Relationships: Two tools
Writings | Life

A relationship between two people means that they relate to each other. Before two people can relate to each other, they must remove the principal obstacles to relationship — reactive patterns. For present purposes, the reactive patterns are prejudice, closing down, contraction and feeling deficient. These four reactive patterns prevent us from relating to the other person as he or she actually is. When we have removed these obstacles, we can then see what the basis of the relationship actually is. Then we will know what relating means.

Removing obstacles

Surprisingly, true relationship is relatively rare. In most “relationships” people relate to an idea of the other person, an internal representation that has developed from patterns of perception and interaction.

The first step is to dismantle our internal representations and see the person for who he or she is. The practice of equanimity is the key tool for this work. By bringing attention to the arbitrary and fluid nature of internal representations, we first see them as constructions and then see through them to what is.

The second step is to open to the other. To do so, we must identify the ways that we close down. We usually close down out of fear of not knowing where we stand, of being engulfed, of being rejected, of being destroyed or of being nothing. We can use methods to transform emotional reactive patterns into attention and then use the practice of loving kindness to bring attention to the pattern of closing down itself. As the pattern of closing down falls apart, we become capable of a natural warmth and appreciation for the other.

The third step is to be able to be with the other when he or she is suffering. Our habitual reaction to suffering is contraction. The practice of compassion brings attention to contraction and dismantles the patterns discomfort, control and compulsion connected with it. The result is presence, the ability to be with the other in his or her pain.

The fourth step is to be able to be with the other when he or she is happy. The habitual reaction to another person’s happiness and success is for us to feel deficient or lacking. The practice of joy brings attention to the feeling of deficiency and dismantles the patterns of competitiveness, envy or self-pity associated with it. The result is a passion for life itself and the ability to be completely with the other without having to prove oneself or compete.

Basis for relationship

We now turn to the actual basis of the relationship. Problems in relationships often arise because two people have fundamentally different views of the relationship or because one or the other is undermining the basis of the relationship.

The following chart summarizes the three bases of relationship and how each basis is undermined by the three fundamental emotional reactions, attachment, aversion and indifference.

How reactions
undermine relationships
to things like
to things like
to the basis itself
Mutual benefit
looks like a transaction
or series of transactions
Security Risk Benefit from
the transaction
Shared aim

looks like an aim you cannot or
choose not to achieve on your own
Control Shared aim (i.e.,
a covert agenda)
Shared aim

Emotional connection

looks like a person you
want to have in your life
Being honest
The emotional

Mutual profit relationships are business relationships: buyer-seller and business partnerships. Profit always involves risk, so the relationship is undermined if one or both parties are attached to security. If either party is not interested in profit, then there is no basis for a mutual profit relationship. And if one party cheats or steals from the other (an expression of aversion), then the relationship is undermined.

Political and community organizations are ostensibly shared aim relationships as are all professional relationships. The shared aim in the attorney-client relationship is the legal position of the client. The aim in the teacher-student relationship is the education of the student. If the teacher or attorney has another agenda and is more concerned with money or other forms of profit (fame, power, etc.), then the basis of the shared aim relationship is violated. Control is a key issue in shared aim relationships: non-profit and political organizations regularly experience fights over control. Spies are shot because they form relationships and conceal a different agenda.

In emotional connection relationships such as marriage and friendship, the concern for continual happiness is a key issue. Continual happiness is impossible. If the expectation is to be happy all the time, the relationship will not have the depth or resources to negotiate the inevitable periods of pain and difficulty we encounter in life.

General principles

Confusion and difficulties arise when the relationship is viewed differently by each person. For example, a film director sees his relationship with a studio as having the shared aim of making a good movie while the studio tends to see the relationship in terms of mutual profit. When a doctor is more concerned with making money or advancing his research, he undermines his relationship with his patient.

Each kind of relationship has different obligations and responsibilities. We must be clear about the basis of the relationship before we can know what our responsibilities are.

A relationship cannot last if it is out of balance. Imbalance in a relationship, whatever the basis of the relationship, inevitably leads to lack of respect on one side and resentment on the other. Relationships can and do endure periods of imbalance. Sooner or later, however, the imbalance must be addressed if the relationship is to continue.