A Stoic Approach to Divorce and Child Separation by Stewart Slater

Nowadays, around half of all marriages end in divorce. The exact number varies from country to country and time to time, but having risen over the post-war era, it has broadly plateaued at a permanently high level.

Like many things, divorce exists on a spectrum. For every couple who adopt the Gwyneth Paltrow / Chris Martin model of “conscious uncoupling” and stay involved in each others’ lives, there is another which re-enacts the Michael Douglas / Kathleen Turner film The War of the Roses.

Things are more complex when children are involved and for every couple who manage to “co-parent” successfully, there is another where one parent is cut out of the children’s lives.

My divorce was the latter and I was that parent.

The settlement allowed me to send cards and presents to my children 4 times a year but there was no corresponding obligation on them. The situation continued for a couple of years until I learned that my children had moved school. Then I learned they had moved house.

I re-engaged my divorce lawyer, who in turn hired a detective. He found no trace of them but some hearsay evidence they had moved abroad to one of two countries.

The matter was turned over to the government, who, using the well established protocols for these situations, got in contact with the government of one of the other states. Finally, they were able to confirm that my children did actually live there.

Unfortunately, these things take time and my children were located just after my daughter’s 16th birthday and 16 is the age when child abduction law ceases to apply. So, while I have gained an idea of where my children are, I have also lost my ability to do anything to get them back. I may be able to establish some contact with my son, who is younger, but I have, probably, lost my daughter.

I developed an interest in Stoicism before my divorce and I’ve found it an enormous help during it. While I sincerely hope that no-one has to go through a similar experience, below are the 4 Stoic approaches that I’ve found the most useful.

1. The Dichotomy of Control

We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.1.

An obvious place to start. One of the core doctrines of Stoicism is to focus on what you control, and not to worry about what you do not. Epictetus in the passage following the above talks about judgement, impulse, desire, aversion and our mental faculties being in the former camp, while the latter consists of our bodies, material possessions, reputation and status.

A good example of his approach comes in book 4, chapter 1 of The Discourses where he writes in section 73:

Whoever told you ‘Walking is your irrevocable privilege’? I only said the will to walk could not be obstructed. Where the use of the body and its cooperation are concerned, you’ve long been told that that isn’t your responsibility.

If we do not control our own bodies and actions, then, a fortiori, we do not control those of others. Unfortunately, a divorce case, particularly involving children, involves a lot of other people. There’s one’s soon-to-be-ex spouse, one’s children, lawyers, a judge and any experts the court may choose to consult. One of them at least, will not have your best interests at heart. All of them have other things going on in their lives which may be more important to them than your case. They may well reach conclusions which strike you as illogical and ill-founded. And there is nothing you can do about it. The decision in the case will not be yours.

All you can do is choose the best lawyer you can, tell your side of the story to the best of your ability, try to rebut the other side’s arguments where possible and to cooperate with the process as far as you are able. After that, the matter is out of your hands. Accepting this is a key part of process. Ultimately, you do not control the outcome. In coaching parlance, all you can do is focus on the process and make sure you do your best.

As Epictetus says in The Discourses II.5.28ff:

Your job then is to appear before the court, say what you have to say and then make the best of the situation. Then the judge declares you guilty. ‘I wish you well, judge. I did my part, you can decide if you did yours.’ Because the judge runs a risk too, don’t forget.

2. “The Olympics have started”

There’s a Buddhist proverb which states that the 3 best teachers are failure, heartbreak and empty pockets. And divorce certainly offers all three. However, one of the tropes of Stoicism is that crises offer the chance to test oneself and improve one’s character. As we know, the philosophy has an intensely practical nature prizing action in the real world over “book-learning”.

‘Take the treatise On Impulse and see how well I’ve read it’ Idiot. It’s not that I’m after, I want to know how you put impulse and repulsion into practice, and desire and avoidance as well.

Epictetus, Discourses, I.4.14

Unfortunately, many of the virtues are only really called into action in unpleasant circumstances. We cannot show courage unless there is something to fear. Accepting a pleasant circumstance is much easier than accepting an unpleasant one. It is at difficult times that we have the most opportunity to learn and improve ourselves.

…Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 10

Divorce throws up many unpleasant circumstances, but that offers many opportunities to improve one’s character. Different parts of the process might call on different virtues and it helps to see each new event as a chance to work on a particular area. As Marcus Aurelius asks:

What is this which is now making its impression on me?…What virtue is needed to meet it- gentleness, for example or courage, truthfulness, loyalty, simplicity, self-sufficiency and so on?

Meditations III.11.2

Seeing divorce in that light serves to lighten the pain, and one can think that while one will come out of the experience poorer in many (indifferent) ways, one can also leave it a better person than one started. By seeing it as a training course in life’s gym, one can imbue the experience with positive meaning as it offers gains as well as the obvious losses.

3. The Role of Father

It is well established in behavioral economics that humans have an asymmetric approach to gains and losses. Countless experiments have shown that we would far rather give up an opportunity for gain to avoid a loss rather accept a potential loss as the price for an almost certain profit. Unfortunately, divorce involves a lot of losses

As well as the material factors, one also loses a role. One is no longer a spouse and the role (if it be such) of “ex-spouse” depends almost exclusively on the circumstances regarding the split. In my own case, not seeing my children also seemed to remove my role as a father. But is this really true?

At one level, certainly not. Whatever the current situation, nothing changes my genetic link to my children. But looking at it in that, purely biological light, seems unsatisfactory as it effectively equates fatherhood with sperm donation, and I think we would see the two in slightly different lights. But a more expansive definition such as “a male who brings up a child” seems flawed as well. A prisoner of war, for example, is not involved in raising their child, but we wouldn’t say that they stop being a parent during their incarceration.

Epictetus deals with parenthood in chapter 11 of Book 1 of The Discourses. There, he talks to a man who felt unable to stay with his sick daughter and describes his behavior as not a rational act” (Discourses, I.11.20)

Now, any definition of a role in terms of the actions it involves will fall foul of the Dichotomy of Control. As noted above, there are circumstances in which one will not be able to fulfill them. So, the role of fatherhood must be couched in terms of intentions and desires. A father is someone who, for example, wants the best for his children and endeavours to bring it about. It is in this second part that the father whom Epictetus meets fails because, by giving in to his worry, he acts in such a way as to reduce his ability to help and support his child.

This might seem a de minimis version of fatherhood and one might wonder if Hierocles’ Circle does not lay a similar burden on us towards everyone, not just our offspring. However, I think 2 points can be made in reply. Firstly, the Stoics obviously placed family relationships in a special position. The chapter referred to above is entitled Concerning Family Affection where he states:

Whatever is rational will not be in conflict with family affection Epictetus,

Discourses, I.11.18

In this, he seems to be following Musonius Rufus who writes in his lecture “What is the chief end of marriage?” :

He said that the chief end of marriage is uniting to live together and have children [i.e. form a family unit]

Musonius Rufus, Lectures XIII.A.1

Further, while we may, as human beings have an obligation to all other people, it is not clear that it is the same as that owed to our families. If I fail to buy my children a birthday present, I am probably a bad father. If I don’t buy a birthday present for every child in my town, it is not clear that I am, therefore, a bad person.

So, if fatherhood consists of trying to do one’s best for one’s genetic offspring, the change divorce has brought me is not a loss of my role, it is rather a change in the way I can fulfil it. Our performance of a role must be considered along with the realistic options we have at any point in time. It must take cognizance of our practical situation. For example, consider a father whose child is studying the Greeks. If he is well-off, he might take her to Athens on holiday, and spend a week seeing the Acropolis, the Agora and the museums to make sure she learns all she can about them. The next year, she studies the Romans, but in the intervening period, through no fault of his own, her father has lost his job, and his resources are more straitened. Instead of a holiday to Rome, maybe all he can do is take her to the local museum to see some relics. In the second year, he is doing less for his daughter, but he has not thereby become a worse father. He is still doing all he can, given the circumstances of his life.

My own situation means that I cannot do many of the things we traditionally associate with fatherhood. However, it does not stop me acting as a father. I can still endeavour to keep in touch with my children’s education, for example. I can still intervene with those in authority when I think it is to their advantage to do so. I can bear their interests at the forefront of my mind, even in matters of which they will be unaware and may never learn about. To misquote Dean Acheson, I may have lost my children, but I have not yet lost my role.

4. Praemeditatio Malorum

The previous sections have dealt with approaches to the problem, ways of thinking about it which have helped me accept the situation. In this last part, I will deal with a practice to help reduce distress.

Praemeditatio malorum or “the visualisation of evils” is a standard part of the Stoic therapeutic arsenal, consisting of intentionally imagining a situation which one fears or wishes to avoid. The idea is that by repeated consideration of an event, one habituates oneself to it, thereby reducing the distress it causes. If the event never materialises, then one has at least reduced one’s fear of it while if it does, not only should it cause one less distress, but by having rehearsed it beforehand, one should also be able to react better, if for no other reason than that it will not be a shock.

Not seeing my children is obviously a continual situation, rather than a single event, so is hard to visualise. I decided, therefore, to visualise dying on my own, having never seen them since we parted. As I was lying there, not feeling too good about things, I realised that, even in that extreme circumstance, I still had the opportunity to be virtuous. I could die well, with courage.

And if I could be virtuous then, then I could be virtuous at any time, no matter what was happening which I find a very comforting thought. As Stoics, we’re supposed to aim for virtue and no external circumstance whether it be divorce, loss or hardship can stop us unless we allow it. As Marcus asks:

Can there be anything then, in this happening which prevents you from being just, high-minded, self-controlled, intelligent, judicious, truthful, honourable and free – or any other of those attributes who combination is the fulfilment of man’s proper nature?

Meditations, IV.49.2

And the answer is always, “No”.

Stewart Slater lives in the UK. He has a degree in Classics and has been a practising Stoic for several years

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

3 thoughts on “A Stoic Approach to Divorce and Child Separation by Stewart Slater”

  1. Sorry to hear about your troubles. People don’t realise that this kind of thing is quite common and it is impossible to know how it feels until it happens to you. I found help and encouragement in Buddhist thought during a similar situation although I have managed to establish and maintain a relationship with my daughter who is now 21 over the last 13 years.

    All the best!

  2. Obviously I dont know the whole story, but assuming that you are not an evil person, what your ex spouse did, in eliminating your kids contact with them is absolutely disgusting.

    I, too, am going through a divorce and have relied heavily on stoic practice to get through it with a sound mind.

    All the best to you.

    1. I went through an ugly divorce several years ago. No need to go into detail but I will note a few points which will help. Being a Stoic you can (hopefully) not be overrun with anger. Your spouse may be and as Seneca aptly note in “De Ira”: ““It appears to me that you are right in feeling especial fear of this passion, which is above all others hideous and wild … [it] consists wholly in action and the impulse of grief, raging with an utterly inhuman lust for arms, blood and tortures, careless of itself provided it hurts another, rushing upon the very point of the sword, and greedy for revenge even when it drags the avenger to ruin with itself. … Anger [is] a short madness: for it is equally devoid of self control, regardless of decorum, forgetful of kinship, obstinately engrossed in whatever it begins to do, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trifling causes, awkward at perceiving what is true and just, and very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes.”. So you can expect anything from an angry spouse, remember the story of Medea and Jason…

      From the Golden Sayings of Epictetus : ”My brother (or whoever) ought not to have treated me thus.’ True: but he must see to that. However he may treat me, I must deal rightly by him. This is what lies with me, what none can hinder.”

      Easier said then done but the best way to get through a situation like this.

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