Stoic advice: I can’t get my ex-girlfriend out of my mind

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

G. writes: About two years ago (I’m 21 now), I got into a serious long-term relationship with a girl in college that ended quite bitterly. Since then, neither of us has spoken a word to the other. My close friends and parents tell me that this was just a phase in my life and that it is okay to move on to create new memories. However, even two years later, without wanting to get back with her, I sometimes feel guilt and melancholy thinking back at our relationship.

I know the Stoic thing to do would be to leave the past as it is and live hic and nunc. However, I am finding this tremendously difficult to do. I will go months without thinking of her and suddenly fall into sadness. This has been a barrier in my wanting new romantic relationships and I am not finding a Stoic way to accept my past without feeling emotional and hindered by it. I don’t want to ignore my memories of my relationship as I feel that this would be unhealthy, but I feel like getting back in touch with her would be equally unhealthy (given the two-year hiatus and the way we left things).

How would a seasoned Stoic maintain a healthy relationship with a troubled past, while remaining virtuous hic and nunc and all things considered? I know you mentioned a few weeks ago that Stoicism was a very forgiving philosophy. I’m curious to hear what you meant by that. 

As someone in his early 50s with his share of relationships that have come and gone, I’m tempted to simply tell you that you are young and that it will pass, a process facilitated by the likely fact that you will soon encounter someone else you will fall in love with. That sounds dismissive of your problem, but it isn’t meant to be. It is just a reminder to you that from time to time we need to step back and look at the broader picture, engage in a healthy Stoic “view from above” exercise, as Marcus often did:

“Consider that as the heaps of sand piled on one another hide the former sands, so in life the events that go before are soon covered by those that come after.” (Meditations, VII.34)

But I also want to get more specific than that. To begin with, you say that you met this woman two years ago (when you were 19), and that “even two years later” you feel guilty about how it ended, or that it ended. If I got the chronology straight, it doesn’t sound like you were with her for a long time. And even if I did not understand the chronology exactly, it could not have been that long anyway. This means, again, that you need to engage in some meditation focused on regaining the broad picture. I use a personalized variant of this one, for instance:

Try to do it initially several times a week, it takes only a few minutes. Accompany it with the keeping of an evening philosophical diary where you write down your impressions, thoughts, and reactions to how you feel and what happens to you. All of this should help you regain perspective on things.

That said — and here I speak from experience, not just as a Stoic practitioner — you will often, in your life, be tempted to go back to an earlier relationship. That’s because of a variety of reasons, including guilt toward what happened, the familiarity with the person in question, a natural tendency to re-interpret our past with rose-tinted filters, or simply the fact that we are currently alone and wish for companionship. Don’t do it. In very few cases it works. There were presumably good reasons why you broke up, and those reasons are likely going to be there still if you resume things, with the situation made worse by reciprocal resentment, anger, and so forth. So my advice is to stay away from it and move on.

Guilt and melancholy, of course, are not Stoic values. We think that whatever we did in the past is not under our control, it cannot be undone, and dwelling on it is therefore entirely unproductive, a waste of precious time and emotional resources. That said, you do want to learn from your past, in order to hopefully decrease the chances of making similar mistakes in the future. That’s why a philosophical diary, perhaps coupled with some heart to heart talk with a “friend of virtue,” as Aristotle would put it, is very helpful. (A friend of virtue is someone wise and honestly interested in your wellbeing, who has the guts to tell you that something you are doing is not the way to go, instead of simply reassuring you that you are doing fine.)

You say you go months without thinking of her, but occasionally slip back. That’s human, don’t fret about it. Hopefully these slips will become less frequent and less intense as time goes by. (And as I said, they’ll probably entirely disappear once you find someone else.) Stoicism isn’t about trying to be superhuman, but rather about coping in the best possible way with human foibles and frailties. In that sense it is an other- and self-forgiving philosophy, as Epictetus says:

“An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.” (Enchiridion 5)

You say you do not want to ignore your memories of that relationship, but perhaps — as an intermediate step — that’s precisely what you should do. Stoicism, as well as modern cognitive behavioral therapy — teach us that our cognitive analysis of a problem can lead to change our behavior, which in turn, eventually, alters the way we feel about things, something like this simplified diagram:

So do try to gently push unproductive thoughts away from you, and focus instead on positive endeavors you care about. Let’s see if we can apply the concept of the cognitive triangle to how to move forward in your case:

Current feeling: guilt, lack of interest to move on >>

>> Cognitive analysis: there is no reason, and no use, in me feeling guilty; it is normal in life, especially at my young age, to move forward and seek a new relationship >>

>> Behavior: actively seek new people to meet. This will feel awkward and unnatural at first, but will get easier quickly, I think >>

>> Revised feeling: guilt decreases, fades into background; interest in developing a new relationship increases >> (back to step 2)

Try it out, exercise your agentic power, as Larry Becker would put it, take control of your emotions by way of your reason and your actions. And remember: you are not a Sage, but only a prokopton, one who (hopefully) makes progress. But progress is not linear, you will slide back. It’s okay, pick yourself up and keep going. Fate permitting, you have a long life ahead of you, rich in new and positive thoughts and emotions. In part, that’s up to you.

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Categories: Stoic advice

7 replies

  1. me and my gf we broke up after 17 years relationship. I tried methods as described here over, and it didn’t worked for me: the reason is that “the view from above” helps to keep distance, and the cognitive triangle helps to understand the problem, but those were palliatives and not the solution. Now I manage perfectly after almost one year. I still love her, I would die for her, but I feel really fine. I explain how.
    The main point it NOT to avoid the pain with keeping distance, but to use the struggle and pain as a propellent to grow, to become stronger. Become a person you can be proud of being. Don’t be afraid of the pain, there are tribes in Africa that use pain rituals to become a man. Spartans had the agoge. Stoics and cynics used to endure heat, famine, and cold weather to build a strong character, and on this strength a better moral.
    When you wake up in the morning, think to that like your personal agoge, think this is just training.
    Being stoic does not means to learn tricks to avoid or reduce pain, I think. It means to develop the mental and moral strength to become something better, and what is pain if not an occasion to prove yourself to yourself? Pain, loneliness is the fire of a forge, and you are the sword to be made.
    Think a samurai going to battle, a spartan going to war, they know they will die but they don’t care because they are strong and proud to be something bigger than that. Think to Gandhi, suffering for his people.
    Be proud of being able to manage.

    Think that next time you’ll meet your ex, she will have to admire you, for what you become, for how you managed to be a man, to stay strong even when it hurts, and how you become perhaps more patient, more quite, confident, and whatever you want to become. No pain no gain, they say.

    Practical suggestion: when you feel sad, use powerful posture: stay like wonderwoman, or walk around like a king would: put all your weight on every step, have a good back-posture, look at the orizon and never the ground. That will really help you to be confident, to find the resources to your strength.

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  2. I’ve been through a similar experience to Davide and agree wholeheartedly. In retrospect, getting divorced was one of the best things that ever happened to me (despite being something I was terrified of before) because the things I learned to cope with it (primarily Stoicism although not exclusively) have made me (I think) a much better person. The obstacle becomes the way…

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  3. This question makes me think of various places in Seneca’s consolation letters, where he says that having bought of strong emotion even long after a loss is normal and healthy.

    Stoic practice, he says, doesn’t aim to eliminate such episodes. It just asks us to avoid “adding” to them or prolonging them with additional, unhealthy cognitions.

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  4. E.O.,

    Right, I too thought of those passages in Seneca’s letters of consolation. I ended up not including them in the essay, but thanks for pointing that out.

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  5. Massimo –

    The advice from the first poster (I couldn’t see a name) was very good, but I’d like to tweak some of it slightly. When these sad thoughts about your ex come up, you can think of them as just waves on the ocean. They appear and then they’ll disappear. If they hang around, it’s because you’re focusing on them. Rather than saying “push them away,” I would say “let them go by as they naturally will.” The more you focus on them, the more power you give them.

    The cognitive analysis section of that post is right on, but in addition to the behavior suggested, I would widen it to say, look for other ways to make your life meaningful. Of course you want a mutally loving partnership with someone, but that’s not the one and only thing that can make your life worthwhile. (I have also found that intentionally going out and looking for a partner is seldom successful.)

    One really useful thing is to find a project, especially one that helps others. This can be anything from volunteering at a soup kitchen to writing the next Great American Novel to training dogs. The idea is to get your attention off yourself and your feelings and onto the wider world.

    I’ve been around the block more than a few times myself, and I’ve noticed that when I’m in a relationship, other people seem more drawn to me, compared to when I’m feeling lonely and sad. I always think I’m doing my best to be friendly, but people can instinctively tell the difference, even if they don’t realize what it is.

    Maybe the most surprisingly helpful comment I ever got was just after my mother’s sudden death, when I hardly knew up from down. My older cousin, whose own mother had died a few years previously, said, “You never really get over it.” Strangely, that helped put it in perspective. The idea is not to forget it as if it didn’t matter – that would be demeaning to the memory – but to put it in its place. We all have these griefs in our lives. Grief is part of life. But life does go on, and every day you have the opportunity to make it worthwhile.

    Good luck! I’m not saying it’s easy.

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  6. Melancholy is an innate trait, not a value…

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  7. Walter,

    Not sure melancholy is an innate trait. Sudden states of sadness may be the result of things outside of our control, but prolonged emotion always have a cognitive component, and can therefore be altered by cognitive analysis. That’s how CBT works.

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