Question & Answer With A Buddhist Nun
Help! My husband is leaving…Part 1
Several years ago while traveling I met Justine (not her real name), a devout Buddhist, who invited me to her home. There she spilled her sorrowful story: her beloved husband, Kirk (not his real name) had recently announced that he will leave her. She suspected him of having an affair; at that time he denied it, but there were many signs. A devoted wife and traditional woman from a Buddhist country in Asia, Justine was devastated. I offered what comfort I could. Weeks later she sent me an email seeking advice; below is the first part of our correspondence:
Hi Bhikuni Sudhamma,
I am Justine. I hope you still remember me. I really enjoyed your visit here. As i said I have a very hard time to do Metha [metta or loving-kindness] meditation. I can do vipassana [meditation] in a some sort of level.I need your help keep my family together. Because there is a child [her daughter] behind and suffering.So I don’t want to see this happen. Please can you pray for me. I heard that when you had a cancer again some group prayed and next time when you visit to the doctor they confirmed that there there was no cancer. Is that true?
Now I believe any thing to make my family together.I am in constant pain.What should I do. My prayers not working yet. May be I had done a bad Karma
I am in middle of the ocean without knowing how to swim
I love to have your tell no .Then I can talk you.
Thank you for your email. My number is… (etc) Please call me on Monday or after Monday. No, I was not cured of cancer by prayers. Prayers certainly helped, especially when my life was in serious danger, but I also made good use of highly paid Stanford graduate doctors!
Since you asked for my advice, here are some suggestions.
Cultivate compassion. If metta (loving-kindness) is too difficult to do right now, do something that is easier. How about compassion (karuna)? You may feel compassion for yourself for what you are going through. Were you there when I talked to the group about compassion for oneself? (when I talked about stroking one’s own upper arm like holding a baby, while saying “This is just what it is like to be ‘me’ right now.”)
Or, you may feel compassion for all the women in the world who are having a more difficult situation that you are experiencing. Some are poor, and are being left in poverty with many children, with no ability to get a job… Some are being left for another woman who is a life-long rival and enemy… Some have been wealthy all their lives but suddenly are losing everything to the husband… Some have done something wrong causing the husband to leave them and they feel remorseful and guilty and cannot bear the pain… Some are innocent but wrongly blamed by him or by everyone, and feel wretched…
Some have gone through a terrible experience such as the loss of a child or getting cancer, and the husband cannot endure the difficulty and so he leaves (years ago my husband left me because he could not deal with my having gone through cancer. On my cancer ward all the men had women beside them, but most women remained alone)… Some women are unexpectedly widowed and cannot bear the grief… Some have lost husband and children at the same time… Some are aging women being left for a young woman the age of their daughter (that happened to my neighbor when she was around 55 or 60 years old)…
You do not have these problems. You do not have reason to fear becoming impoverished, you do not expect to see your children starve, you do not have to deal with the bitterness of a long-time rival/enemy getting your husband, you do not have a guilty conscience or self-blame to deal with, you are not being misjudged and blamed for wrongdoing by your family and friends, you are not dealing with terrible loss alone, you are not an aging woman who cannot hope to obtain another husband, you do not have the worse pain of grief of the sudden death of a husband, and you are not severely suffering from also losing a child.
Therefore you can develop compassion for all the women who suffer worse than you. You can sit and think, “My pain is bad enough –but there are women who are suffering this and more; may they be relieved of their suffering! May they become happy!”
Analyze your thinking. Whenever waves of anxiety or grief come, look at the thinking that triggered the feelings. What were your thoughts? Did you think something like, “He loves her more,” or “He will leave me and I will be alone” or “Our daughter will suffer”? Look hard at whatever you were thinking, for if it hurt, then the thought was probably not really true on some level.
Let’s look at my examples:
(a) “He loves her more than me.” He may be swept up in lust, but love takes a longer time to develop. He probably does not love her at all. If she were to, perhaps, develop an ugly cancer on her face, he would probably leave her. In fact, as soon as he gets to know her better, he will probably be unable to tolerate her. When he realizes she cannot cook (few American girls can) he will slowly realize just what he has lost.
Furthermore, as you pointed out, once she gets to know him better, discovering that his charming ways won’t last past courtship, she will not like him much, and likely will quarrel with him or reject him. Also, I noticed that in all your past family photographs, your husband looks chubby, but now all of a sudden he is lean and good-looking. (The weight loss may be due to his recent health problem?) Before long, he may gain back all his weight and this young lady may not be attracted to a pudgy man. She probably does not love him at all, either. One expert is quoted as saying that only about 1/4 of affairs lead to a new marriage, and only 25% of these marriages will last. (Private Lies by Dr. Frank Pittman.)
If you love yourself, you won’t worry about whether someone else loves you; there will not be a hole in your heart that needs filling. Do you love yourself? If you don’t, how can you judge him for not doing what you cannot do? Take it easy on him. Who he loves is none of anyone else’s business.
Who you yourself love is your business. Try to radiate love to yourself. Start with words of metta: “May I be well, happy and peaceful.” Look in a mirror and say “I want me to be happy. I want Justine to be happy. I want her to be well, and happy, and free…”
By the way, the quickest way to get love from others is to give it to yourself. Self-love is beautiful and attractive.
(b) “He will leave me and I will be alone.” He may indeed leave you. It may be temporary or long-term. Thus you have a choice: to enjoy the thought of his absence, or to suffer.
I myself live alone. I never miss living with men; even sharing a monastery with male monks is full of painful difficulties, because even really good men rarely understand women. Most of the happiest people I know are not in romantic relationships.
In the past I had female companions here with me at my Vihara, but not for the last two or three years. Living without a companion creates some logistical problems.
For a long time I suffered with the belief that a nun should not live alone—yet I could not get anyone to stay with me here. I tried everything. US Immigration repeatedly blocked my efforts to bring in nuns from overseas, and all the good nuns in the USA have their own centers in other cities or wish to live close to their relatives.
I became reconciled to being alone, first by deciding to accept the lonely situation as my karma. Then I began to notice all the reasons why I like living alone. Actually, I LOVE living alone. It was just the thought that I “shouldn’t” like to be alone that made me unhappy about it. Now I delight in it. For example, when someone lives with me, she often needs to talk. Talk talk talk. Now my house is completely silent, and I delight in the silence. The absence of useless talk makes it easier to quiet the mind.
Other people bring their neuroses, jealousies, quirks and rigid ideas (some even getting bossy about how I should, say, fold towels, while others refused to do their share of housework). A few have even tried to divide the supporters. Now I have no such problems. My home is orderly and peaceful and unobstructed by the needs and problems of other residents. It is my good karma to live alone!
I wonder whether there are any downsides to living with Kirk. He may be perfect, with no downsides? If you can find even one small reason to like his absence, you can begin to let go of suffering over the thought about him leaving.
About remaining alone, as I mentioned before, you are not an aging woman who cannot hope to obtain another husband. You are still youthful and pretty. Adorable, actually! (Americans like to say “cute” for “adorable.”) So if you want a new husband, it is likely that you will find one — if you want that much trouble in your life.
In this country (USA), even old women still have a chance to obtain a husband. My neighbor whose husband left her for a young woman (their daughter’s age) felt very bitter for years, but one day saw her former high school boyfriend, and they got married in their 70’s, and became very happy together. A friend of mine, when she was a teenager, saw her father leave her mother for another woman, the whole family felt miserable. Her mother lived alone for many years. When she was nearly 80 years old she met a nice man her age, they fell in love, and quickly married. They spent the next ten years traveling around the world and enjoying each other’s company.
My mother’s cousin was widowed; decades later, when she was around 77 years old, she came across a widower whom she had known in high school; they quickly married, to the shock of the whole family. This man happens to be wealthy, so our cousin is suddenly enjoying wealth for the first time in her life, and having fun; I’m very happy for her.
(c) “Our daughter will suffer is he leaves me.” Can you really know whether that is true? Your daughter may suffer more from watching you cling to him than from watching him leave.
In fact, if you handle this whole situation with dignity and grace and humor, she will notice. Through your good example, you have now the opportunity to give her life-skills that will help her to survive any disappointment.
It could turn out to be the most important education she gets; it could even be the best thing that could happen to her. Twenty years from now she may say, “Mother, when I went through my own difficulties, I kept remembering how well you handled it when Dad left us, and I knew that I can get through anything. That is how I have survived my own disappointments.”
Look to the wisdom of arahants. Keep in mind that an enlightened person never feels troubled over anything. So if there is emotional pain, it must come from some part of one’s mind that is not yet clear and enlightened. I often remind myself, when upset by something, that if I were a fully enlightened arahant, this circumstance would not bother me at all. That helps me keep calm. And then I look at whatever brings up the suffering: Is it my clinging? My aversion? My delusion? Consider:
- Is there clinging and delusion such as the idea “He belongs to me!”? Even one’s own body does not belong to oneself, so how can another person’s body? It is all just a lot of changing conditions. Don’t let your clinging and delusion make you unhappy; don’t let it win.
- Is there aversion such as the idea, “He should not do this to me!”? Many husbands leave. They may be driven by past karma; they may be driven by their own greed hatred and delusion. Don’t let your aversion make you unhappy; don’t let it win.
- Try to have unselfish compassion for others, like an arahant would have. If Kirk is suffering more by not going to her, then why would you want him to stay? Don’t you want him to be happy? Do you really want to say to him, “Kirk, even if it makes you miserable, I want you to stay in order to make me feel secure and happy?”
Remember gratitude. Reflect, for example:
“He has given me 18 good years. Some women don’t get even one good year.”
“He did well for this child of mine. He has acted like a father to her (not all fathers do!). He has been trustworthy with her. He has often babysat her so I could do other things. He has taken an active interest in parenting my child, and made sure she got a good education so far. I feel grateful for all he has done for my child. She has depended upon him for her whole life. He is only failing her a bit now because his mind is confused, but he will probably be a good father again in the future.”
“He has given me a good warning of his future plans, so that I know to arrange now to take care of myself in the future.” “Even though he seems to be crazy for this other person he has not completely abandoned our family thus far; in this way he has made a bigger sacrifice than many men in his situation could do.”
“He has given me (and my child) a fine house and money etc., while I got to stay home to enjoy my child and raise her properly, which is what I really wanted to do.”
“He has never hit me, never beaten me, never kicked me, never whipped me with a belt, never hit me with furniture or glassware, never locked me outside, never imprisoned me, and for 18 years he has never left me. I feel grateful.”
What is your Refuge? When you write that you will do anything to keep your family together, I feel worried for you. That is an attitude guaranteed to bring worse suffering. What is your refuge — the Triple Gem or your own wishes?! Who are you to decide that staying together will be the best outcome?! Many families break up and the people go on to have better lives.
Turn to your true refuge in the Triple Gem, not to refuge in your family life. Just do what is the next right thing to do, and leave the results up to the Triple Gem. Don’t make your own desires like a religion for yourself, or you will suffer. You recite “Buddham saranam gacchami” “In the Buddha I take refuge”– not “Kirk saranam gacchami“! And not “Justinassa lobham (Justine’s desires) saranam gacchami”!
Focus on you. Whether or not Kirk leaves you, this is your good chance to start a new life. Put aside the whole question of Kirk, and look into the question of Justine. What do you want for your own life? Imagine that Kirk never existed — what, then, would be a life that Justine can now feel pleased about living? Focus on you. Nurture you. Do nice things for you. You are worth it.
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