look at the individual as a collection of five aggregates: a physical body, feelings/awareness, perceptions, volitional dispositions and understanding/cognition of the world around us. When we form a partnership, we enjoin five more aggregates to our process. Not five different aggregates; but five more of the same aggregates, which will often compete and conflict with their counterpart. We erroneously believe that we are making life easier by sharing the weight of our suffering with someone else, when in truth; we are taking on the suffering of our partner and the new suffering of a partnership.

If marriage does not bring us happiness, then why do we get married? Beyond the biological and evolutionary need to mate and continue the species, there are benefits marriages that make it worthwhile.

In Buddhism, we take refuge in the Sangha (the community) as well as the Buddha and his teachings of the Dhamma. A community not only offers support but opportunity for everyone in the group to learn and develop: by example and being an example to others. These communities are not absolute, but made up of many smaller communities. There are Dhamma practitioners, monks, family, friends, and spouses. Each level of the Sangha community offers benefits to our practice not only as Buddhists, but as humans. Each relationship we have with the various aspects of the community addresses various aspects of us and our practice.

The courtesy, faithfulness, sharing of decisions, and giving conducted towards your spouse not only benefits her, but benefits you and your happiness that comes from embodying the wholesome aspects of living.

While Buddhism is the practice and path to end suffering, there are pains that we voluntarily endure. We endure the suffering of children—the worry when they are sick, the sadness when they go—for the joys they bring and wisdom we develop from the experience. Marriage is a willingness to endure more stress and suffering than being single; however, when we are mindful and skillful in our marriage, we can become better for it.

DIVORCE: “When love becomes a many splintered thing.”

“All I teach is suffering and the end of suffering”

~ the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama

Why do people get divorced? Sifting the endless answers and explanations only one remains constant through all of them—people get divorced because they are unhappy. And while this article looked at relationships, friendship and marriage; the point is to understand the Buddhist aspect of divorce: “Just because divorce is caused by unhappiness, that doesn’t mean that divorce should be an unhappy event.”

Let us frame the suffering of divorce into the Four Noble Truths of Divorce

  1. Marriage is a type of suffering. Many of us enter in marriages totally ignorant of what a marriage is. Our expectations for what marriage life would be like were wrong. Our motivations for getting married were wrong or, at least, naive. Our images and fantasies of who our mates were eventually fade and we are left with the reality that marriage requires acceptance, energy and mindfulness.
  2. There is a cause for divorce. One day one of you realizes that you are unhappy, and that happiness was the reason for getting married. Smart couples realize that they had false expectations and fantasies, and that their happiness could not be found in ignorance.
  3. There is happiness in divorce. While many people see divorce as betrayal, hurtful, demoralizing, etc.; the truth is that divorce offers opportunity. The first opportunity is to re-evaluate. Are you staying married to someone that wants a divorce because you are afraid, angry, delusional, or jealous? Did you fall into the trap of thinking that everything would remain the same forever and never change? Did you have a false definition and set of expectations for our spouse? Did you have a false reality created for yourself?
  4. How Divorce ends in happiness. Divorce is traumatic because it is such a big change, but change is a part of life. Accepting and embracing change reorients us to see that all things are impermanent. Seeing the impermanence in all things gives some salve to divorce and acceptance that the spouse that left us was not the spouse we married. Neither one has betrayed any trust, because they are two different people. We are also free to see the true causes of suffering and the end of suffering (through the Middle Path of developing wisdom, compassion, giving, mindfulness and skillfulness).

We cannot be perfect Buddhists every moment of every day. Especially during the challenges of divorce, but we can start orienting ourselves to see the benefits of accepting life as it comes and dealing with it positively.


1)      Meditate— Sitting quietly for 30 minutes a day, over a two week period, has proven to reduce stress, reduce anxiety, and create inner calm, lower blood pressure and blood sugar.

2)      Giving—Taking time to donate your time and effort to others develops compassion and forgiveness. It is also a good safe way to start new social networks outside of the previous marriage

3)      Listening—everyone tells you that you should “talk it out.” Unfortunately, we do not reflect when we talk. Talking is good for venting, but listening is good for comprehension and insight. Find someone who wants to talk and listen to them without interjection or turning the conversation back to you. Soon you will start understanding a lot more about yourself.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Buddha, Dharma, Divorce, Ethics, Four Noble Truths, Kharma, Lifestyle, Mahayana, Marriage, Meditation, New Age, Noble Eightfold Path, Philosophy, Relationships, Theravada, Virajana, Work


Joshua Hudson is a license clinical social worker with post graduate certificates in mental health. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he has worked as an healthcare advocate for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Director of Psychological Health for the Air Force, in-patient counselor for inpatient adolescents, child and family therapist; and currently is a Prevention Interventionist for the Air Force creating programs to reduce interpersonal and self-directed violence (e.g. Sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc.) in the military


If you like Applied Buddhism, then why not sign up and subscribe!

4 Comments on “Suffering, Divorce and Buddhism”

  1. January 22, 2010 at 6:19 am #

    It amazes me to know that you have such a vast knowledge about this subject. Personally I think that this blog would be an eye opener to most of its readers. This is really good work and I m very impressed

  2. November 2, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    i’m glad to see such a descriptive explanation from 360 degree aspect. It’s amazing that sometimes you continue to treasure a friendship for lifetime, but wants to end a marriage which is vowed to last till lifetime….Nevertheless i would appreciate if you could also add the aspect of a divorce when you have kids. Buddhist view on such a situation..please reply..

  3. January 12, 2018 at 10:03 pm #

    You have a few nice points here, but I have to object to one core premise. Marriage isn’t just about the “biological” need to mate. More and more scientific evidence shows that we are designed in every way for companionship and relationships, that while bad relationships hurt us (emotionally and physically, taking years off our lives), isolation and loneliness tend to damage us more than all but the most abusive relationships, and good relationships improve our health, extend our lives, and correlate strongly with the highest measures of happiness (according to the longitudinal Harvard study, they are the strongest factor determining long-term happiness). Relationships aren’t inherently “suffering”– they ARE inherently a willingness to give of yourself and give up your attachments to self. Whether or not that is suffering depends on the mindstates and maturity of the people involved. The cause for divorce is not “getting married”– it is a failure on one or both parts to be able to accept, respect, and partner with kindness. The loss of a relationship IS a real loss, even when it is one that must be accepted & worked with without clinging & resentment.

    • January 12, 2018 at 10:44 pm #

      Thank you for your response– I think the understanding of “suffering” is not completely explained. Think of receiving a cup as a gift. It would create suffering because suffering is defined as the as stress. The stress of cleaning, maintaining, and use of the cup. This isn’t necessarily bad– if that is a stress we want in our life. I am sure you have heard someone say “Wow. I would hate to have a really expensive car. I would be too worried it is scratched or stolen.”
      As far as “cause of divorce is marriage” is a cheeky way of stating that in order to have a relationship fail or succeed it starts with the choice to engage with a relationship with an object or person.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: