Applying Stoic philosophy to your relationships
Daniel Lehewych
Illustrator: Cat Finnie
June 25, 2021

Navigating relationships—especially through turbulence or uncertainty—can be a challenge. More often than not, we view relationships through the lens of our philosophy on life, or in other words, in terms of our personal values. There is a strong correlation between the presence of values and relationship satisfaction. Those who struggle with understanding their own (or their partner’s) values and philosophy of life are more susceptible to relationship issues and dissatisfaction. That’s where Stoicism comes in. Hellenistic thinkers such as Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca promote a way of life steeped in purpose and the pursuit of wisdom. As relationships are a vital part of life, you may notice that applying Stoic principles to your relationship can have a profoundly positive impact on it. So what might Stoic philosophy offer those looking to develop a robust system of values to improve their relationship? Here are three tips for incorporating Stoicism into your dating life.

Develop a greater appreciation for life.

Stoic philosophy emphasizes death, suffering, and impermanence as key aspects of a life well-examined. It’s natural to feel negative emotions when contemplating something like death; after all, we lose everyone we know and love at some point. It is a guarantee that you’ll speak your last words to every person you know, and you’ve undoubtedly already done so with some. Stoics like Epictetus instruct us to meditate upon death—not so we can live in fear of it, or so we can lament about the shortness of life, but to give us an incentive to live more fully. Given our finite time alive, we’re best advised to spend it wisely.

Petty arguments with your partner make very little sense when you realize that death is inevitable. Why spend our finite amount of time arguing over nothing of importance when instead, you could spend it loving and learning about your partner? Meditating upon death as the Stoics did allows us to appreciate the preciousness of life more—helping us shift out of “fighting over the small stuff" mode into “Hey, this argument is silly” mode.

Granted, arguments are sometimes necessary for healthy relationships. Research shows that couples who have no arguments are just as likely to break up as couples who argue all the time. The purpose of meditating on death is to expose the preciousness of life, which negates any justification of pointless arguments, such as who has a better way of folding underwear. If your partner didn’t pay rent for the past two months, however, that is worth a discussion. Putting an effort into having meaningful conversations and experiences together reflects a deep appreciation for the fragility and importance of life. And, according to Stoic philosophy, such an appreciation will come by contemplating our limited time here on Earth. Have the tough talks, not the useless ones.

Follow–and set—a good example.

Now considered a classic Stoic text, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was the Roman Emperor’s journal of philosophical musings. The opening chapter describes people from Aurelius’ life whose example improved his own character. Some of the attributes of these admirable people are directly applicable to improving romantic relationships. There are surely generous, independent, and kind—yet powerful and authoritative—people in your life. By following their example, you can also encourage personal growth in your partner, as it is very likely that they will, in turn, follow your example. An important part of setting the tone is not to shrug off your partner’s resentments. Ignoring these resentments not only allows them to persist, but creates new resentment. Your partner is likely to feel that their needs are being ignored. If one person in a relationship feels this way, it is bound to boil over at some point.

Regulate your emotions.

You may believe that Stoic philosophy focuses on erasing our emotions. Instead, Stoicism actually advocates for emotional regulation, wherein you are no longer ruled by emotions but instead control and understand them.For example, have you ever—for no particular reason—become paranoid that your partner was cheating? Even though they have no history of cheating and display all the signs of loyalty, you cannot help but feel convinced (and maybe even enraged) that they are cheating. You’d likely have an outburst at your partner or interrogate them about your paranoia, leading to a fight and potentially destroying their trust in you and yours in them.Stoicism instructs us to take a look at the facts first before acting upon our emotions. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy calls this, “Check the facts!”If reality doesn’t match our emotions, we should let go of those emotions. Perhaps your past partner cheated on you, and that is what is spurring paranoia towards your current partner. It is your job to recognize that as the reason, rather than anything your current partner may have done. It is likely trauma that is causing you to think this way, and you should focus on resolving that trauma (not unleashing it on your partner). Seek to understand why you feel the things you do; if they are not on par with the facts, it’s wise to let such feelings go. (Imagine the number of relationships that ended unnecessarily because one or both partners could not understand their own emotions!) Seek professional help if need be; you may be surprised by what you discover.Working on cultivating your compassion and inner strength, as the Stoics recommend, can make all the difference between a meaningful romantic life and one of anger and bitterness. Give it a try—you may find you have more in common with the ancient Greeks than you thought!