[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.
Categories: Stoic Advice