Stoic advice column: my wife is not a Stoic, and she obsesses over Trump

img_7608[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, here is my “Stoic advice” column, a philosophically informed, hopefully useful, version of the classic ones run by a number of newspapers across the world. If you wish to submit a question to the Stoic advice column, please send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please be mindful that the advice given in this column is strictly based on personal opinion and reflects my own, possibly incorrect, understanding of Stoic philosophy.]

V. writes: “I began practicing Stoicism about two years ago and have found it eminently helpful in my life, both personal and professional. Since the recent election of Donald Trump, I’ve been able to fall back upon my Stoic teaching and deal with this tyranny with relative equanimity, realizing that there is only so much I can control. My wife, however, has not fared as well and it has made life difficult for us both. She follows the news obsessively, following every newspaper article, Twitter feed, and Facebook post on the subject, which often reinforces her gloom and terror. It has made it difficult to speak to her or relate to her in any way. The whole household is tense and apprehensive due to this. I have told her that her behavior is obsessive and that she needs to put down the Twitter feeds and news reports for her own mental health, but she rebuffs me and continues. She knows that I’m practicing Stoicism but takes it with less seriousness than I do, and it shows in her emotional states. I believe it is part of a wider problem for her in that she allows externals to influence her too much. My question is, what can I do to steer her to a more equanimous frame of mind? I wish to restore a greater balance to the household and not allow such externals as much sway over the mood of the house.”

This is a really tough question, and it has wider applications than the specific case of how to deal with the election of Trump. (Besides, had your household been Republican and had Clinton won, you might have had to handle a specular yet not substantially different predicament.)

I am glad that Stoicism is helping you dealing with the issue, just as it helped me on election night and ever since. But the problem here is what happens when your partner doesn’t share your practice of Stoicism, which, I assume, is a rather common situation (I haven’t seen systematic sociological surveys of Stoic-non Stoic couples, and I doubt they are to be found).

Forgive me if I state the obvious, but the first step is to apply to your wife the very same techniques you have successfully deployed concerning the election itself, beginning with the dichotomy of control. Here is Epictetus from the recent excellent translation by Robin Hard:

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. … If you regard only that which is your own as being your own, and that which isn’t your own as not being your own (as is indeed the case), no one will ever be able to coerce you, no one will hinder you, you’ll find fault with no one, you’ll accuse no one, you’ll do nothing whatever against your will, you’ll have no enemy, and no one will ever harm you because no harm can affect you.” (Enchiridion 1.1-3)

There are two bits that are pertinent to your predicament. First, of course, that your wife’s behavior is not under your control. You can influence it, by engaging with her and trying to persuade her for her own good and the good of the relationship, but your goal — to follow Bill Irvine in his A Guide to the Good Life — can only be the internal one of doing your best with her, not the external one of actually convincing her to renounce her ways, since the former, but not the latter, is under your control. Here is, in part, what Irvine says:

“Stoics would recommend, for example, that I concern myself with whether my wife loves me, even though this is something over which I have some but not complete control. But when I do concern myself with this, my goal should not be the external goal of making her love me; no matter how hard I try, I could fail to achieve this goal and would as a result be quite upset. Instead, my goal should be an internal goal: to behave, to the best of my ability, in a lovable manner. … By internalizing his goals in daily life, the Stoic is able to preserve his tranquility while dealing with things over which he has only partial control.”

There is another bit from the Enchiridion (#45) that I think is pertinent here:

“Someone takes his bath in a hurry; don’t say that he bathes badly, but that he does so in a hurry. Someone drinks a large amount of wine. Don’t say that he drinks badly, but that he drinks a large amount. For until you’ve determined from what judgement he is proceeding, how do you know whether he is acting badly?”

This may sound harsh, but try to apply that maxim to the way you assess your wife’s behavior. When you say that “she has not fared well,” that she is “obsessive” and that she is “responsible” for the tension in the household, you may be correct from a standard point of view, but from a Stoic one you are doing exactly what Epictetus warns us not to do: adding a judgment (“he drinks badly”) to a statement of fact (“he drinks a large amount”), thus giving premature assent to certain impressions. Perhaps you could use not just Trump’s election itself, but your wife’s reaction to it, as good targets for your Stoic practice and reframe things for yourself: “my wife checks Twitter frequently,” “her mood has changed on account of the election’s results,” and so on.

That said, I recognize that there is a point beyond which a situation like that may become too much. After all, it is fine to “endure and renounce,” as Epictetus famously put it, but it is also the case that Stoics aren’t simply suckers for punishment.

The question, then, is what can you practically do to ameliorate, if not resolve, the situation with your wife. I see at least two options, which could be pursued in sequence, the second one if the first one doesn’t work.

To begin with, try a different approach with your wife. See if you can understand where her “obsessive” behavior comes from (as Epictetus would say, determine from what judgment she is proceeding). Perhaps that will give you a new channel of communication, a different way to talk to her. Moreover, and still as part of the first step, ask her whether she would not rather channel her frustration and energy into something positive, like establishing together with you a local chapter of the Indivisible movement (as I myself have done in order to turn my own frustration into positive action).

Should the above not work, or maybe even if it does seem to work, as something to pursue in parallel, I also suggest couple counseling, possibly with a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy practitioner. As you know, CBT (and similar techniques, like logotherapy and rational emotive behavior therapy) have their roots in Stoicism, but they are therapies, not philosophies, which means that your wife doesn’t have to buy into Stoicism per se, but simply be willing to invest a limited amount of time and energy into ameliorating a problem within the couple. I stress couple therapy, as opposed to asking her to go see a practitioner, in the spirit of Epictetus not blaming the other, but working with the other.

(As a guide to implementing this suggestion, for you, but not for your wife, I suggest Don Robertson’s excellent The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.)

There are, of course, other options further down the line. It is possible that your wife will settle down on her own, since human beings typically (but not always) have a limited capacity to maintain high emotions running for a long time. She may simply be going through a phase during which she needs to get that stuff out of her system and adjust on her own terms and within her own timeframe to the current political reality. A political reality, I might add, that may change significantly in two years (if the Democrats regain control of at least one of the two chambers) or four (if Trump will lose the re-election campaign, on which he is apparently already working!)

Finally, there is Epictetus’ metaphor of the smoking house and his so-called open door policy, for instance from Discourses I.25.18:

“Has someone made smoke in the house? If there isn’t too much, I’ll stay; if it’s excessive, I’ll leave the house. For one should remember this fact and keep it firmly in mind, that the door stands open.”

While this and similar phrases are often interpreted as implying that if things get really rough and one can no longer practice virtue one can always commit suicide, I think a reasonable alternative interpretation — and a more generally applicable one — is that if a situation is indeed becoming unendurable, and it is in your power to change it, then you should. Which in this case could mean the end of the relationship.

I sincerely hope that it will not come down to that for you and your wife, as that would be — again as Epictetus repeatedly stresses to his students — the very last resort. But one function of the “open door policy” is to remind ourselves that if we decide to stay and fight it means we have made at least the implicit judgment that it is worth doing so. In your case, because you love your wife and wish to overcome the problem together. My best wishes to you both.

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50 thoughts on “Stoic advice column: my wife is not a Stoic, and she obsesses over Trump

  1. I must respectfully deliver a harsh opinion. Sorry about that.

    … her gloom and terror. It has made it difficult to speak to her or relate to her in any way. The whole household is tense and apprehensive

    Here you are concerned about your feelings but show little respect for her hurting feelings.

    I have told her that her behavior is obsessive and that she needs to put down the Twitter feeds and news reports for her own mental health,

    A judgemental, prescriptive and directive response is exactly what a woman does not need. Your response is typically male and unhelpful(to a woman).

    , but she rebuffs me and continues.

    That is not surprising since you are not addressing her needs.

    So what do I advise?

    To begin with, this is not about you, your feelings and your judgements, as your comments seem to indicate. That is a typical Stoic attitude. Put that away and resolve to become deeply concerned about your wife’s feelings and wellbeing. Enter into them. listen to her feelings, take them seriously and affirm them. She needs you to take her and her feelings seriously. She needs you to provide a sympathetic ear while she explores her feelings. This will allow her to create a new and more satisfactory narrative. Don’t lecture her, especially about Stoicism. Sympathise with her by describing your own disappointments. Quietly, without lecturing, you may tell her how you came to terms with other disappointments. Describe them, your difficulties in coming to terms with them and how finally you resolved them. She will hear you and in time learn from your example.

    This is worth emphasising. You job is to become a role model, a subtle example that she can learn from. Your job most emphatically is not to teach or lecture. And please avoid the use of the word Stoicism. That can come later. Remember that becoming a role model is central to Stoicism.

    The second part of my advice is this – pay her more attention. Give her more love and look for ways to strengthen your relationship. She needs to ‘feel’ that you are in her camp.

    The third part of my advice is this – look for ways to expand her life. What can you do that adds value to her life? To make it more interesting and fulfilling? She needs to feel that you value her.

    If she feels that you are in her camp, in other words, deeply sympathetic, and that you value her, she will become receptive to your example and modify her behaviour accordingly. And you will have become a Stoic role model 🙂

    To restate what I said in the beginning, she is hurting and now it is time to put your own feelings aside and attend wholly to her feelings. After all, is this not what you would expect from her when you are hurting badly?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Labnut,

    While I appreciate your input, I would like you to be mindful of two things: i) respect for others, especially those who go out of their way to seek advice here; ii) that this is my advice column not yours…

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I interpret this a bit differently. It’s not just about self-therapy and controlling how your visceral reactions to things but actually how to go about it daily as an activity.

    First, I read an awful lot of news and it’s simply impossible to have time to read every tweet, article, etc. (even if you’re like unemployed) because there is just too much to read. What I’m assuming he means is that she selects a few select sources and reads every single thing that comes out. That’s not really productive in order to become informed and making sure to keep in update with every single thing probably adds to anxiety by developing recursive behavior. That probably makes her anxious.

    What I do to become informed is basically skim read some sources carefully and skim the rest. I get a lot from picking out a few things I found interesting and sharing them around with friends & acquaintances (through email, messaging, social media) and people I connect with do it reciprocally. Sort of like how you get a good amount of everything if you go to a restaurant with a group of friends and you each order something different and share portions. Trying to order several full courses to finish all at once makes you feel bloated and you don’t get to taste a variety.

    Also, part of what makes people anxious is that the feel helpless reading the news and feel like they can’t do anything about it. Actually being engaged with political activism allows people to push that energy outwards rather than keeping it all in. It also helps to have a community in which you work out these concerns together rather than feeling isolated. He didn’t mention if his wife actually got involved but it doesn’t seem so.

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  4. I asked Massimo about coping with a Trump victory last summer. He reminded me of Cato; stoicism does not preclude action, and in my experience action moderates obsession.

    “ask her whether she would not rather channel her frustration and energy into something positive, like establishing together with you a local chapter of the Indivisible movement”,indeed; to which I would add actions like writing to congressmen and newspapers, using social media, and following clear-eyed but purposive commentators like Robert Reich.

    I wonder how V. himself feels about the present US political situtation, whether he would be moved to such action anyway, and whether collaborating with his wife and with associates would help heal and strengthen the marriage. If he would merely be recommending this as therapy for her, without being moved to join in, that would not bode well.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When it comes to therapy, I’ve always preferred to understand why people develop certain biases & intuitions that make them uncomfortable and how to physically place them in situations that make it easier to flip their emotions. There’s only so much you can do to control your emotions with reason & empathy, because human beings, no matter how self disciplined they try to make themselves, will always fail at least partially.

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  6. Wow! I have the same problem ( sort of) except my Stoic ways are being challenged with my shear elation and excitement IN FAVOR of all the POSITIVE CHANGES resulting from just 1 month of President Trump!!

    One thing that would help all of the terrified ‘snowflakes’ is to actually spend time studying life and the facts as they are ( i.e. reality). That has a way of setting a truthful one on a good course, but it also forces one to face that the truth may not be what ‘they want it to be’. Dedication to truth or dedication to one’s desires for the world? – ultimately a question or all of us – Stoics especially.

    I can thank the previous Administration for one thing..during those 8 years I developed patience and stoic perspective that help me strengthen my resolve and real abilities through 8 years of deliberate sabotage of our Republic – by those sworn to defend it. as they are ( i.e. reality). That has a way of setting a truthful one on a good course, but it also forces one to face that the truth may not be what ‘they want it to be’. Dedication to truth or dedication to one’s desires for the world? – ultimately a question or all of us – Stoics especially.

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  7. Massimo,
    i) respect for others,

    I had no wish to give offence and I apologise if that seems to be the case.

    ii) that this is my advice column not yours…

    Yes, I respect that.

    In the closing remark of the first post of your marvellous series on Stoic advice you did say the following:-

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

    My contributions may be false, ill-advised, unwise, ill-conceived, misleading, unwelcome or downright ignorant, in which case I would welcome a friendly correction from which we could all learn.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “Instead, my goal should be an internal goal: to behave, to the best of my ability, in a lovable manner. … By internalizing his goals in daily life, the Stoic is able to preserve his tranquility while dealing with things over which he has only partial control.”

    How true! We need to first correct ourselves before we can correct others.

    BTW, We are all suffering due to the status of this nation – the hatred, polarization, and mutual contempt. Families and friends have parted company. I, a “deplorable,” am also deeply troubled. Perhaps our mutual pain can serve to unite us.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I really appreciated the advice this week.

    For me, this column was interesting because, in our household, I practice stoicism and my husband does not. I feel like, for a while after the election, I was driving him crazy talking about the daily political “outrages.” Luckily for me, (and him) I have been able to get my ‘”stoic” on.

    P.S. – My husband has been really patient and has just said that he is sorry that the polarization in our country bothers me so much. He is very focused on his work and doesn’t follow politics.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Perhaps V’s wife problem is an information overdose and a loss of perspective. I don’t know how much she’s found of books, but I think the couple would derive great benefit from reading works by people that endured real totalitarianism (Solzhenitsyn, Sharansky, Grossman, Primo Levi) while persevering in some kind of humanistic conception which is very akin to Stoicism itself. Reading and discussing those masterpieces together could strenghten the marriage ties, but I wouldn’t let an already exalted person to dive into those grim realities on her own, without a critical, sober guidance or company.

    Those readings could be a great inspiration for V’s endurance development and a real chance for his wife to discover that nowadays America is by no means a political Hell.

    Just a suggestion.

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  11. It may well be that V’s wife fears that America is now headed towards such a political hell, in which case this prescription might merely make things worse.

    I have found much to reassure me in the events of the past month; Trump’s polls ratings sinking, reducing his leverage over the Senate, the fact that he hasn’t always got his own way regarding appointments, that not all of these are outrageous (McMaster is a profound intellectual critic of the imposition of political aims on foreign policy appraisals), and that even in the area of climate change there is a limit to how much harm this Administration can do in the face of economic forces.

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  12. My pooint being, not that there are grounds for complacency, but that there is much room for positive action and that this is already making a difference worth having. Leading back to my (and Massimo’s) initial suggestion – releif of tension through shared action

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  13. It depends on her personality and her current mood, Paul.

    “It may well be that V’s wife fears that America is now headed towards such a political hell”, yeah, that could be her case. But are those fears grounded? Is Trump really like Erdogan or Putin or Duterte? I think those comparisons are gross exaggerations, and they are paralysing people instead of making them act in a positive manner.

    If Trump was a wannabe autocrat with no opposition whatsoever, that would be really concerning. In my opinion, it doesn’t seem to be the case, but I live in another country and perhaps I’m not well informed.

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  14. Thanks for the insightful advice regarding the Stoic response to a loved one who (like most people) is not Stoic. While no-fault divorce is legal these days, many would take the position that a virtuous person would stay married to a spouse who wants to stay married unless there were traditional grounds for divorce, especially if the “whole household” includes minor children. The advice of Labnut struck me as being extremely useful for improving this relationship. In my opinion, the book Feeling Good Together, by David D. Burns, is an excellent book, fully consistent with Stoic ideas, about learning how to change YOURSELF to improve your relationships with other people, despite how much you may believe that the trouble lies with the other person.

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  15. If Trump doesn’t scare the shit out of you, you’re not paying attention.

    “If got them(Nucs), why can’t we use them?”

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  16. We’ve been living on the verge of a nuclear Apocalypse since the fifties. Nothing new; if our future is self anihilation, let’s act nobly in spite of all the mess.

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  17. act nobly in spite of all the mess.

    Huh? Trump and Un are different!

    Though North Korea is not close to be an existential threat to USA…Maybe to SF which as I live nearby (though not downwind) I regard as a threat to me.

    I regard Trump as a bigger threat. It is not inevitable, so it’s not time to sit back and ‘act nobly’

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  18. Synred, don’t get me wrong but I think you are more or less in the same state of mind V’s wife has been presenting.

    The noble, somewhat passive attitude I was refering to would be the case if mankind was actually in the path of total anihilation. This isn’t happening right now, as we both know. So there are many things we can do.

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  19. more or less in the same state of mind V’s wife has been presenting.

    Sure. I agree more with V’s wife.

    And I’m not a subscriber to stoicism (or any other ‘ism either), but often like Massimo’s take on things.

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  20. Synred, since I don’t live in the U. S., there is nothing I can do in order to change the public opinion there or to oppose decisions taken by the American president.

    I don’t claim to be a Stoic either, but a Stoic indifference to a political landscape which is very far from me is, given the circumstances, the only rational choice.

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  21. In contrast, I approve of Trump’s policies, specifically extreme vetting. I cannot understand our blindness to the horrors taking place in Western Europe due to a growing Islamic population. Even now, Jews are emigrating in mass from Western Europe. The same Koran-inspired horrors are ramping up here with anti-Semitism on the rise.

    Nor am I able to grasp our cavalier attitude towards the Islamic slaughter of passive Christians in so many Islamic nations. Makes me feel that we are living in entirely different worlds.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. There is just so much – Paris, Nice, Cologne, London and Madrid train system, shooting of Jews… However, for some mind-boggling reason, many Western nations have even criminalized saying anything negative about Islam. Are you denying the fact that Jews have been fleeing Western Europe as a result of Islamic terror.

    Our mainstream media and universities have also suppressed the Islamic connection to terror. I would be glad to supply you with oodles of links, but I’m sure that you can find them yourself.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. Daniel,

    I suspect nothing I would tell you would dissuade your from that bleak, and in my mind entirely distorted, view of Europe. And since it’s irrelevant to the OP, I’ll drop it.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. There was terrorist attract in Sweden. It was by right wing, not Islamic. It was on kids at ‘socialist’ party summer camp using weapons obtained from the U.S.

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  25. There have been plenty of other Terrorist too. There will always be terrorist. E.g., Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolf, the Badereinhof gang, the IRA, the weather underground (fortunatly incomptent and really only mangated to blow them selves up).

    While horrible for the victims, they are not an existential threat to the nation unless we let panic at unless we panic and elect ‘facist’ to ‘protect’ us.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3426413/Neo-Nazis-warn-year-violence-following-attacks-child-migrants-train-station-Sweden.html

    In case refugees are the victems of terrorist. These are the terror incidents that a rarely reported he.

    -Traruh

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  26. Daniel,

    http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/comprehensive-listing-of-terrorism-victims-in-israel

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents_in_France

    Plenty of jews are killed by terroirist in Israel. I haven’t been able to find all the statistics needed to estimates rates, but suspect Israelis more dangerous than France.

    The were certainly some people who left after the Kosher Grocery attack, but it doesn’t seem like a ‘mass’ migration.

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  27. I comment only to note how we all have caught a SJW (synred) red-handed, spreading an alternative fact.
    It is a good reminder that we are all humans with failings, as Stoics too say, in contrast to the smug moral contempt for others that, sadly, many SJWs have.
    Also I am reminded not to be angry, but rather pity him. As nobody acts badly on purpose, but rather out of ignorance.

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  28. I just want to point out two things. The first is that you, my American fellows, simply can’t expect that the world won’t feel invited to knock on your door, given not only your success but the absurd amount of money the government and the media corporations spend with American propaganda worldwide — a propaganda which is very effective because many times it appears disguised as entertainment. You can’t blame Mexicans, Middle-Easterns or Africans because they believe the same myths the general public in the U. S. believe; they haven’t been given a choice: cultural industry creates a kind of noise or disturbance in the middle of which it’s very difficult to think clearly. Besides, one who boasts one’s own advantages will necessarily attract attention and even envy.

    Secondly, violence isn’t confined to a sole group, but there has been a specific problem in the last decades with some Islamic communities and it has been so far a bigger threat than right-wing terrorism. I don’t remember any recent right-wing terrorist attack that could be compared to the Boston Marathon, Pulse and San Bernardino incidents, just to stay in the U.S. territory (perhaps the Charlotte attack, but it wasn’t direct against Muslims or immigrants). So, I believe Islamic extremism poses in this moment bigger problems than racist/right-wing violence, but everything can change. The problem remains twofold and very difficult.

    I stop right here.

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  29. Islamic terrorism has been running hight lately. 9/11 puts ’em head im sheer numbers, but previously right-wing (Timo,thy McVeigh) was in the lead.

    After OK City ;aw enforcement and the media where running around ater every mid-eastern looking man they saw near an airport and this was well before 9/11

    It is stupid to look only at on religious or ethnic group. Your going to miss lots of threats that way. McVeigh ‘only’ killed 300 because didn’t blow himself up.

    ?
    Social Justice Warrior. A pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, o…

    And why is this considered pejorative? If it were so (which it’s not, but perhaps I should wear the ‘star’), I don’t see why this thread has much to do with ‘social justice’ other then the marginal connection the prejudice evident leads to stupid policy and panic that could damage democracy.

    Not that I don’t favor ‘social justice’ but I don’t post about it much.

    You tone is not appropriate for a Stoic.

    Traruh, A Roosevelt ‘Liberal’ and proud of it.

    Massimo: I’ve been ‘sucked’ off topic and will attempt to stop. I think I’ll just stop reading these guys.

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  30. Hi, Massimo: I had to look up SJW. I would not really regard it has pejorative, but evidently these guys meant it to be.

    I guess they’ll wonder off, if they stop getting responses.

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  31. Synred, SJW’s are controversial. They are loathed by libertarians and conservatives, loved by the radical left. I think of them as usually well intentioned but narcissistic and ineffectual. So there’s my two cents…

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  32. I have to add to the fair description of Massimo Pigliucci only one trait, which for me marks the difference with the social activism I do admire: the need (for SJWs) to impose their worldview on everyone, without any consideration for differing opinions and other people’s circumstances. In the most extreme cases they could be considered authoritarian at best.
    This is coupled with lack of tolerance (very different, for example from Epictetus’ “bear and forbear”, or from Marcus and Seneca’s empathy to human failings; and from other forms of social activism).
    This is the trait that irks me the most, as my sympathy for Anarchist and Libertarian ideas makes me value personal freedom (for me and for everyone) as the most fundamental right..
    I have written this as explanation, as synred did not seem to be aware of the term. Now that I’ve explained this, I won’t fuel the discussion any more on this, which has little relation to the original post.

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