Stoic advice: my partner drinks, gets angry, and embarrasses me

Crates and his wife Hipparchia

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, please consider that the column has become very popular and there is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to your question.]

N. wrote: I am engaged to my partner and we have been together a few years. We have recently bought a house and I have moved city, leaving my previous job, family and friends behind. The relationship has been good at times but I encounter doubts about its longevity on and off. My partner can get angry at times and has difficulty handling stress. He is often most relaxed when he has had an alcoholic drink. Also, he is socially awkward and when we are in company he can say and do inappropriate things. For example, making comments out of context of the conversation, and quite outlandish. I find this embarrassing and quite immature, and often wonder whether I can continue to handle this behavior. It isn’t malicious, it is more his personality and development. This affects me to the extent that I would avoid him being around my family and friends as I fear feeling very embarrassed. Regarding the anger and stress, I often have to be careful about my responses as I don’t want to increase his behavior. He is generally kind, caring and generous so it is difficult to put it all in perspective. I also recognize that we all have our flaws and idiosyncrasies. From a Stoic angle how could I go about reconciling these issues and what should I consider?

There are two levels of analysis of this sort of situation, I think. The highest level is whether it is worth for you to stay in the relationship. The second level, assuming the answer to the first question is positive, is how to handle your partner. Let’s begin from the top, then.

I assume that, so far at least, you have arrived at the judgment that the pain is worth the gain, so to speak. You have sacrificed a lot for your partner, including living in a different city, giving up your job, and perhaps most importantly moving away from family and friends. That in and of itself can be stressful, and perhaps a source of resentment toward your partner. There is even a possibility that this makes you less tolerant of his behavior, along the lines of “look, I gave up a lot for you, and this is how you repay me?” I’m not saying you consciously think this way, but it may be worth engaging in some level of self reflection about it. (Do you keep a philosophical diary? I find it very useful to help me think more clearly about this sort of issues.)

While you have given up a lot, Stoic literature tells you that you should nevertheless be okay with your choices, and with the situation that the universe has trust upon you. For instance, Marcus says:

“The soul is dyed by the thoughts. Dye it then with a continuous series of such thoughts as these: for instance, that where a man can live, there he can also live well.” (Meditations V.16)

The quote is about “dyeing” one’s thoughts, meaning that it is up to us to decide to adopt a certain stance on things, and not simply assent to our first impressions. This, of course, is the fundamental Stoic “mind trick,” so to speak: a lot in life depends on how we decide to see what happens to us. In your case, you have voluntarily given up certain important things, so make sure you do not dwell on that, and focus instead on the positive reasons you have made such choices. Here is Marcus again:

“When you wish to delight yourself, think of the virtues of those who live with you; for instance, the activity of one, the modesty of another, the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth.” (Meditations, VI.48)

So remind yourself of the good qualities in your partner, of why it is that you followed him and left so much behind.

Another passage that I think is appropriate to your situation comes from Seneca, on losing one’s friends:

“In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say ‘can,’ I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity.” (IX. On Philosophy and Friendship, 5)

I find this to be striking on target in general. Seneca is both appreciating the crucial importance of friendship (and in your case, family), and yet is reminding us that even its loss (not necessarily through death, but also moving away) needs to be handled with equanimity, the way the Stoics seek to handle pretty much anything Fortuna does to them.

Now, my advice concerning the top-level question (do I stay within the relationship or do I not?) is to keep monitoring your thoughts and feelings, try to look at things with equanimity and “dye” your thoughts appropriately. But it is possible, of course, that at one point or another you will decide that it is not worth it, in which case:

“Don’t believe your situation is genuinely bad — no one can make you do that. Is there smoke in the house? If it’s not suffocating, I will stay indoors; if it proves too much, I’ll leave. Always remember — the door is open.” (Discourses I, 25.17-18)

While Epictetus there was likely referring to suicide (see this post), I don’t see why the basic advice shouldn’t be considered more broadly: so long as it is within your power to change things, it is also within your power to decide to stay and work on them.

Let’s now focus more narrowly on your current situation, assuming your judgment about the big picture is that the smoke in the house isn’t sufficiently suffocating that you need to get out.

Recently I have been running a series on Epictetus’ role ethics, based on a very good book by Brian Johnson, which I highly recommend. Take a look, and consider what your role(s) are in the situation you find yourself in. You have the role of a partner, which carries certain responsibilities toward your companion, including the one of being tolerant of his defects and helpful to him (again, within limits, should the relationship become intolerable or abusive, then see “open door” above).

For instance, have you talked to him about his drinking, his anger, and the way he sometimes embarrasses you in front of your friends (more on the latter problem in a moment)? Has he sought counseling about the first two issues? As far as you are concerned, take a look at Seneca’s wonderful book, On Anger, about which I ran a three-part commentary on this blog. You could start with my overview, but I recommend actually reading the whole thing, it is both a philosophical analysis of anger and a very helpful how-to in anger management.

Another one of your roles is that of a friend to whoever you have decided to admit into your inner circle. That role may conflict with that of a partner, if your companion does not behave appropriately when you are both in the company of others. Epictetus’ does discuss the issue of conflicting roles, but does not provide specific guidance, except in the case of conflict between our specific roles (both chosen and “assigned” by life) and the more fundamental role we all have as human beings. In the case of that sort of conflict, the more fundamental role always wins, overriding all our other commitments. But your case is one of conflict between roles that are at about the same level, and are both chosen by you (as opposed to trust upon you by events, like your role as a daughter to your parents, for instance).

This may sound like a limitation of virtue ethics, and perhaps it is. But the fact is, life is too complicated and varied for there to be easy, universal solutions, to our problems. The Stoics would say that how to handle the conflict between being a good partner and a good friend provides you with an excellent opportunity to practice one of the four cardinal virtues, that of practical wisdom. And perhaps that of temperance as well, as you will need to exercise some self control.

Finally, let me get back to your issue of embarrassment with your friends. While I understand your feelings, and as I said above, you should gently talk to your partner about it, I am reminded of the famous story told by Diogenes Laertius about the training of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, by his teacher, Crates the Cynic:

“From that day [Zeno] became Crates’s pupil, showing in other respects a strong bent for philosophy, though with too much native modesty to assimilate Cynic shamelessness. Hence Crates, desirous of curing this defect in him, gave him a potful of lentil-soup to carry through the Ceramicus; and when he saw that he was ashamed and tried to keep it out of sight, with a blow of his staff he broke the pot. As Zeno took to flight with the lentil-soup flowing down his legs, ‘Why run away, my little Phoenician?’ quoth Crates, ‘nothing terrible has befallen you.’” (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.3)

The point of the story being that shame is hardly appropriate for the philosopher (meaning the student of philosophy, including you), especially if it is triggered by someone else’s behavior. The only thing you ought to be ashamed of is if you do something unethical, to your partner, your friends, or anyone else. But your partner’s behavior is not unethical, simply socially awkward. And of course you have no control over either his behavior or your friends’ reactions. So my advice is simply to ignore both. I know, it’s not that easy, but nobody said that practicing Stoicism was going to be easy, right?

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4 replies

  1. To a real friend one can say whatever corresponds to what one genuinely is. This is both definition, principal advantage, and why real friendship is hard to make.

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  2. Negative visualization might also help with the higher-level question. As William Irvine says: “(The stoics) recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value— that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique— let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus . It is, I think, the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.” http://bit.ly/2uil0ta

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  3. N. wrote: “My partner can get angry at times and has difficulty handling stress. He is often most relaxed when he has had an alcoholic drink. Also, he is socially awkward and when we are in company he can say and do inappropriate things. For example, making comments out of context of the conversation, and quite outlandish. I find this embarrassing and quite immature, and often wonder whether I can continue to handle this behavior. It isn’t malicious, it is more his personality and development.”

    First-hand experience prompts me to say your partner may be in Asperger’s category, neurologically. If his gaffs are not intended to be anti-social, as you indicate, this may simply be his natural disposition. If so, he’s not alone! There are lots of us out there, people ranging from high-functioning to highly-impaired. I would urge you to read up on Asperger’s and see if it seems to apply. Below is a brief bit thereon:

    The following behaviors are often associated with Asperger syndrome. However, they are seldom all present in any one individual and vary widely in degree:
    • limited or inappropriate social interactions
    • “robotic” or repetitive speech
    • challenges with nonverbal communication (gestures, facial expression, etc.) coupled with average to above average verbal skills
    • tendency to discuss self rather than others
    • inability to understand social/emotional issues or nonliteral phrases
    • lack of eye contact or reciprocal conversation
    • obsession with specific, often unusual, topics
    • one-sided conversations
    • awkward movements and/or mannerisms

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  4. “Always remember — the door is open.” I like this, always told the women I counseled something similar, but the problem is, every woman I’ve ever talked too on the subject took blame upon themselves, usually with some comment like “if only I loved him more”.

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