Stoic advice: my wife did something horrible, should I divorce her?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]

D. writes: I’m 30 years old and have been married (mostly happily) for eight years. I’ve been practicing Stoicism for about 5 years now. Two weeks ago, my wife caught my 4-year old son choking our several month old kitten. The cat survived, but only barely. I don’t believe this is a case of him not understanding that the cat could die or that death is permanent and bad. He agreed with me that choking the cat could lead to it dying.

Over the last two years, he had experienced three deaths in the family. His little brother died shortly before his due date at the hospital, where he was only able to see him a single time. This was the first time my Stoicism was truly tested. Later that year both my uncle, and my grandmother passed away. I’ve scheduled child and family therapy as a result of this incident.

This terrible event prompted my wife to admit to me that she herself had previously killed a kitten (mine). This occurred after we married, but about two years before my son was born. She strangled it to death and soaked its body in the sink after it had died. She later told me that it had fallen asleep in the empty washing machine and she ran it not knowing the cat was inside. I didn’t examine the story closely, because I simply couldn’t believe that my own wife would kill my pet.

My wife claims that she was under a lot of stress from her job at the time and felt an irrational anger at the cat at the moment she killed it. She also claims that she has struggled with guilt for years and that she has felt that God wanted her to confess to me and ask for forgiveness. Also, she worried our son had somehow inherited this behavior from her (either genetically or some other way), so she would have to tell me for me to be able to help.

My wife has no criminal record as far as I know, has never been violent towards me or my son, nor have I witnessed her abuse animals before. Prior to this admission, I considered ours to be a moderately to happy marriage (not taking into account the grief we suffered at the loss of our second son, but I don’t blame her for that). There have been times where she seemed to lack empathy, but in what I considered (at the time) to be within a normal (not psychopathic) range.

I am almost certain that I would not have brought children into the world with her had I known what she had done to my innocent pet. In that sense, I feel I have been tricked and trapped in this life under false pretenses. I am incredibly saddened and sickened by what she did. However, I love my son dearly and care about him more than anything else in the world, including my own happiness and comfort. I also still love my wife and feel responsible for her, despite the harm she has caused me. I realize now that I lack the wisdom to make decisions of this kind completely on my own, given my apparently poor judgment and gullibility. Would a Sage divorce under these circumstances? Should I?

I am terribly sorry for what you and your family are going through. This is a really difficult time, and you are right to think of it in terms of a test of your stoic attitude. As Epictetus says:

“If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35)

Let me begin by making a couple of hopefully reassuring comments, as a scientist, not a philosopher. First, despite what you state, I seriously doubt that your 4-year old son truly understands the consequences of his actions. Yes, he may agree, when prompted, that the kitten may have died, and that is a bad thing; but children do not have a sophisticated conception of their actions in the world, especially in a moral sense, until they reach the so-called age of reason, usually around 7 or 8 years. You are certainly right to explain to your son that what he did is wrong, but do not expect any serious reflection or meaningful agreement on his part. Which also means, obviously, that he is not really responsible for his actions yet.

Second, I also very seriously doubt that there is some kind of genetic inheritance at play here, or a direct environmental influence coming from your wife (unless your son saw her doing something terrible, but you said the incident with your cat happened well before your son was born). I cannot guarantee that my analysis is correct, of course, but if I were you I would put my mind at ease and understand your son’s behavior as one of those things that occasionally children do, not as a sign of a dark soul in the making. Nonetheless, that still means you need to keep modeling moral behavior for him, and correct him whenever he strays.

Now let me get to your wife. What she did was certainly very disturbing in and of itself, as well as of course a betrayal of your trust in her. However, the Stoics also repeatedly tell us to try to abstain from judging other people, even when they do obviously terrible things:

“We use labels like ‘thief’ and ‘robber’ in connection with them, but what do these words mean? They merely signify that people are confused about what is good and what is bad. So should we be angry with them, or should we pity them instead?” (Epictetus, Discourses I.18.3)

Epictetus goes so far as pity, rather than condemn, Medea, the mythical character that in Euripides’ play ends up killing her own children as a spiteful gesture toward her companion, Theseus, who is about to marry another woman:

“‘So how can Medea say, I know that what I intend to do is bad, but anger is master of my plans?’ Because she regarded this very thing, the gratification of her anger and exacting of vengeance against her husband, as being more beneficial than keeping her children safe. ‘Yes, but she is mistaken.’ Show her clearly that she is mistaken and she won’t follow that course; but as long as you haven’t shown it, what else can she do than follow what seems best to her? Nothing else.” (Discourses I.28.7)

Your wife seems to be in a situation very similar to Medea: she killed a kitten rather than a child (thank the Cosmos), but she was driven, like Medea, by stress and anger. She was not thinking straight because she was affected by negative passions, which are strong and — once unleashed — do not submit to reason. About anger in particular, 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 people, 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 people’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.” (On Anger, III)

Does that not sound like a very apt description of what likely happened to your wife? The point here isn’t to justify a terrible action, but rather to understand it and to display compassion towards the person that carried it out. Stoicism is a very forgiving and self-forgiving philosophy.

You say that your wife has carried a terrible burden of guilt for years about this, and that there is no other evidence of criminal or violent behavior on her part. Those are both strong reasons to try to help her, rather than abandon her, particularly because you two have a son that depends on your love. Brian Johnson’s book on Epictetus’ role ethics (discussed in several posts on this blog, last installment here) may help. You play a role as a husband as well as one as a father. It follows from those roles that you have an ethical duty to help your wife, since she clearly needs help, and to protect and love your son. This does not mean that one should stay in a marriage no matter what. It just means that the bar should be set very high before one gives up. You do state that you still love your wife, so act lovingly toward her, forgive her, talk to her, and engage in couple therapy with her (better if of the CBT kind, which is most closely allied with Stoicism).

You also say that you would not have brought children into this life had you known of the events that would have transpired. That’s idle talk, man. The past is outside of our control, presumably you did what you did because that reflected your best judgment at the time. It serves no purpose, other than to make yourself miserable, to ruminate over it:

“Souls that enjoy being sick and that seize upon excuses for sorrow are saddened by events long past and effaced from the records. Past and future are both absent; we feel neither of them. But there can be no pain except as the result of what you feel.” (Seneca, Letter LXXIV. On Virtue as a Refuge from Wordly Distractions, 34)

Finally, you feel you have been trapped into your current life under false pretense. False pretense on whose part? I doubt your wife was planning on making you miserable, or to kill your pet at the first sign of stress in her life. Much more likely, she married you because she fell in love with you, and she now feels the burden of guilt at what she has done, and moreover that of the uncertainty she probably senses about her future as a wife and mother, which will be greatly affected by your decision to divorce, if that is the path you will take.

No, it was Fortuna and your own judgment that brought you were you are now. It is entirely unhelpful to second guess Fortuna, or your judgment, for that matter, since they are both outside of your control. What is very much under your control, however, is to be compassionate and loving toward both your wife and your son; to do your best to help them out; to play your role as husband and father to your utter best. It may still not work out, of course, because the outcome of our actions is not entirely under our control. But virtue lies in our judgments and intentions, not in outcomes.

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Categories: Stoic advice

11 replies

  1. To state the obvious, D’s wife did this six years ago, so they have been living together, as far as we know without major problems, for that length of time since she did it. So it seems strange for D to think that he was either accidentally or deliberately deceived about his wife’s true nature, or that this new information undermines the entire basis of their marriage. There are many good reasons for distress with the situation, but this is not one of them. However, it seems clear that the couple could use help.

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  2. D.s wife shows him respect and trust by being honest with him. An isolated incident is a caution rather than a reason for action. Sounds like he is getting good advice and is on the right path.

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  3. D.,

    I see an opportunity to practice Epictetus’s Discipline of Action. Massimo points out since your son won’t reach the “so-called age of reason” for another three or four years, “do not expect any serious reflection or meaningful agreement on his part. Which also means, obviously, that he is not really responsible for his actions yet.” Meanwhile, your kitten is not safe in your home. As harsh as this sounds, you should take action now and find a safe home (perhaps that of a friend or relative) for your kitten. Now that you are aware of the threat your son poses to your kitten, should you come home one day over the next three or four years and find her dead, you won’t be able to invoke Fortuna.

    If you’ve already found a new home for your kitten, I apologize for subjecting you to my finger-wagging!

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  4. What may be unspoken here is: “If she killed my kitten and I had no clue for years until she confessed, what else has she done that I may not know about?” Considering that he has noticed in her a certain lack of empathy, this might be a legitimate question.

    And although I understand the reasoning behind the advice given, knowing that someone I love is capable of killing my pet, and then taking cold measures to cover the fact, would break a trust I can’t imagine being able to fix.

    But then, what’s why I come here (and to Stoicism), to learn. If possible, I really would like some more insight into overcoming such a break in trust.

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  5. As a health professional, I can affirm that there’s no such disorder as genetic murderer, and even if there were, it would manifest early in life, not in adulthood. People do crazy things when under great strain and trauma, and animal murder is not the worst that’s happened. Consider how soldiers with PTSD return home only to either commit suicide or murder their family, friends, children, or wives, and who were never prone to homicide. D’s wife is more in need of psychiatric help, not divorce.

    This advice rings very true, especially for me. In the beginning, every relationship starts out with everyone on their best behavior. So you don’t always know what you’re getting as time goes on, and so have to use your best judgement of the time. My wife has also disappointed me as some of her less than savory features have emerged in the course of our marriage, but when I think about it, I don’t think I was “betrayed” in any way. If I was, it sure took a long time to spring that trap! It is also not entirely out of the question to expect people to change their character over the course of time. If that were not true, there’d be no point in studying Stoicism, as you’d be stuck with the same shitty character traits you started. Unfortunately some traits picked up are bad, and that is why those in a position to have influence on those with bad character traits should work to help those with them. I try to steer my wife towards better character, even though it rarely succeeds. But when it does it succeed, it usually takes a long time. And I’m not innocent of some character flaws myself, so if I’m being open-minded and honest, I’d have to admit that I have allowed my wife to positively influence my character too. That’s how it’s supposed to work, and there’s never been a guarantee of an easy life or the marriage in it.

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  6. D.,

    I hasten to add that I think any young child is a hazard to small pets. I don’t think your son is not a special case. Dr. Richard Tremblay, who has studied the roots of physical aggression, concluded that the most violent age of humans is 18 months. According to a 2017 Scientific American article, “The level of aggression begins to taper between the ages of two and five as they begin to learn other, more sophisticated ways of communicating their needs and wants.” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/taming-baby-rage-why-are/

    We are also at our clumsiest during the early years of our lives. Young children often accidentally harm pets. Children who accidentally harm small pets may disconsolate at first before coping with a sense of overwhelming guilt. I know this from personal experience. When I was five, I saw my eight-year-old sister accidentally drop my family’s cute new puppy, breaking its neck. The inescapable conclusion of my argument is that a home with young children should have no small animals.

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  7. I found this reasoning very conventional and in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church. It seems to me that at the core, there is the belief that killing the kitten wasn’t that bad. How would the reasoning change had she killed their child?

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  8. Dy,

    “knowing that someone I love is capable of killing my pet, and then taking cold measures to cover the fact, would break a trust I can’t imagine being able to fix. But then, what’s why I come here (and to Stoicism), to learn”

    Your reaction is perfectly understandable, and I would not blame D. if he felt this was irreparable. (Indeed, as I said, it isn’t Stoic to blame people, period.) But the situation is complex, there is a child involved, and an otherwise happy marriage of several years. So it seems reasonable for D. to first consider and try out the path I outlined and only if that fails, as a last resort, file for divorce.

    As to how one can overcome a break in trust, by reflecting on the fact that human behavior is hardly absolute. We all make mistakes, but we can reason about the specific situation and will ourselves to give the person a second chance — especially, as in this case, she seems truly sorry and contrite for what she has done.

    Alice,

    Obviously, had D.’s wife killed their child the situation would have been completely different. For one thing, she would be in jail. I think I know where you are getting with this (but I could be wrong), but to me the life of a cat is simply not in the same category as the life of a human child, as much as it is wrong to kill a pet.

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  9. Totally agree with Massimo reflection and advices..I would like to emphasise:

    “…try to help her, rather than abandon her, particularly because you two have a son that depends on your love.”

    “…be compassionate and loving toward both your wife and your son; to do your best to help them out; to play your role as husband and father to your utter best. It may still not work out, of course, because the outcome of our actions is not entirely under our control. But virtue lies in our judgments and intentions, not in outcomes.”

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  10. I feel compelled to add a counter-thought to the excellent points already made, because I wonder if this child is at risk. Killing any animal by strangulation is not something most people could do, regardless of stress level – strangulation is fairly intimate (vs., say, kicking an animal out of frustration). Given that it was the mother who reported seeing the child do this, it seems reasonable to wonder whether the story is accurate, or if this is a mother asking for help before something more significant happens. I cannot and do not know, of course, what the particulars of this family are, or whether my concern has any foundation in reality. In any case, I am very glad that D has indicated that the family will be seeking counseling.

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  11. Jennifer and d y,

    It is reasonable to question the veracity of the story and reasonable to question what else D’s wife has done. Because D implies his son did not deny the accusation — “He agreed with me that choking the cat could lead to it dying” — I decided to write my replies under the assumption that D’s son did in fact try to strangle the kitten.

    One reason Stoicism is so demanding is that it strives to be antidote to human impulsivity. It recognizes that we are, under many circumstances, prone to cruelty, and we have far more faults than we’d care to admit. I don’t think D’s wife and son are that unusual. Far too many people would kill an animal, even a beloved family pet, by strangulation. At the expense of sounding misanthropic, if I could communicate with animals, I would say only one thing to them: “Whenever you encounter a human, run away!”

    D is getting his family into counseling. Another reason to be hopeful is that since D has studied Stoicism for five years, he will strive to act virtuously at all times. Although it’s out of his control, perhaps his wife and child will decide to copy his efforts.

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