Buddhist Marital Therapy

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Morita Therapy charactersThe late Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita used to advise disharmonious couples who came to him for therapy to do five things each day for the benefit of their mates, without waiting to be asked. He instructed them not to call attention to what they had done, or expect thanks.

Predictably, their selfless care of each other often eased the tension between partners more effectively than any other kind of therapy. For one thing, neither person had to wait for the other person to change before taking constructive action.

Morita developed this approach from Zen Buddhist principles about 'right action.' A key idea is that no matter how uneasy a person is feeling, s/he can still choose to do something constructive. The result, which can seem quite miraculous, is that constructive action often induces positive feelings, such as self-respect and peace of mind. Then it is far easier to gain the insights needed to release any old patterns contributing to one's misery.

The problem

At this site we talk a lot about doing something constructive, that is, making love differently, and how it can actually lead to increased feelings of well-being. Unfortunately, some couples are too alienated from each other to make love at all. Over time, the results of conventional sex have built up a wall of resentment and uneasiness.

Our communication is messed up in so many ways. I don't feel "safe" talking to her. ... It's like anything I say may be used against me in a court of law, with her as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Makes it kind of hard to open up.

I was hoping to give you a more positive update by now-- but I just can't seem to really get past all of the bad feelings. ... When my husband tries to kiss me or even touch me-- I have these prickly, bad feelings-- but if my child wants to snuggle up with me or give me smooches or hugs-- I can't get enough!

Tragically, these people have lost sight of the well-meaning human being with whom they once fell in love. Instead they see someone who gives them the creeps, who is inexplicably cold, who has withdrawn in emotional pain, or who is gratuitously nasty. With so many bad feelings between them, they can't envision the possibility of lovemaking that could heal.

can of wormsTheir experience is not unusual. As the mutually addictive honeymoon phase of a relationship ends, conventional lovemaking tends to create more powerful subconscious feelings of lack or uneasiness. Lovers then project these distressed feelings outward, naturally believing that the cause of their anguish lies elsewhere. Sooner or later they generally project these feelings of uneasiness onto each other. In lucky couples this tendency to project their uneasiness onto each other is slow to occur, and usually becomes most noticeable after the birth of a child. In some couples it happens during the honeymoon itself.

That's when their perception shifts and they unwittingly begin to see the character defects of their mate through a magnifying glass:

  • "How many times have I asked him not to throw his dirty clothing on the bedroom floor? No wonder I'm in a foul mood."
  • "Why doesn't she respect me enough to be on time when I meet her some place? Of course I'm grumpy!"
  • "I've told him what kind of foreplay I prefer. Why doesn't he ever listen?
  • "She used to enjoy spontaneous lovemaking. Now she's frigid; no wonder I'm attracted to other women."

Thanks to projection, they see the speck of dust impairing the other person's perception, but they don't see the beam of wood impairing their own. This kind of friction also tends to drive partners apart sexually over time. Sadly, the resulting isolation and energetic undernourishment further clouds their perception of each other. That is, both passion fallout and separation tend to make mates defensive. They grow increasingly self-protective, drained, and self-absorbed. This behavior is in stark contrast to their “in love” behavior, when they were benefiting from the synergy of loving contact.

Now neither feels like doing anything extra for the other; each wants his/her own needs met before extending any loving attention. It is apparent that if they remain convinced that they can't heal the situation unless they first feel like snuggling up to each other again, they will remain stuck in very uncomfortable impasses - or divorce.

The cure

Here's where Dr. Morita comes to the rescue. If a couple is willing to take right action despite powerful feelings of resentment, repulsion, anger or hopelessness, they may be able to dissolve their deadlock. They simply perform five services for their mates each day, without seeking something in return or expecting thanks.Dr. Morita

This strategy has two benefits. First, generous actions make both partners feel nourished again. When one is feeling well looked after, it's easy to feel like pampering someone in return.

Second, humans tend to adore anything on which they lavish selfless attention. It doesn't matter if it is a child, a guru, a pet – or even a cherished possession. The 'cuddle hormone' oxytocin helps to explain why. We produce more of it when we bestow this nurturing attention on someone or something, and oxytocin, in turn, makes us feel more emotionally attached, or bonded. So the couple doing selfless things for each other may find they begin to see each other quite differently.

As one husband who uses this approach in his marriage says:

The irony is that doing these good deeds also cultivates the feelings of gratitude and appreciation of the loved one on the part of "doer." In the western world we tend to assume that it is only the recipient who benefits. Feeling gratitude and appreciation for your loved one is like seeing them through a giant positive filter, which is missing when you go about life in the typical egocentric fashion.

When we first fall in love with someone, we naturally pamper that person - and see their many good qualities effortlessly. In fact, we would continue to do so indefinitely if it weren't for the buildup of bad feelings (or separating behaviors) from conventional sex or sexual starvation. 1 After all, we continue to dote on our pets and kids without therapy.

Selfless caring also brightens us at an energy level. This happens automatically, as we move toward unconditional love and away from resentment and defensiveness.

If you know a couple who might benefit from a bit more cuddle hormone and positive energy in their relationship, why not suggest this strategy? Once they are seeing each other more clearly, they may want to learn to sustain their good feelings with an approach to lovemaking that is itself based on generous giving.

More on Dr. Morita's approach to life

Here are some Constructive Living concepts:

You must take responsibility for what you do no matter how you feel.

Your past or your family or your society or your economic situation or your race are not reasons or excuses for your behavior.

Confidence and feeling good about yourself are much less important than you have been led to believe. In any case, they result from doing well, they don't come first. Nobody else can make you feel genuinely good about yourself.

The optimal mind isn't constantly peaceful and anxiety-free; it is flexible, adapting to changing circumstances.

You don't need to fight against your fears. They don't need to determine what you do.

If you are drawn to Morita's ideas, visit the ToDo website, the Constructive Living website, or read A Handbook for Constructive Living by David K. Reynolds.

  • 1. This phenomenon is calculated to push us on to new mates.