Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on July 23, 2014

I am going to take a break from this series on the history of how I got into dharma-study to talk about an important topic: responsibility within a relationship, our sense of responsibility in relationships and how what is usually considered a virtue can instead become just another vice. This is probably a little abstract, but I hope that some of you will see what I am pointing at here and recognize it as the prevalent problem that it is. And I am speaking here about relationships, especially close relationships like love and marriage. Let me know if this connects please.

With any two people in relationship, the sense of responsibility on any given topic (your choice) is seldom (if ever) equal. One person usually cares more about something than another, which leaves the other (at least in their eyes) wanting in the response department. It is not that they don't care at all; just that they don't care as much about a particular topic or thing as we do. As a counselor for many years, this little inequality I am pointing at is perhaps the cause of more bickering (and suffering) among couples than any other single factor.

We know that no two people are made the same, just as there are an infinite number of unique grains of sand on the beach. And I might as well come right out and say it: being more responsible than another does not give us the moral high ground; it only gives us a greater sense of responsibility.

The Buddhists say that Bodhisattvas are infinitely responsible for every other sentient being. In effect, what we call "compassion" is just extreme responsibility for others under another name. But here we are talking about regular folks and finite responsibility like we find in a marriage or a close relationship, and it has its own problems which I would like to discuss.

And let's be clear, the word "responsibility" simply means the ability to respond, just like it says. Any two of us respond differently to different things, some more and some less. It has always been that way and probably always will be. We like to think of being responsible as a virtue, but like any other virtue it can be misused and this is a problem. Let me give a kind of silly example:

My mother made an especial point of teaching her five sons not to leave the refrigerator door open any longer than absolutely necessary. This was drilled into my head my whole life. If that refrigerator door is open, I want to close it, plain and simple. There is no doubt in my family's mind that I feel more "responsible" in this area than anyone else in the house. And my sense of responsibility amounts to an irritant to others. I am always asking them to PLEASE close that door.

And some of them like to open both doors and just kind of browse around or move some things in and out of the refrigerator without any sense of hurry whatsoever, and this drives me a little crazy: all that cold air pouring out into the room that will have to be regenerated.

I recognize that I am a little nuts on this issue, and I try really hard to bite my tongue. I find myself counting the seconds they leave the fridge open, and by now they know I am over there quietly having a fit. There is no question, even in my mind, that my sense of responsibility on this issue is way out-of-line, but there you have it nevertheless. And this is just a rather humorous example. This same principle gets much more destructive, which of course is my point here.

We are all responsible people, but what we respond to and the degree we respond differs. Generally we even agree to disagree about such things, but there is a limit. This is especially easy to see with couples, who not only can differ on one or another issue, but often one person out of the two is generally more responsible than the other, overall. But more usually, each partner has their different areas of responsibility. And this also tends to divide along gender lines and gender-based issues.

For example, traditionally men are more responsible about getting the oil changed in the car, but not always about getting the garbage out on trash day. And women tend to be more responsible about, well, all kinds of things, like laundry, the kitchen, and especially babies and kids. This is perhaps changing in these times, but you get the idea. As you can see I am presenting all of this with a little humor mixed in, but in reality (and most often) there is no humor whatsoever. These kinds of issues can be a life and death struggle for a relationship and that is what I am getting to. And here is the destructive form it can take:

The person who is more responsible takes the high ground and calls the other out for their lack of responsibility on whatever issue is at hand. They may even try to shame the other. And it can get much worse. "You forgot to take out the garbage again!" or "Pick up your socks!" declares the responsible one, the one who is aware of what may need to be done as they see it. But the effect of their responsibility on the less-responsible one is not helpful. It is actually hurtful.

Rather than try to become more responsible, the person being called on the carpet can experience this as demeaning and may give up altogether even trying to respond. Why? Obviously because their sense of responsibility (which is in there somewhere) seems to never measure up to (much less please) their partner's take on it, so why even try? They are doomed to being nagged and chided virtually forever on the issue. Their own little bit of innate response is totally dwarfed by their partner's commanding response and they feel (and are made to feel) inadequate, perhaps even shame.

I notice this in my own relationship. Every once in a while my wife goes off on one endeavor or another, often travelling to our monastery for some extended dharma practice, and I am left at home with the dogs. I notice that after a couple of days those areas where I tend to be irresponsible (i.e. I don't respond enough in my wife's eyes) start to perk up. It's just like when we trample the grass in the yard. Given a little time, the sun comes out, perhaps rain falls, and that grass starts growing again. So it is with areas of responsibility that I am weak in. Leave me alone and I will find my own natural level of responsibility.
When given space I eventually find myself responding and doing on my own volition what generally I am used to being told to do. And no one I know likes being told to do anything, least of all me. Suddenly I am remembering to pick up the dog yard, take out the recycle, clean the kitchen counters more thoroughly, and so on – and all on my own. So, given a little time, just like grass grows, I gradually come around and begin to respond in my own way, but I need that space and that bit of time to do so.

And this kind of natural sense of responsibility is not just a benefit; it is essential to our inner health. In other words, this is the message for those who are naturally more responsible, and by that fact end up being the aggressor, the nag.

Think about it! Instead of nagging, we can nurture our partner like we would a plant. Let them grow into and find their own sense responsibility so that it can bring them the same confidence and respectability we have. If we are dogging them, it is not helpful, so we could just back off a bit. Anything other than care and encouragement is suicidal on that issue. We are killing the desire in them that we want to encourage.

In other words, it is not responsible if your natural sense of responsibility is harming or suffocating other's ability to respond. It is destructive. Nothing grows without nurturing, and mothers know this best of all.

I find that this syndrome takes place between most couples and may cause almost irreparable damage. I could get very graphic and give you nasty chapter and verse examples, but all of us share in this responsibility issue, so these words should be enough to point out our responsibilities as regards "responsibility." Am I being too abstract, or do you understand my meaning? Let me summarize:

We are all responsible if given the chance. Responsibility, like any other form of awareness, is something that can be encouraged and it will grow. That is what meditation is all about.

Responsibility, being able to respond, is essentially just another word for awareness, the goal of all systems of meditation. Responsibility is an awareness that each of us have in certain areas of life, but it can be a double-edged sword. Being responsible at the expense of another's inability to respond as we feel they should (as described above) is obviously hurtful.

Instead, when we begin to respond to the inability of others to respond by nurturing them instead of criticizing them, responsibility becomes compassion. In other words, responsibility becomes compassion when we nurture and encourage the ability of others to respond rather than confront them with what we perceive as their lack of responsibility, their perceived inability to respond as we do.

Let me know if this is understandable please.

[Photo from the yard.]