Minimalism and the Buddha’s famous adage, the root of all suffering is attachment, are inextricably linked. The essence of minimalism is to free yourself of attachments which do not add value to your life, and the starting point for this is decluttering possessions. Whilst this brings about a state of calmness and control, and feels like a pleasant decrease in the pace of life, I like to think the practical beginning opens the gateway to the more significant: helping us to shape our relationships, to find more meaning in them, and know when to walk away.
Decluttering my possessions was easy for the most part. Once I got past the sunk cost fallacy, realising that what I had paid is immaterial if the thing offers no value to my life, the big clear out became a simple case of deciding which items could be sold without too much hassle and which needed to be thrown away or donated. Marie Kondo’s spark joy method was invaluable here, a quick Google search will let you know all about this, if you don’t already.
Decluttering people is much harder. If we make a mistake in discarding a possession, we can simply buy it again. People cannot be bought in the same way, and depending on the nature of the relationship, discarding them altogether can be very difficult. Not many would abandon their mother notwithstanding her constant criticism. Moreover, relationships are bilateral in nature, providing a share of control in most cases. We cannot be their master fairly and must caution not to end up their slave.
I have great difficulty discarding people in my life that on balance create more problems than joy. If they were things, they’d be gone in a heartbeat. They are not relatives, no one would raise an eyebrow if I cut them dead (perhaps bar them, themselves). This problem has never been more manifest than with partners. Despite warning signs early on, I tend to stick with a partner through thick and thin until you almost end up hating each other. The ideal would have been to walk away early on before attachments formed and suffering became inevitable. Unfortunately I didn’t do that with the lady I have been in a relationship with for most of the last eighteen months.
It’s been difficult, fraught with every kind of problem, from trust issues to financial worries, long-term sickness stresses to who lives where as the fallout begins to take shape. I own considerably more blame than her. Over time, it has become toxic, a euphemism for which is the idea that no one breaks up anymore, rather one partner is a prick until the other cannot take it anymore.
For months now, I have known I would be happier in the long term if I ended it. Nail by nail, the coffin is closing. We lived together and don’t now. We have nothing at each other’s houses, have no keys now, no financial links, she has not seen my children in weeks and we are blocked on each other’s Facebook accounts. Recently, I spent a week by myself and it was the happiest week I have had in perhaps nine months. Free to do as I pleased, without pressure, expectation or those unintentional gremlins that annoy you so. Mowing the lawns and walking miles listening to podcasts were superbly enjoyable.
The answer, then, is obvious. End the relationship, endure the short-term pain for longer-term happiness. But what if the cycle repeats ad infinitum? Most relationships I’ve had have reached this point. One trouble is that I’m an eternal optimist and never stop believing I can play an active role in fixing them, an approach that leads to disappointment with the inevitability of the fly who buzzes into the window twenty times or more.
The next steps, then, are two-fold. One: accept that this relationship has run its course and extinguish the dying flame. We hang by a thread under a black cloud of inevitability, yet as I write, I’m not there yet.
Two, and much more importantly: slow down in future. Actively try not to form attachments until I believe that there is an alignment in outlook on life, shared values, purposes and interests – this is far more than enjoying someone’s company. This is the most powerful use of minimalism to shape the future, not to solve an avoidable crisis.
Under the influence of minimalism, I have controlled my spending, reduced my possessions to that remaining 20% that I love, shaped my relationship with my ex-wife to one of stripped back functionality under which my children and I have enjoyed each other’s company more than at any time since the divorce, and I have learned sometimes you have to lose battles to win others. All have benefitted my life and I look forward to giving myself that gift of a fresh start again; this time, I shall use it with greater consciousness.