Stoic advice: how to deal with family feuds

The Montecchi vs the Capuleti family feud

[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.]

K. writes: “My wife’s parents divorced when she was young. Her dad left her mom for another woman whom he’s been married to for years. Obviously the event didn’t sit well with the family. Her dad’s family disowned him (there was a physical scuffle between him and his two brothers) and haven’t spoken to him since. The same goes with her mom. The day he left was the last time they spoke. My wife went years without seeing her father but when she was older she reached out and they’ve had a relationship since, and she’s currently the only one in the family to do so. Her family holds grudges and every so often we’ll get questions or comments about her dad from the others but we’ve learned to shrug them off.”

“Since we’ve had our son we’ve spoken to both her parents about possibly letting things go for the sake of their grandson and we’ve been met with some hesitant but positive responses. They have yet to actually meet but they both live about an hour from us in opposite directions so it’s difficult to arrange a meeting. Then my wife’s uncle passed away. It was her dad’s brother who, just before he passed, had gotten in touch with her father. The interaction was civil but they didn’t exactly have an active relationship after that, especially since he passed away not long after. Seeing as it was his brother, my wife’s father went to the funeral. His other brother (who, for different reasons, hadn’t spoken to the deceased uncle either in years) ignored him completely despite her father asking to let things in the past go. We honestly didn’t expect more than that and since there was no fighting we felt that things well. But now, our son’s first birthday is coming up and we received a phone call from her mom asking if we were doing anything. We explained that yes, we’re having small gathering of just close family for cupcakes or something. My wife’s mother asked if her dad was coming. We haven’t spoken to them about it yet but her mom said it would be fine with her if he came. Then her mother explained that she was seeing someone now. My wife said that was good and congratulated on her on finding someone. Her mother asked if she could bring this person along to our son’s birthday and my wife explained that we’d really like it to just be close family but we’ll happily meet him another time. Then her mother dropped a bit of a bomb… She’s dating my wife’s uncle, her father’s brother. My wife told her mother she’d rather not react at the moment and would need to sit on that for a bit. We’re not exactly sure how best to handle this. It certainly is going to make having all the grandparents together in the same room even more difficult. Her uncle is a terribly stubborn man when it comes to his grudges, so obviously this only complicates matters. I’m aware that these people’s actions are outside of my control but, for the good of my son and my wife, I’d like to handle this as best we can in whatever way we can, at least on our part. Any thoughts, suggestions or helpful insights, Stoically speaking, would be helpful. Especially since we seem to be caught in the midst of a Roman tragedy, haha.”

Oh, aren’t family feuds great? Just kidding, but the situation you describe seems eerily familiar to me. See, my parents also divorced when I was very young, because my father left my mother for another woman, with whom she then stayed for two decades and had my half sister with. My mother never forgave my father, even though (or perhaps because), arguably, she actually remained in love with him — despite having later met and married her second husband, with whom she stayed until she died. I’m telling you all this because I can sympathize with the situation regardless of Stoicism…

But this is a column about Stoic advice, so let’s get down to it. To begin with, as you point out, first and foremost in your thoughts should be the dichotomy of control. This, contra popular misunderstanding, doesn’t mean that you and your wife should do whatever the hell you feel like, other people’s opinions and feelings be damned. It simply means that you should navigate the situation as the famous archer in Cicero’s explanation of this basic precept of Stoicism:

“If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate end,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.'”(De Finibus, III.22)

So a pleasant and festive occasion to celebrate your son’s first birthday should be chosen by you and your wife, meaning that you should do your best to bring it about; but it should not be desired, meaning that you should realize going into it that things may, indeed are likely to — given your description of events and characters involved — go differently.

One exercise that may help you cope with the situation, of course, is the premeditatio malorum, visualizing ahead of time the worst case scenario and how you would deal with it. Seneca thinks that it is crucial to do so in order to better prepare ourselves for trouble:

“Everyone approaches courageously a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and withstands even hardships if he has previously practiced how to meet them. But, contrariwise, the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things. We must see to it that nothing shall come upon us unforeseen.” (Letters to Lucilius, CVII.4)

(See also this earlier post of mine on negative visualization as treated by Bill Irvine in his A Guide to the Good Life.)

There is another consideration at play here, which is that this sort of situation is a perfect conduit to exercise the virtue of prudence, or practical wisdom. This refers to the ability — acquired with practice — of navigating complex situations in the morally best way possible. Morally best doesn’t mean perfect, of course, as sometimes the most one can do is to minimize conflict or damage, not avoid it. The virtue in question is connected to Epictetus’ discipline of assent, as well as to the topos of logic. In other words, you and your wife have to apply your reasoning faculty in order to chart the least damaging course of action, morally speaking. And in this case the ethical thing to do is to select your son’s welfare and future as your top priority (thinking, as Larry Becker would put it, “all things considered”).

In practice this may involve answering a number of hard questions: how important is it — from your son’s perspective — to interact with all sides of the family? And how crucial is it to do it at the same time? Back to my own situation when I was a kid, my parents agreed to duplicate every occasion that was reasonable to duplicate — such as celebrating my birthday, or the holidays — so that they woudn’t have to be together at the same spatio-temporal junction. But of course some things were unique, like my college graduation exam (which in Italy relatives are welcome to attend), and in those cases they managed to be civil to each other. It sounds like the latter possibility is, at the moment, an open question for some of your relatives.

One last comment, about holding grudges, which is rooted in unprocessed anger. I’m not sure you want to give a lesson in Stoicism to your relatives (indeed, it would probably be a bad idea, unless requested), but the situation you are describing is precisely why the Stoics were so concerned with anger, which Seneca famously characterized as temporary madness. I recently wrote three essays on his book on this topic, which you may want to check.

At the opening of book III Seneca says: “The eager and self-destructive violence of anger does not grow up by slow degrees, but reaches its full height as soon as it begins. Nor does it, like other vices, merely disturb men’s minds, but it takes them away, and torments them till they are incapable of restraining themselves and eager for the common ruin of all men, nor does it rage merely against its object, but against every obstacle which it encounters on its way. … Other vices affect our judgment, anger affects our sanity: others come in mild attacks and grow unnoticed, but men’s minds plunge abruptly into anger. … Its intensity is in no way regulated by its origin: for it rises to the greatest heights from the most trivial beginnings.”

Which means that if you do manage to get your relatives together you may want to keep an eye on potentially dangerous situations and intervene quickly, before they escalate out of control. Another thing that is helpful to visualize before it actually happens.

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Categories: Stoic advice

2 replies

  1. Doesn’t Stoicism also advise avoiding people who do not practice virtue? Do you really want to expose your son (I assume you are raising him as a Stoic) to such angry people? Does the accident of familial relationship cancel such advice? After all, I doubt you would seek a relationship with such people were you not related.

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  2. Just something I have noted over the years. Meeting in a public place somehow is less intimate than meeting the same people in your or their home. It is possible to make an early exit without creating further anger. Also if it is a larger place people can maintain a degree of separation.

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