Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

How I Met And Married My Wife

A surprising answer to what prevents some from committing

In 2002, my third-youngest brother and his wife announced they were going to have a baby. The news absolutely floored me. This would be the first baby of our generation and represented a significant life change for us all.

I left their apartment that night thinking about life stages and transitions and found myself wondering why I wasn't married yet. I'd always felt I'd wanted to be and had certainly had a number of opportunities. But I'd passed them all up for one reason or another and at 34 remained single.

Learning one of my younger brothers was going to be a father triggered something in me—a sense of urgency, a greater interest in moving my life forward, a need to shake things up—I'm not sure what. But the next morning I began a campaign to find my wife.

In Nichiren Buddhism we chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to achieve our goals, whatever they may be, as way to simultaneously attain enlightenment. So I decided I would chant one million times (a "one million daimoku campaign") to achieve this latest goal of mine. I'd done this multiple times in the past, usually with surprising results, so I knew it would take 300 hours—which, given my schedule, meant nine months.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Later that night I received an e-mail from a woman I'd queried on Match.com, an Internet dating site. I'd been surfing it for two years, had gone on numerous dates—even some good ones-but hadn't yet found anyone I could envision as my life partner. The woman's name was Rhea, and her profile was as articulate and bold as her photograph was beautiful. We corresponded by e-mail briefly, then talked one night on the phone—for two hours. The conversation flowed effortlessly and magnetically. We made plans to meet for dinner that weekend.

The date was wonderful. We ended up spending the entire following week together (I was on vacation) and soon found ourselves enthralled in a serious relationship. I wondered if she were indeed the woman for whom I'd been searching (and chanting) and marveled at the possibility that I could have found her on the same day I started my daimoku campaign. Yet as I didn't yet know if I wanted to marry her, I continued chanting.

Our relationship progressed and on Christmas Eve of 2002 she moved in with me. Soon after, though, I began experiencing intense bouts of anxiety, mostly in the morning when I'd first wake up. I couldn't figure out its cause and it soon rose to a level that was almost paralyzing.

I continued chanting, still unclear if I wanted to marry her or not. On an intellectual level, nothing stood in the way of my wanting to—though obviously not perfect, she was clearly excellent: smart, beautiful, emotionally healthy, happy, fun, in every way my equal (and in some ways my superior), someone I could not only enjoy but learn from.

But I seemed to be waiting for a switch to flip inside me, some internal confirmation that she was the one for me. I became aware that I was hesitating at least partially because to make any choice was simultaneously to not choose everyone else—but I overcame that obstacle as soon as I realized it was an issue. I only had to remind myself that most of the world's billions of people would never make their way in front of me. Almost certainly somewhere someone more wonderful for me was out there (just as almost certainly someone more wonderful than me was out there for her—neither of us is perfect nor perfect for each other), but Rhea was more than wonderful enough.

Eventually my brother and his wife had their baby, a boy. Eight days later Rhea and I went to the bris. That morning, however, we had a terrific fight (I no longer remember what it was about—the way of most fights), and by the time we arrived at my brother's we were barely speaking. When we came home, she went downstairs presumably to read and I went upstairs to chant.

I still didn't know if I wanted to marry her. Still fuming from our argument, I decided enough was enough. I had two hours left to chant and by the end of that time, I decided, I was going to have my answer.

I chanted angrily at first...but gradually my thinking began to shift. I began to wonder just why at 35 now I still wasn't married. I didn't think that marriage was necessary for happiness or that a married life was even necessarily happier than a single one. But I'd always envisioned myself being married. So why wasn't I? Had it only been a matter of not finding the right person, as I'd always presumed?

For reasons unclear to me, I found my thoughts drifting back to years earlier when I'd been a first-year resident. It was the first time I'd ever lived completely alone (I'd lived in a dormitory through four years of college and with roommates through four years of medical school), and as I thought back on it, I realized it was one of the happiest periods of my life. Why? Because when I came home at the end of the day I came home to an empty kingdom—one in which I had complete freedom to do whatever I wanted. No one else lived in my personal space to ask favors of me or require my help or have an opinion about what do to that was contrary to my own. That freedom, I suddenly realized, was what I really wanted more than anything else.

At that moment, at the very end of my 300 hour million daimoku campaign to find my wife, I discovered to my complete surprise that the true reason I was still single was that I wanted to be. I wanted to be alone. I was stunned.

But why? I realized the answer almost immediately. Being alone was the strategy I used to protect myself against the demands placed on me by others. Despite the breakthrough I'd made two years earlier where I'd freed myself from my need to be liked and thus my inability to say no (which I described in an earlier post, The Good Guy Contract), I realized I hadn't changed enough. I could say no in a way I couldn't before, stand up for myself to a degree I hadn't, but both still made me uncomfortable and anxious. So how did I manage that anxiety? By preventing it from occurring in the first place. By reserving private time and space in which no one could demand of me anything.

This, then, I realized, was the true answer to why I'd felt so anxious once I'd started living with Rhea. She had no compunction at all about expressing her desires about anything: let's go shopping, let's go for a bike ride, let's watch a movie. And though I didn't dislike any of those things (except for the shopping), I often didn't want to do them when she did. My anxiety arose because I felt helpless to determine the direction I wanted my life to go when she was in it. If I couldn't express and take care of my own needs in a relationship, how I could ever accomplish my own life's goals? Up to that point, remaining unattached was the only strategy I'd discovered (unconsciously until that moment) that I felt capable of executing. So I'd remained unmarried.

In that moment of understanding, I decided I didn't want to remain as I was. I needed to learn to take care of myself once and for all, even in the midst of a relationship, so that not only could I have a relationship but also enjoy it. Rhea wasn't just the woman I loved—she was an opportunity for me to forge myself into a stronger, happier person. And in that moment, I realized what my million diamoku campaign had actually been about all along: not me finding my wife but my growing into a person who could actually have one.

A week later, I asked her to marry me.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

more...

Subscribe to Happiness in this World

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.