Stoic advice: secret relationships

[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.]

L. writes: I ended a long-term relationship and, about one year later, I (secretly) started dating a woman with which I have always felt a special connection. In fact, she was a friend and, most important, she was a friend of my ex partner. My Italian comrades tell me that it is ok, that most of our literature and cinema are built upon this classic situation. Yes, it looks fun for them, but I don’t feel very well. The fact is that I don’t see any way in which this action may make me a better person, and I am pretty sure about it. Hence, I only see a way out: that my (our) actions might be considered indifferent to virtue. But is it true? My new relationship, if known, would cause much suffering. And the fact itself of dating without the knowledge of others is indicative of wrong acting. Should I avoid this relationship?

Your connection between doing something in secret and the questionable ethics of whatever one is doing in secret is made also by Marcus:

“Never value anything as profitable that compels you to break your promise, to lose your self-respect, to hate any man, to suspect, to curse, to act the hypocrite, to desire anything that needs walls and curtains.” (Meditations III.7)

But I would not be so hasty in arriving at that judgment in your specific case. You may be mistaken in your assumption that your new relationship is somehow wrong. Let’s take things one piece at a time.

To begin with, from what I understand you have not betrayed anyone. Indeed, you have done exactly the right thing: first you ended your long-term relationship; then you waiting for a suitable period of time (a year); and finally you began a new relationship with someone you had felt attracted to for a long time.

I am puzzled as to why you feel ashamed about any of this, and I don’t say that because I’m Italian and think that that’s the stuff of movies and books. I genuinely do not see the problem. You have acted ethically in the domains in which you had control. But you don’t really have control over basic feelings of attraction to another person, so there is no point in feeling guilty about that (it is not up to you, as Epictetus would say).

I do understand, of course, that you think — probably correctly — that your ex would get upset should he found out that you are now involved with a friend of his, and I respect your will not to hurt him. But, again, a year is a pretty decent amount of time, and he has no ethical grounds for complaints. His judgment of the situation, of course, will be his own, and you have no control over that, but I’m having a hard time thinking of what you have done as morally problematic. Indeed, many people would have not waited that long, or would have even started the new relationship before leaving the old one. Now that is definitely the stuff of literature and cinema, and it is also ethically more than questionable.

So the real issue, in my mind, is why you feel the need to keep your new relationship secret at this point. Assuming that you left your ex for good reasons and handled the situation properly; assuming that there was no betrayal at the time; and assuming that you love the new man in your life, then you are simply concerned with what other people (chiefly, but possibly not only, your ex) think of what you are doing. But there the Stoic advice is pretty clear:

“[I learned that] to care for all men is according to man’s nature; and man should value the opinion only of those who openly live according to nature.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations III.4)

“Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves — that is, our opinions do.” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 25.28)

“Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer.” (Seneca, Letter LXXVIII. On the Healing Power of the Mind, 13)

Other people’s opinions are outside of your control, and should not enter into your judgment about whether what you are doing is right or not. I do not mean that you can gingerly ignore other people’s advice, obviously. Nor that you should be callous with respect to others’ feelings. But once you have considered them all, you still need to arrive at your own judgment, and if you think that judgment is correct, settle the matter in your heart and act accordingly.

On one (more) thing I disagree with you: your new relationship is not exactly a preferred indifferent. Or, rather, the relationship itself is, but not the way you go about it:

“Men make a mistake, my dear Lucilius, if they hold that anything good, or evil either, is bestowed upon us by Fortune; it is simply the raw material of Goods and Ills that she gives to us — the sources of things which, in our keeping, will develop into good or ill.” (Seneca, Letter XCVIII. On the Fickleness of Fortune, 2)

“Fortune” has presented you with a man you feel attracted to. That, in and of itself, is only a preferred indifferent, not a true good. The true good is what you do with what Fortune gave you. How you manage the relationship, how you treat that person, those are all occasions for you to exercise virtue, and it is the exercise of virtue that is the chief good, according to the Stoics. In your case, part of this exercise includes not keeping your relationship secret. If you are ashamed of it for good reasons, then end it at once, to minimize everyone’s suffering. But if you are not ashamed, or have arrived at the judgment that you should not be, then bring it out in the open as a sign of respect toward your companion and toward yourself.

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4 replies

  1. Passion for another person is a challenge for a Stoic. It stirs emotions and confuses reason. Love is a virtuous quality and thus for the good of things. To like is good and safe, to lust is exciting and dangerous. The impressions and actions therefrom are what a Stoic needs to handle correctly (ie, no evil) according to scriptures and practise so no one is hurt, but flourish. No need to hurry up, make rash decisions and stress about something natural in us.

    What is life without passion?

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  2. Phaube,

    “What is life without passion?”

    It depends on what one means by that word. For the Stoics, “passion” referred to negative emotions, like hatred and fear. So I’d say a life without those is far better than a life with them.

    Romantic passion is an interesting issue, because it’s not quite a negative emotion, and yet not quite a positive one either (for the Stoics). Love is a positive emotion, but passion can make you do things that are highly irrational and even destructive.

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  3. Very true, but surely some things need to be destroyed: e.g, falsehoods, rumours, prejudices, social myths?

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  4. “Destroyed” seems a bit too violent. Opposed, yes. People need to be educated about them, yes.

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