Stoic advice: Stoicism and unhappy marriages

[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.]

J. writes: What would a Stoic say to a friend in an unhappy marriage? A colleague of mine recently confided in me that she is on the receiving end of emotional abuse in her marriage. I let her know I was surprised because her demeanor at work has never changed. She told me that is on purpose, because she thinks the problem is her attitude towards the situation, therefore she thinks the solution to the problems in her marriage is to change the way she thinks about them. ‘How Stoic,’ I thought. She went on to say that her husband always takes issue with her apparent lack of emotion, which she says is not the case, but rather that she is very in control of her emotions and doesn’t let them inhibit her judgement of the situation. ‘How Stoic,’ I thought again. My question, though, is if she is doing the right thing? I admire her Stoic leanings (although she doesn’t know what Stoicism is), and she’s even gone to the point of saying she can’t control the external situation, so she can only control her thoughts. I want to convince her that while she can’t control her husband, she can most certainly control her participation in the relationship and she can and should leave him. A marriage is not slavery, or an illness, or a disability in which there is no possible way to control the situation. Surely, although she is following Stoicism to make the best of a terrible situation, shouldn’t she exhaust all the possible ways she can personally change her situation before settling on ‘attitude adjustment’ as the best option? And for a more broader question, what would a Stoic do if he or she realized the marriage was a mistake, or even a regret, a few years or even decades into it? Is there any Stoic interpretation to how binding a marriage contract is?

This is an excellent question, and one that touches me personally, since I have been divorced (and more than once, to my regret). Moreover, the Stoics did have something to say about marriage (and sex), but I think they disagreed sharply amongst themselves, along cultural lines (the Greeks vs the Romans), which means that it is up to us to update Stoic thought on the matter for 21st century living. I do think, however, that there is a broadly Stoic take on this issue, as there is about anything important in life. So let’s proceed one step at a time, beginning with your friend’s “stoic” (notice the small-s) approach.

Yes, attitudes like “the solution to the problems in my marriage is to change the way I think about them,” or “I am in control of my emotions and don’t let them inhibit my judgement of the situation” sound Stoic, but if they are unqualified and applied regardless of the situation on the ground, they are precisely the sort of “Stoicism” that many of our critics dislike. To see why, let’s go back to the classic definition of the dichotomy of control, at the beginning of Epictetus’ Enchiridion:

“There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.”

The phrase “whatever affairs are our own” is suitably open ended, and I interpret it to include our intentions to performs certain (right) actions. Which makes sense because Epictetus also includes “aim” in the list. This is related to Cicero’s famous example of the archer who attempts to hit a target in De Finibus, where he tells us that actually hitting the target is “to be chosen but not to be desired,” since what we control is our attempt, not the outcome (III.22).

Your friend’s “target” should be to have a positive and nurturing relationship with her husband. But to actually succeed in this is outside of her control, so she should choose that aim, not “desire” it, meaning not make her serenity dependent on it. But it sounds to me like she may not even be trying, which is not the Stoic thing to do.

Perhaps there are good reasons for her not to leave her husband, such as the presence of children, financial considerations, and the like (though often such reasons are nowhere near as good as so many people seem to think they are). In which case she is in a situation analogous to Epictetus’ famous “smoking room”:

“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)

As is well known, Epictetus was talking about suicide, but I think the point applies more broadly to any difficult situation. It really comes down to an exercise of the virtue of practical wisdom (or phronesis, prudence), which is defined as: “a type of wisdom relevant to practical things, requiring an ability to discern how or why to act virtuously and encourage practical virtue, excellence of character, in others.” Notice the emphasis on acting. Stoicism cannot be solely an issue of changing your own attitude regardless of your willingness to actually improve things. If so, it becomes quietism, and the ancient Stoics were anything but quietists.

Let me now move to a brief discussion of marriage in ancient Stoicism. On the one hand, Diogenes Laertius paints a picture of Zeno and Chrysippus advocating something that sounds a lot like what we would today call open and polyamorous relationships:

“In the Republic he lays down community of wives … he bids men and women wear the same dress and keep no part of the body entirely covered.” (DL VII.34)

“It is also their doctrine that amongst the wise there should be a community of wives with free choice of partners, as Zeno says in his Republic and Chrysippus in his treatise On Government” (DL VII.131)

By contrast, here is what the II Century Roman Stoic Hierocles writes:

“The whole of our race is naturally adapted to society … cities could not exist without a household; but the household of an unmarried man is truly imperfect … a life accompanied by wedlock is to be precedaneously chosen by the wise man; but a single life is not to be chosen, except particular circumstances require it … Nature herself, prior to the wise man incites us to this, who also exhorts the wise man to marry. For she not only made us gregarious, but likewise adapted to copulation, and proposed the procreation of children and stability of life, as the one and common work of wedlock … In the first place, indeed, because it produces a truly divine fruit, the procreation of children, since they will be assistants to us in all our actions … I also think that a married life is beautiful. For what other thing can be such an ornament to a family, as is the association of husband and wife? … For there is not anything so troublesome which will not be easily borne by a husband and wife when they are concordant, and are willing to endure it in common … but when we marry those whom we ought not, and, together with this, are ourselves entirely ignorant of life, and unprepared to take a wife in such a way as a free and ingenuous woman ought to be taken, then it happens that this association with her becomes difficult and intolerable.” (Fragment V, On Wedlock)

Notice that even the rather conservative Hierocles — who argues that marriage is natural and that one should be single only under exceptional circumstances — goes on to allow, toward the end of the passage, that there can be such a thing as a bad marriage, and that it can be “difficult and intolerable.”

Combining Zeno, Chrysippus and Hierocles (or what a number of Stoics say about sexual relations) it emerges that there is no such thing as the Stoic position on marriage and morals (to use the title of a famous book by Bertrand Russell). But that doesn’t mean we cannot reason our way through the issue by applying broadly Stoic principles. Indeed, a major attraction of Stoicism (which it shares with other ancient philosophies, from Buddhism to Christianity) is precisely that its overarching principles apply universally, even though their specific interpretations do vary, of course, with times and cultures. (To be a “Christian,” or a “Buddhist” today doesn’t mean the same thing that it meant 2,000 or 2,500 years ago, respectively.)

The discipline that seems most applicable here is that of action, with its associated virtue of justice. Is your friend acting justly toward her husband? You mention the abuse she is receiving, which is certainly not just. But does he have a point that she is so withdrawn emotionally as perhaps not engaging with him, making his own experience of the relationship miserable? Is she willing to do something about that? She should, if she values the relationship (and, again, especially if there are innocent third parties, in the form of children).

But assuming she has been doing her best to work on the relationship, even up to trying couple therapy and psychological counseling, perhaps, then it is incumbent on her, and only on her, to answer the Epictetian question: is the room not really suffocating? Or is it proving to be too much? In the first case she can stay indoors, in the latter she can leave. That truly is “up to her,” and no one else.


6 thoughts on “Stoic advice: Stoicism and unhappy marriages

  1. jimjamshazam

    Hey Massimo, I’ve noticed you use the phrase ‘“stoic” (notice the small-c)’ in a couple of articles now, and it’s tripped me up each time. The first time I assumed it was a typo, but now I’m really unsure. I had assumed you had meant ‘stoic with a small “s”‘, to distinguish stoic and Stoic, but small c would distinguish… stoic and stoiC? I’ve seen the “small c” version a couple of times now so perhaps it wasn’t a typo, maybe I’m just missing something. Could you clarify?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. vickyw


    This raises (for me) a question about where ‘duty’ fits into the virtue ethics framework of modern stoicism.

    The four stoic virtues are wisdom, temperance, justice and courage. Is ‘acting justly’ the same concept as ‘doing your duty’ or are they two different concepts?

    In the context of this discussion, one can conceive of a long relationship where both parties have contributed substantially (but in very different ways) to the building of a large extended family but where there has always been some conflict and mild emotional abuse by one member of the relationship which has been endured by the other. The relationship has worked but has been far from perfect.

    In old age, the power dynamics of the relationship change and the abuser becomes frail and dependent on the abused. The children are all independent and raising families of their own. The abused has, for the sake of a better word , ‘outgrown’ the original relationship and now finds it hard work and largely unrewarding – there is considerable ‘smoke in the house’ – to use Epectitus’ analogy.

    However, despite the fact that it is within the power of the abused party to leave and lead an independent and possibly happier life, the emotional damage that this would cause to the partner and to the extended family is likely to be extensive. It would also cause long term practical issues in that the family would have to take responsibility for caring for the now dependent partner. It would surely be an act of selfishness and not acting ‘justly’.

    Surely this is a clear example of where the situation indicates the demands of ‘duty’ ie. ‘the work of a human’, which in this case could be defined as ‘the procreation of children and stability of life’. The course of ‘right action’ is to take whatever actions are ‘just’ or ‘according to nature’ ie. Those which are in the best interests of the extended family and which will preserve and nurture, as far as is possible, the stability of the original relationship.

    Is this a useful distinction or just splitting hairs?


  3. Massimo Post author


    You are definitely not splitting hairs. There certainly is a strong sense of duty embedded in Stoic philosophy. But there is an escape clause: if the situation is truly unbearable, it is okay for one to leave.

    So it comes down to the exercise of phronesis, practical wisdom. It is the agent that has to assess the situation, all things considered as Larry Becker would say, and arrive at a decision for action.


  4. labnut

    I very much like Massimo’s advice.

    Since he quotes Epictetus, Hierocles, Zeno and Chrysippus quite frequently I can’t resist quoting Confucius:

    Do not worry that others fail to understand you; worry that you fail to understand others.

    A good marriage requires that we intimately understand each other’s needs and expectations. It is in your power to reach such an understanding of your partner’s needs and expectations. You cannot control your partner’s understanding of you.

    But here is the amazing thing. When you, in true sincerity, reach out and do all in your power to understand his needs and expectations, you begin to change the relationship in such a way that your needs and expectations become more accessible to him.

    Don’t expect miracles, for there are none, there are only sensible compromises. But you might be surprised by the miracle of sincere intent, that giving more than one expects to receive, one unexpectedly receives more than one gave.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Yellow Hills

    Massimo and other posters,

    My question is basically, “What am I to do?” I know I have to answer this question myself, but I feel a strong need to share my situation.

    I am married to a born-again Christian who ultimately does not respect nor want to understand my viewpoints on almost any topic. She has been and continues to be psychologically abusive often in front of our children who, in no time at all, have grown big before our eyes while living in this tense and argumentative household.

    I realize that her abuse probably stems from her understanding of the fact that I don’t share her beliefs and do not intend to. And sometimes it seems she sees me as the abuser who in fact does not respect her views. (She recently found out that I had been listening to podcasts with “atheism” and so on in the titles, and appeared to be genuinely shocked and could not stop repeating how “abusive” of Christians atheists were.)

    However, my original intention was to respect her beliefs at a distance. But as I came to realize what those beliefs actually entailed (essentially a fundamental distrust of people who are not “true” Christians, and including a hatred or disgust of homosexuality and an obsession with abortion and pornography as the greatest evils of our society, plus a swallowing without thought of anti-science such as young-earth creationism), it may be true that I have sometimes let it slip that I don’t actually respect what she believes in. In fact at times, when feeling I was being pushed relentlessly into a corner I have thrown back abuse in her direction, too. It has been truly horrible at times.

    She has also insisted on homeschooling our children, which I think has ultimately been to their detriment (but that topic in itself is a whole other post).

    There’s so much more I could say here but I don’t want to bore you or waste your time. Basically, I have been and am still deeply troubled by my sense of “duty” to this woman whom I ultimately chose to be my wife (it’s complicated because we basically married because she got pregnant by me and actually said to me that she nor the baby would have anything to do with me unless we got married; also, she already had a child whom I later adopted.), plus my obligation to my children to provide them with a place to live and be a father to them. There’s also the extremely tight financial situation to consider.

    Thank you so much for your time. Any response at all would be greatly appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

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