Stoic advice column: dating under difficult circumstances

Stoicism is a practical philosophy, as Epictetus often reminds his students: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) Accordingly, for some time now I have been thinking about starting a “Stoic advice” column, a philosophically informed, hopefully useful, version of the classic ones run by a number of newspapers across the world. The genre dates back to 1680, though of course one could think of Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius as an early version of it. If you are interested in the history and philosophy of advice columns, check this old podcast of mine.

If you wish to submit a question to the Stoic advice column, please send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. I will, of course, keep personal details out of the published version. Please keep in mind that the advice given in this column is strictly based on personal opinion and reflects my own, possibly incorrect, understanding of Stoic philosophy.

B. from the Unites States writes: “I’ve been dating a girl for eleven months, and from the beginning she told me that she has Multiple Sclerosis. Her sickness was under control then, but now she is getting worse and she probably has to undergo stem cell therapy. Money is an issue for us; however, we’re trying to overcome it with the help of friends. In the course of the stem cell therapy she is going to be in so much pain. She is so upset these days and I’m trying to be strong. Actually, since the situation is not under my control, with help from Stoicism I’m not that upset these days (not as much as before, I mean). Sometimes I feel that she wants to break up with me because she feels sorry for me. What should I do in that situation? Else, should I break up with her? I don’t want to. But I feel that my situation gets worse when she starts the treatment, and I have to focus on my studies and sometimes her behavior doesn’t help. I don’t know…”

Dear B.,

First of all, I am sorry that you and your girlfriend have to experience such a difficult situation, I wish it were otherwise. To begin with, an important thing to keep in mind is that you were aware of the situation when you started, which means your companion has been honest with you and has not withdrawn information about her health status from you. This means that when you began the relationship you used your ruling faculty with full knowledge of what was likely going to happen.

The second thing that strikes me as important is your claim that you do not wish to leave her. I take it that you mean it, so I will use this as evidence of the fact that you love her and care for her.

I’m glad to hear that reminding yourself of the dichotomy of control is being helpful to you. As I’m sure you fully realize, of course, to repeat to yourself that your girlfriend is a mortal, and that this sort of things happen and are outside of your control, is not at all the same as not caring about her, or not trying to do whatever is in your power to be helpful.

Which brings me to the crucial part of your letter. She may or may not be trying to break up with you in order to spare you suffering. I certainly do not know whether that is the case or not, and you yourself can only guess. But her intentions too are something outside of your control. What you do control is your own intentions and the actions that derive from them.

I’m going to quote an extended passage from Epictetus to you, not because you are behaving at all like the father Epictetus is addressing, but because it makes perfectly clear, in my mind, what a Stoic would do under similar circumstances (the story is from Discourses, XI, On Family Affections, and it is worth it to read the full chapter, not just the extracts below).

A father comes to Epictetus to ask for advice. His daughter is very sick, and he feels miserable. “Lately when my daughter was ill and was thought to be in danger I could not bear to be near her, but fled away from her, until some one brought me news that she was well.”

“Well, do you think you were right to do it? ‘It was natural’, he said.”

“‘All fathers’, he said, ‘or most of us, at least, feel like that.’ I do not deny, said Epictetus, that parents feel so, but the real question is whether it is right. No doubt as far as that goes, we must say that even tumours come into being for the good of the body [since they are ‘natural’].”

“What if we were discussing things hot or cold, hard and soft, what test should we use? ‘Touch.’ Well then, as we are discussing what is natural and right and the opposite, what test would you have us take? ‘I do not know’, said he. Look here, it is no great loss perhaps not to know the proper test for colours and smells, nay, and flavours too, but do you think it is a small loss to man not to know what is good and what is evil, what is natural and what is unnatural?”

“When once you have realized this, then, said Epictetus, you will make this your one interest in the future, and to this alone devote your mind — to discover the means of judging what is natural and to use your criterion to distinguish each particular case as it arises.”

“For the present I can help you just so far as this in regard to what you wish: do you think family affection is natural and good? ‘Of course.'”

“Was it right, I ask, for you, being affectionately disposed to your child, to run away and leave her? Is her mother not fond of the child? ‘She is indeed.’ Should the mother then have left her too, or should she not? ‘She should not.'”

“Was it right that as a consequence the child should be thus left desolate and helpless because of the great affection of you her parents and of those about her, or should she die in the hands of those who had no love or care for her?”

“Tell me, would you have liked, if you were ill, your relations and every one else, even your wife and children, to show their affection for you in such a way as to leave you alone and desolate?”

“So in your case, you ran away just because you were so minded; and again, if you stay it will be because you are so minded. And now you return to Rome, because you have a mind to do so; and if your mind changes, you will not depart thither. And in a word it is not death nor exile nor pain nor any such thing which is the cause of our action or inaction, but thoughts and judgements of the mind. Are you convinced of this or not?”

“So henceforward whenever we do a thing wrong, we shall blame nothing else but the judgement which led us to do it, and we shall try to remove and extirpate this even more than we do tumours and abscesses from the body.”

You see, B., what Epictetus’ advice to the father was, then. You are not in the same situation, because you actually don’t want to leave your girlfriend, but you are faced by a similar dilemma: should you leave her because she actually wants to spare your suffering, or perhaps because the circumstances are hard, and you need, as you say, to focus on your studies?

My opinion is that, from a Stoic perspective, you should stay by her side and endure the emotional suffering, the financial burden, and the setback to your studies. It would be the courageous and just thing to do, and courage and justice are, of course, two of the cardinal virtues. You will also have plenty of opportunity to practice temperance, as the situation will repeatedly call for your self-control and patience when dealing with her behavior, which will be influenced by the stress she is under. And you will also need the fourth virtue, prudence (or practical wisdom), since you will find yourself facing difficult circumstances, which you will need to navigate at your best.

The above certainly doesn’t represent the easy path, but then again the path of virtue is not easy. You will fail to do it perfectly, because you are not a Sage. But that’s what it means to make progress, to be a prokopton. As Seneca put it:

“I am not a wise man, and I will not be one in order to feed your spite: so do not require me to be on a level with the best of men, but merely to be better than the worst: I am satisfied, if every day I take away something from my vices and correct my faults. I have not arrived at perfect soundness of mind, indeed, I never shall arrive at it.” (On the Happy Life, XVII)

I hope others in this community will be able to chime in with their wisdom and help you out further than I can.

21 thoughts on “Stoic advice column: dating under difficult circumstances

  1. It is possible to care so much and have to endure so much that it is impossible to stay in a certain situation. and it is a fact that some people stay in situations long after most people would have left This trait which I have and am breaking from is hard wired in certain mammals Pavlov noticed this ..

    So should someone stay in an abusive relationship just because it is seemingly virtuous. There is no virtue in risking your own mental health and serenity and overall well being for someone else who is incapable of giving a toss.. I speak from personal experience. I am alive. the other person is dead. No point in us both being dead.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So I feel from a practical point of view, that if someone can take the strain, then fair enough,but if they cant they should go. A carer who is burnt out is no use to man nor beast. Is this harsh?,probably but it is what I have learned, putting my own life on hold, has left me burned out,unable to work, but a heck of a lot wiser. We can only do what we can do,we can maybe push the boundaries somewhere,slightly, but eventually we have to look after ourselves. This is a serious issue, and should be open to several perspectives,


  3. Philip,

    An abusive relationship is not a virtuous one, so you are right there. But B. is not in an abusive relationship, he is in a tough situation where his beloved one is going through a rough time and needs help. Seems to me that, under those circumstances, staying is the virtuous thing to do.


  4. I cannot recall the specific passage or the author but I am sure it was a stoic and that it was something along the lines of “if it doesn’t better you or the world around you then don’t do it”. This is undoubtedly an extremely simplified version but I think it holds here well enough. I believe in this situation you have the opportunity to do both. By staying you better the world around you by offering your support to someone in need. You also help yourself in all the ways that matter. You become a better stoic, you remain in a relationship with somebody that you care about and you are better for those things. What you gain from leaving seems far lower on the scale of what is worth having then what you gain by staying. I say remain, you both will be better for it.

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  5. I think a sensible question to B might be ‘ Can you cope at present, and do you think you can cope in the future when your partner becomes much worse….. I am a retired physical therapist and worked for years as a carer for an MS patient who was totally dependent…. The family strain was colossal, however in the UK by asking proper questions it is possible to get fairly good outside help. This issue is multifactorial and the general concept of virtue may be too simplistic


  6. Dear Massimo, thanks a lot for your advice to B., because it could have been adressed to me. My wife has Multiple Sclerosis too and I’m struggling how to deal with that inavoidable fact. I know the feelings and thinkings of B. very well. And I also know whats going on in the father from the example of the discourses. IYour advice was very helpful to make a decision for the more difficult but also more virtuous path.
    (Sorry for my English, German is my mother language.)

    Best Regards



  7. Damn! Every time I read that story from Discourses, it hits me right in the feels! Reminds me of my own past transgressions as a father to my son. If this is how this advice column begins, you already have me.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Massimo,
    this column is a marvellous idea and I look forward to seeing many more issues.

    I am in complete agreement with your advice and like the way you draw on Stoic principles to clarify your advice.

    To this I would add
    1) a significant relationship is a commitment, not only to fidelity, but to duty and responsibility.
    2) it is a commitment to supporting the other person through adversity and suffering.
    3) it is a commitment to meeting the other person’s needs for love, understanding and friendship.
    4) a commitment of this nature is a deep thing, not lightly given, but when given must be utterly dependable.
    5) a commitment embraces an uncertain future that is sure to include many trials and becomes the one dependable thing in the uncertain future.

    To help clarify his thinking B should ask himself this question. If the roles were reversed, and he was the very ill person needing support, how would he like his partner to behave towards him?

    Finally I applaud B for asking the original question. He is showing ethical sensitivity and awareness. We need more of that today. He is aware there are testing times ahead and is preparing to meet those tests. That is judicious. He will come out of this a stronger, better person.

    Another thing to consider. Each of us, in our behaviour, have the potential to be role models for others. The way we meet challenges and suffering becomes examples to others, that motivate them and strengthen their resolve. This is our gift to others.


  9. So what do you do when commitment boundaries have been breached? We all have limits as to what we can deal with. I feel this advice is incomplete given that we know very few facts. B needs to make his own decisions based on his own very personal needs , We may have an ideal way of reacting due to an adopted philosophy which may or may not be completely appropriate.


  10. Philip,

    You are obviously right. But it is B. who sought the advice, and I simply gave him the best one I could based on the information he provided. Yes, there are boundaries to every commitment, I should think, and a prokopton ultimately has to exercise his own judgment, but I didn’t read anything from B.’s letter that even hinted at a borderline situation in terms of the commitment between him and his partner.


  11. Philip,
    B needs to make his own decisions based on his own very personal needs ,

    No, absolutely not. There is another person involved in that intimate and committed relationship, his partner. When one is in that situation one cannot make decisions based on “own very personal needs “. The decision must take into careful account the needs of both persons and the joint needs created by the committed relationship.


  12. Philip,
    So what do you do when commitment boundaries have been breached?

    There is no hint of that in the problem statement. Commitment boundaries typically involve egregious offences like infidelity, physical or emotional abuse, criminal behaviour, deception, callous indifference, neglect etc. Note that in such cases the other person is clearly an offender in physical, emotional, social or legal ways. By their act they have wilfully breached the commitment boundaries.

    In the case of B. his partner has not offended by wilfully breaching commitment boundaries so your argument does not apply.


  13. Philip,
    We may have an ideal way of reacting due to an adopted philosophy which may or may not be completely appropriate.

    Wisdom is the first virtue of Stoicism. It takes into account all circumstances in a practical and principled way and strives for a balanced judgement. There is no ‘ideal way‘. Moreover I think it is mistaken to call Stoicism an ‘adopted philosophy‘, it is instead a natural philosophy. Stoicism represents the best we can be and is the better part of our nature. Stoic thought, in various forms can be found in all cultures.


  14. The difficulty here is that it is difficult to have a conversation. I was asking some questions that may or may not have applied in this case. From my studies of the integral method it is perfectly ok to see as many perspectives as you like about any subject, you dont even have to agree with them ?? 😉


  15. Philip,
    remember that B posed a clear question:
    What should I do in that situation? Else, should I break up with her? I don’t want to.

    As you say:
    it is perfectly ok to see as many perspectives as you like about any subject” (as long as they are relevant to the problem statement)

    A good example of taking many perspectives is De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats technique and it is positively encouraged with one proviso. That proviso is that usually it is necessary to balance those perspectives and reach a reasoned conclusion. In this case we have been given a clear question and finally we must give a clear answer, having considered the many perspectives.

    Massimo’s answer was a good example of this. He considered the problem by considering the perspectives of each of the four Stoic virtues.


  16. Philip emphasised the need for considering different perspectives and Massimo showed how this could be done by applying each of the four Stoic virtues to the problem under discussion.

    Another view of the problem is to consider the four component model of morality, first proposed by James Rest. These are:

    1) Moral sensitivity.
    Identify the ethical dimensions of the situation.

    2) Moral judgement
    Explore the lines of action which may be morally justified.

    3) Moral motivation and commitment.
    Be motivated to prioritise moral values over other personal values or situation.

    4) Moral character and competence.
    Have the strength of your convictions, courage, persistence, implementation skills and ego strength to act in a moral way.

    Thus an ethical solution to the problem statement should be seen through the lense of moral sensitivity, moral judgement, moral motivation and moral character. This fits in very well with a Stoic approach.

    See (Four Component Model of Morality)
    See also (Ethical Decision Making by Individuals)

    Jones gives a good overview of the theories of moral decision making and proposes a modified four component model that introduces the concept of moral intensity. He “ argue[s] that six characteristics of the moral issue (magnitude of consequences, social consensus, probability of effect, temporal immediacy, proximity, and concentration of effect) will be positively related to moral decision making and behavior. These characteristics of moral issues [are] collectively called moral intensity…Moral intensity is a construct that captures the extent of
    issue-related moral imperative in a situation.


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