The Stoic Heart – Stoicism and Partnered Relationships

Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees.  We continue that series now with this piece by myself, discussing the workshop that Andi Sciacca and I were scheduled to provide at Stoicon 2018.

My wife and partner, Andi Sciacca, and I were invited again to provide a workshop for participants at last year’s Stoicon in London. I had given workshops at the two preceding Stoicons – one on Stoicism and managing anger in 2016, and another on using Stoicism to deal with difficult people at work in 2017. That last workshop had originally been intended to have Andi and I as co-presenters, but health issues ruled out flying to Toronto for Andi, and my teaching schedule that term ruled out taking a leisurely drive up north.

Andi’s absence was unfortunate not just for me (and for her, of course – she missed the conference, and London) but also for the workshop attendees. We had designed the workshop together, drawing upon our experience and expertise in the subjects we were covering – and in some of those, putting Andi in the room more than doubles what I bring to the proverbial table. As a married couple who live, work, and study alongside each other, when we do any sort of event or presentation, there’s an interactive chemistry involved in everything we do. If you’ve seen me speak previously, and got something out of that or enjoyed it, imagine me paired up with an even more dynamic partner, and you can imagine what we anticipated that workshop to be like.

We gave co-presenting another shot in 2018, and decided to focus our workshop this time on something that we have drawn upon quite a lot in our own lives – what Stoic philosophy and practices can contribute to understanding and improving (or maybe even, if things are bad enough, saving) one’s personal relationships. About a month before Stoicon 2018, it became clear that Andi would not be able to join me in London, this time both for medical reasons and because one of us had to stay to care for an aged and well-loved family pet who was quite literally on his last legs (and for that reason, we actually gave thought and discussion to whether it might be best for me to cancel as well).

I flew out to London and gave our workshop, reading a brief note from Andi at the beginning, running along these lines:

I am glad that you are able to present the workshops and represent us both, given that I was unable to fly with you and be there myself.  You can also say that I am finding the lessons learned from studying Stoicism to be very useful in our marriage, in my ability to grow our business and develop my professional life, in my management of chronic illnesses, and in my ability to navigate daily life.

Since I recorded fairly decent video footage from the workshop – which you can watch in full by clicking here – and since the workshop is far too long to provide a transcript of, I thought that it might be interesting to provide a short summary of the workshop that I did provide, and then to include some discussion of what Andi and I had originally intended that workshop to include (as well as some additional insights on her part)

The Structure of The Workshop

Given that we were to give the workshop twice, in one-hour breakout session blocks, we set it up to start with delving into the desires, ideas, assumptions about partnered relationships – marriages, romantic relationships, dating, and the like – by spurring some short discussion between us and the audience.

Then the plan was for me to discuss two topics

  • Classic Stoic Perspectives on Partnered Relationships
  • The Expanded Scope of Modern Partnered Relationships

After that, the bulk of the workshop was devoted to Stoic Practices and Perspectives and their application to partnered relationships.

  • #1 – Dealing With Appearances
  • #2 – Applying The Dichotomy of Control
  • #3 – Determining Roles and Duties
  • #4 – Understanding Emotions
  • #5 – Virtues and Vices

We then reserved a bit of time for Q&A and Discussion. Since both of our “lecture” styles are highly dialogical, taking questions and responding to comments throughout – and occasionally riffing off into digressions or jokes before coming back on point – we anticipated that we might not have as much time for the final official “Q&A” at the end, but that we could stick around between the two sessions and after the second session for individual discussions.

This is the sort of workshop that we can – and sometimes – do in shorter (30-45 minutes) and longer (2-3 hour) formats. When it’s shorter, I spend less time on the classic Stoic perspectives and strategies to thoughtfully adapt them to our contemporary culture. And we might do just two or three of the Stoic practices and perspectives applications. Longer presentations include more of those applications, more in-depth examination of Stoic discussions of partnered relationships, and also additional elements of the workshop that Andi brings in.

So this post is a bit of a departure from the series that we usually run after each Stoicon. I’m writing not only about the workshop that I did give, but also about the workshop that I didn’t give, but Andi and I would have liked – and had intended – to provide.

What Andi Would Have Added To The Workshop

One of the aspects of the workshop that I was particularly looking forward to, but which became unfeasible in Andi’s absence was the role-playing and modeling that we had intended to incorporate into each of the Stoic practices and perspectives parts of the workshop (which would have meant reducing the number of those application parts to four). In longer versions of the workshop, we have the participants themselves engage in some structured roleplaying.

Another warm-up exercise Andi had wanted to weave into our Stoicon workshop (and which we’ve done elsewhere) involved asking the audience about common relationship pitfalls they had encountered or experienced. This would then lead in to talking about ways in which Stoicism can help us rethink the common traps and tropes that lead us right into those relationship problems. Stoic philosophy and practice not only help us understand and work on problematic dynamics in our personal relationships, Stoicism also helps us to identify and recognize these when they occur and arise.

There were several other aspects of Stoicism that Andi tends to focus upon and highlight consistently. One of these is the emphasis that Epictetus places not only upon playing one’s own part – taking on one’s roles and associated duties – but also in understanding that others have their different, often complementary parts to play. A key aspect to good – or at least improving – relationships is allowing others to take on their own roles, without attempting to control that.

Another key idea that Andi and I have discussed quite a lot together, and which takes shape in another Stoic Practices and Perspectives portion of the workshop (we were debating substituting this one for one that made it into the Stoicon 2018 format) is reminding oneself of the transiency of the life one gets to share with one’s partner. This theme comes across most starkly in Epictetus’ Enchiridion 3, a passage in which he tells us that when we kiss our spouse, we should remind ourselves that they will one day die. This point, developed also by Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, doesn’t have to be viewed as a sign of morbidity or coldness, but rather as a suggestion that we value the time we get with our partners, and the imperfect persons they (and we) remain, during that time. We’re not entitled to infinite time, even if we mistakenly assume we’re going to have it, and if we realize that the partner we expect to have years or decades with could be taken back from us at any moment, we might look at them in a different and better light.

Another insight that we often close with – and we’re still teasing this one out – is that, if a partnered relationship is going to incorporate Stoic notions of justice, friendship, oikeiosis, and human rationality as social nature, one of the things that is called for is learning how to share space respectfully. Space not only in terms of physical space, but also the space of the relationship itself. This space includes dimensions such as conversation, chores and responsibilities, decision-making, joys and sorrows, short and long-term planning, and how time spent, just to name a few. It is all too easy for couples to divvy out the domains of “yours” and “mine”, when what is needed is a sense of “ours”.

As I sat down to write this piece, I thought I’d ask Andi as well what else – beyond the note she gave me to read to the Stoicon workshop participants – she might have wanted to say to them. In the short conversation that ensued, she stressed two main points. Both were personal, but also realization I expect many readers of Stoic philosophy can relate to, and parts of these connect up to what we did discuss in the workshop as I provided it.

The first was that lessons learned from Stoicism provided her with extra tools that positively augmented the value of other modalities of self-reflection. Stoicism coupled with elements from cognitive and dialectical therapeutic approaches help one deal with long term issues that impact one’s ability to have and maintain fulfilling relationships

The second was that Stoicism provides a very useful framework for examining, understanding, and managing one’s expectations. This is critical in every domain of life, but particularly so in that intense one of partnered relationships. Stoicism provides strategies to manage everyday stressors that put at risk one’s ability to listen effectively, be empathetic, and consider the needs of others (especially one’s partner).

As a last point, opportunities afforded to discuss, reflect, and engage Stoicism do benefit us as partners, not only because we are able to participate more fully in relationships through our shared interests and the work we do, but also because they create space for conversations important potentially for the entire web of all of our relationships.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects

Andi Sciacca is relatively new to Stoic practice and is pleased to be part of the Modern Stoicism movement.  She is an ABD doctoral candidate with European Graduate School’s program in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought.  She has served as the director of curriculum and program design for The Food Business School and the founding director of The Culinary Institute of America’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.  Andi also taught for The City University of New York, The State University of New York, Marist College, and the Bard College Prison Initiative.  She now owns an educational consulting company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

2 thoughts on “The Stoic Heart – Stoicism and Partnered Relationships”

  1. Thanks Greg. I was grateful to go through this again as living with a non-stoic partner can be testing.
    This was a great way to refresh and reset my feelings about our relationship.
    As a bonus, I also watched the two linked videos about difficult people and work.
    Plenty in those to ponder as well.

  2. Kudos to you and Andi, Greg! Marriage certainly tests all of us who profess Stoic principles, given the many stresses and strains of marital life. (Note that when you flip around 2 letters, “marital” becomes “martial”!). Chronic illness in one or both spouses is, as you well know, a major challenge. My wife, Nancy, has been dealing with chronic illness herself, and in many ways, the experience has brought us closer and challenged me to use Stoic principles in dealing with the “roller coaster ride” chronic illness can become. And, yes: we need to remind ourselves that “…the course of life is fixed, and nature admits of its being run but in one way, and only once…” [Cicero, on Old Age]

    Best regards to you and Andi,
    Ron

    Ronald W. Pies, MD

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