There are certain interpersonal dilemmas which come up again and again in modern life. It is very important for Kadampas to learn how to respond to these situations with wisdom. I don’t pretend to know what is the best way to respond to these situations, but I figure it might be useful for me to share some of the dilemmas which I have observed and what lessons I have learned for how to respond to them. If other people have other examples and lessons learned, I am sure we could all benefit from learning from one another.
One of the most common such dilemmas is the “I’ll change honey, I promise…” dynamic. Very often people find themselves in abusive or dysfunctional relationships. The dynamic is as follows: one person consistently mistreats the other and the other just generally accepts and goes along with it because they do not want to lose the relationship with the abusive person because sometimes there are “good times” that they don’t want to lose. The abused person eventually realizes that it is unhealthy and they have had enough, so they say, “I am leaving.” The abusive person then starts acting all nice, offering flowers (metaphorically or literally), and tells the other person that they will change, they promise. The abused person then “sees the good” in the abusive person and decides to take them back. But as soon as they do, the abusive person then starts to (gradually or quickly) relapse back into thier old ways and becomes abusive again. Then the cycle starts all over again.
Clearly, it does not help people to allow them to abuse us. They are engaging in negativity against us, and if we allow them to continue to do so, we are enabling them to create bad causes for themselves for the future. Likewise, it is not good for us because like a drug addict it erodes our sense of self-worth as we become increasingly ready to sacrifice all that is healthy and good in our lives in a desperate attempt to hold on to what little good remains. I have a cousin who was once in an abusive relationship, she told the guy “If you hit me one more time, I am leaving.” He became nice again for awhile, but then hit her again. Without saying a word, she packed her bags, grabbed her kid, and never looked back! Not only is that the right thing to do, it also is a powerful lesson to her daughter that we do not allow people to do these things to us. In contrast, I know many people who for years allow these things to drag on, to the detriment of all. Of course, physical violence is an extreme case, but the same dynamic plays itself out in many lesser forms.
So does this mean we should just leave and show total non-cooperation with any and all dysfunction in our relationships? Of course not. If we did, we would very quickly find ourselves without any relationships at all since everybody in samsara, at one level or another, is under the influence of their ignorant delusions and so is necessarily acting in deluded and dysfunctional ways.
The test I use is the following: if the other person is genuinely aware of their problems, is actively trying to change themselves (on their own, not due to your outside pressure), and you are providing some sort of positive influence in their process of change, then it is perfectly appropriate to remain in a relationship and to support the other person in their path of personal change, even if that means sometimes having to serve as the object of their abuse and dysfunction. But if the other person is oblivious to their problems and doing nothing to change (except in response to your threats to leave), then it is better to let the relationship go and move on. Of course, you still should always love the person and pray for their well-being, but you can do so without having daily intereaction with them.
Will this mean you lose the “good” that you sometimes get from the relationship? Yes, it does, but only in the way that a drug addict has to give up the “good” that comes from drugs – the honey they lick off of a razor’s edge. So yes, you will have to give up some good feelings or times, but what you gain is self-respect, self-confidence and freedom from the constant troubles inherent in a dysfunctional relationship.
When the other person realizes that they have permanently lost you due to their abusive behavior, there is a chance that they will then genuinely change. We should pray that they do, but even if they do, we should never take the person back because doing so will just reproduce the old pattern. But sadly, more often than not, even our absence in their lives is not sufficient to change them because they are completely possessed by the demons of their own uncontrolled delusions. Their not changing when we cut the relationship does not mean we made a mistake to do so – it was and still is the right decision both for them and for ourselves – but rather it is a commentary on how powerful delusions can be and therefore it serves as a powerful reminder of the need for us to not allow ourselves to remain under the influence of our own delusions and for us to never abandon our bodhichitta wish to become a Buddha so that we will be able to have the time, wisdom and skilfull means to gradually and eventually lead these people we love to freedom.