Stoic advice: my girlfriend complains about unimportant things

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

“I am writing on behalf of a good friend of mine, let’s call him D. He does not know about Stoicism, though I’ve directed him to your blog. He has a long standing relationship with his girlfriend, and he has been studying away from his home for the last four years, and this time has been especially rough for he and his girlfriend. She obsesses about Facebook stuff (you liked this, you shared that, you don’t like the things I share) and she doesn’t seem to fully appreciate the things he’s going through, that it has not been easy for him to be away from home. He’s doing what he considers best for his (and his girlfriend’s) future, and his time away ends in one year.”

“But he is becoming increasingly uncomfortable about his relationship, he feels his girlfriends complaints are unsubstantiated, and that she just fails to see all he does for her (he makes an effort to come to his hometown as much as he can) and instead focuses on things like Facebook shares and stuff like that. I’ve told him that Facebook should not factor into a relationship, and that he should consider that perhaps her complaining about that is not really serious, maybe just a game, something she doesn’t give much importance to. She has also complained that he does not call her while on duty (he’s a physician) even when he is really busy, perhaps saving someone’s life. But she gets really offended by the lack of calls, despite the situation. The whole point of this is my friend feels that she does not fully understand or appreciate all that he’s doing for them, and that she seems to focus on really unimportant stuff. I realize being away makes things harder, because dealing with a loved one face-to-screen is very difficult. What Stoic advice could you give someone in his situation? Especially someone new to Stoicism and who like many of us, feels that maybe philosophy is not for common people like us.”

Tough situation, and my advice can only be based, of course, on the little I can glean of the relationship and the people involved from your description. My immediate thought is that there are two — very different — sort of things a Stoic would do in this situation. They are not mutually exclusive, though, and I will describe them in sequence and then explain why D. may be better off pursuing the first course of action to begin with, and then consider very carefully if it is the case to pursue the second one.

I believe the first (Stoic) move for D. is to step back from judging his girlfriend and seriously ask himself why she is behaving that way. It may very well be that, as you say, her complaining his just playful bantering. From the rest of what you describe, I doubt it, but it’s possible. Or, more likely, she may be expressing in the only way she knows the fact that she is missing him and that she is suffering as a result.

As Epictetus tells us: “Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious?” (Enchiridion 45)

In other words, we should always give the benefit of the doubt to other people, especially loved ones. We are not inside their heads, we don’t know exactly why they behave the way they do, or what precisely they feel and why.

This leads to some action items for D.: he needs to take time to talk to his girlfriend seriously about what is going on. Not just explain again — perhaps more patiently and in depth — why he is doing what he is doing, and why this is good for their future. But also listen to her side of the story, ask her what he can do to make her feel better. Of course he shouldn’t be putting a life saving operation on hold because she is calling on the phone. But perhaps he can, in his spare moments, be more thoughtful about their online interactions. We may all rail against Facebook and other social media, but the fact is, a lot of our emotional life is bound up with these platforms, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I keep abreast of what my family in Rome is doing, or what friends from previous periods of my life are up to, via Facebook, and I find it invaluable, if well used. It is a tool, a preferred (or dispreferred, depending on the point of view) aspect of our lives, and the virtuous person ought to learn how to best use it, for instance by exercising the virtue of temperance (moderate use), but also that of justice (treating others fairly and kindly, in this case, his girlfriend).

It may be that if D. simply does this all will be well. Or at least the two of them will be able to get through this last year of separation and then reconnect and build their future life together.

However, there is a second scenario, one that D. should consider depending on what he finds out and how he feels after implementing the first step.

The same Epictetus that I mentioned above also warns us to associate with good people, people from whom we can learn and grow with, rather than people who drags us down and away from virtue:

“Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.” (Enchiridion 33.6)

Here “philosopher” doesn’t mean a professional academic, of course, but rather someone who is consciously pursuing virtue. One can generalize to the idea that we should pick our friends (and, by extension, partners) carefully, because they greatly affect the quality of our life and our ability to become eudaimon — to pursue a life worth living.

Here is Seneca expressing a similar thought: “Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbor, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere.” (VII. On Crowds, 7)

What Seneca says about our friends and neighbors goes, a fortiori, for our partners, because they are much closer to us than anyone else, except our parents and children (but we don’t get to pick those!).

So, depending on the results of the first step outlined above, I believe D. needs to ask himself some hard questions about his relationships with his girlfriend. Considering how she is acting, especially once he has a better understanding of her motives and feelings, is this the sort of person he wants to be with? Is she going to help him in a partnership of virtue and eudaimonia, or is she going to get in the way of his moral growth? These are questions we all should ask ourselves once in a while, but especially before we truly commit to someone and make decisions — like that of having children — that will affect us and others for the rest of our lives. Still, as I said, D. may not need to get to even consider step 2, depending on the outcome of step 1.

One final note, concerning your comment that “many of us feel that maybe philosophy is not for common people like us.” The whole point of Stoicism — or any other practical philosophy — is that it is for common people. Maybe Stoicism isn’t your friend’s cup of tea, and he wishes to explore another philosophy of life. But we do need a general framework to make sense of what we do and to set our priorities in life. That’s what a personal philosophy does for you, and I can’t imagine anyone who would not benefit from it. Indeed, I would venture so far as to say that everyone does have a philosophy of life, whether they recognize it as such or not. Most people import it wholesale from their religion, since every religion comes with a life philosophy embedded. Others act in a way that reflects their unspoken, and often unexamined, philosophy. In which case, like Socrates, I would suggest that it is well worth our time to at least occasionally stop and examine what we are doing and why.

3 thoughts on “Stoic advice: my girlfriend complains about unimportant things

  1. Randall

    Excellent article! I think everyone can find a similar situation in their lives with someone close to them. I have been practicing stoicism for a few months now and this is something that had been affecting me. In the last paragraph you say “we do need a general framework to make sense of what we do and to set our priorities in life” and I think this is something I’ve not really taken stock of since I started my practice of stoicism. I will try to do this and put it into practice soon. Thank you so much for all of your great work!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jmyers8888

    Philosophy raises even the socially lowest above the common, and even a President without a philosophy (or an unexamined inferior philosophy) can be quite common.


  3. SeaStar

    Very well put. I think this central question — “Is she going to help him in a partnership of virtue and eudaimonia, or is she going to get in the way of his moral growth?” — is something we could be asking of all of our relationships and our activities. Even in our work lives, we can use this lens to help guide us towards virtue and growth. Thanks for this and for your blog as a whole!

    Liked by 3 people

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