Book Review: Buddhism for Couples by Sarah Napthali

Buddhism for Couples

By: Sarah Napthali

Paperback: 248 pages (tentative)

Publisher: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin (June 2015)

buddhism for couples cover

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story of a father who struggled to balance his Buddhist practice with his daily responsibilities of being a father and a husband. After the finite hours of his day were divided between work, wife, daughter, and son, there was barely any time left for himself. It was only when he changed his idea of “free time” or “his time” to include running after his children and shopping with his wife that his days opened up and he found he had all the time he needed.

This anecdote remains with me over the years, because it beautifully illustrates the Buddhist approach to life’s problems. Buddhism puts the responsibility of our reactions and emotions strictly on ourselves, not whatever circumstance we tend to blame at the time. The First Noble Truth acknowledges dissatisfaction and suffering as an integral part of life, and the Second Noble Truth sets the cause of this on ourselves, our perception of ourselves, and the yearning that fills the void between how we want things to be and how they really are. We can do something impossible, like making more time, simply by changing our perspective toward the mundane and routine.

It is this uncompromising simplicity of the Buddhist teaching that is so hard to put into practice. The middle way between humility and being a pushover, honesty and being critical, it is wavering at the best of times, let alone with the strong emotions of relationships. Practicing Buddhist compassion toward strangers is so much easier than where it really counts. At home, our insecurities easily manifest in the little frustrations that we either handle badly or sweep away only to pile up in the corners. There they build into ghosts of dissatisfaction, secret tallies of unfairness cataloging who contributes more to the household, thoughts of what other peoples’ marriages are like, and whether whether we were not heard or just ignored.

It is in this context that Sarah Napthali explores Buddhist practice in her new book coming out this June. Using frequent anecdotes and drawing heavily on research in psychology, sociology, Buddhist authorities and relationship gurus, Napthali explores how Buddhist teaching can explain the troubled waters of our relationships and how to use Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment with those we are most attached to. Time and again her honesty in confronting her own shortcomings lets us drop our guard and opens us to see our own failings. Many times she uses humor to show the ridiculousness of our own habitual responses. In the chapter on anger, for instance, she asks us to imagine a book on relationships offering the following advice:

  • If you really want your message to sink in, raise your voice a few decibels.
  • Talking through gritted teeth helps to convey how strongly you feel and should achieve your goals.
  • Expressing contempt is a powerful tool.
  • An angry look can work a treat.
  • Give sulking a try.

In one moment she has simultaneously made us laugh and confront what each of us has done on many occasion.

Buddhism for Couples is highly readable. The tone is easy, almost conversational, peppered with anecdotes and quotations throughout, and the short chapters conform easily to the morning commute and the opportunistic reading of a hectic schedule. Each chapter is closed by a “homework” list of Things to Consider and Things to Do, which I found especially helpful and apropos. In her references, she draws heavily on experts in psychology and sociology, Buddhism and relationship gurus across the board. Ms. Napthali has also avoided two of my pet peeves – lax research and poor citations. A full reference section is included at the back of the book and, although missing from my evaluation copy, it looks like an index might be included in the finished edition as well, which is always a bonus.

Despite the Buddhist theme, the book’s advice is practical and honest enough to ring true for anyone open to the presentation. It also does not require both partners (or either partner for that matter) to be Buddhist. Buddhism for Couples a great book to explore both the dynamic of relationships in the West and the difficulties of the practical, daily spiritual path. Being a man, not having children, and not having any major marital issues of ones own, I felt I was not the target audience of many parts of the book. Indeed, I found myself glossing over chapters on housework or sex, which (naturally) were written from a more female perspective. Even so, I found myself enjoying the book and getting a lot out of it – a new perspective on familiar issues.