A Beautiful Partnership: Building a Stoic Relationship
My first Stoic website, Apparent Stoic, is being archived this month after a memorable four-year run. In honor of Apparent Stoic, I'd like to share the all-time most popular article from that site. Here is an adaption of A Beautiful Partnership: Building a Stoic Relationship, originally published in 2018. I hope you enjoy this advice from Musonius Rufus on long-term Stoic relationships!
I’ve noticed that many aspiring Stoics have questions about how to approach marriage and romantic relationships, and for very good reason: these relationships are often a big part of our lives. A committed, loving romantic relationship can be a highly preferred indifferent. Of course it is only an indifferent, and therefore outside the realm of our control. There may be times when it isn’t possible or even desirable to have one.
At the same time, the ancient and modern Stoic literature on this topic is pretty thin. Many Stoic philosophers were not married, and the ones who were (e.g., Seneca and Marcus Aurelius) did not write much about it. One of the best introductions I’ve seen is Greg Sadler’s essay on Modern Stoicism, in which he teases out most of what the ancient writers have to say about romantic partnerships. Here, I would like to go even further and break down some of the Stoic views into specific advice that we can apply to our relationships today. How do we incorporate Stoic principles and practices into a successful romantic partnership?
The obvious place to start is with Musonius Rufus’ lecture on marriage, which is one of the few extended passages we still have. Although Musonius’ views can be a bit off-putting in some ways (see Greg Sadler’s essay), I think his ideas about marriage still have much to offer us today. He speaks with inspiring beauty about the ideal marital relationship, and he offers specific ways that romantic partners can relate wisely to each other. (Note that Musonius speaks of husband, wife, and marriage, but the principles are the same for any two people in a committed relationship. It goes without saying that this applies to all romantic partners today, even if they are not "husbands" and "wives".) I think it’s worth reviewing his recommendations in detail to see what we can learn.
Choose a Partner Who Shares Your Values
“Souls that are naturally disposed towards self-control and justice--in a word, towards virtue--are obviously most suitable for marriage. Could a marriage be good without harmony?...Could a good person be in harmony with a bad one? This could not happen, any more than a crooked piece of wood could fit together with a similar crooked one or than two crooked pieces could fit together.”
A big piece of forming a good partnership is choosing someone who has similar priorities and values. If you value wisdom, hard work, and self-control, but your partner prefers a life of lazy self-indulgence, it would be extremely difficult (and maybe even impossible) to make your life together work. This is what it means to be truly incompatible: you have no shared foundation on which to build your partnership. That doesn’t mean you must agree with your partner on everything. There is still room for disagreement, even on major issues. But there are certain key things that you must agree on, such as basic decency and your goals for your life together. If there is no shared foundation, anything you try to build will simply crumble and fall.
Fortunately, Musonius gives us some practical advice on how to choose an appropriate partner: don’t concern yourself “with finding partners who come from noble families or who have great wealth or beautiful bodies. Neither wealth nor beauty nor noble birth have been able to increase a sense of partnership, let alone harmony.” Indeed. Instead, focus on beauty of character and spirit. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found kindness, intelligence, and generosity to be the most attractive qualities in a person. If you fall in love with someone who is kind and intelligent, you will always have a basis for happiness--no matter what else changes in your life.
I think this is an important reminder for us in today’s superficial culture. Many people judge others based on personality traits, profession, political affiliation, or what activities they like. (Not to mention wealth, fame, or beauty.) On one level, this makes sense, because we live in a hyper-fragmented society with so many options available. It’s logical that you would meet and be attracted to a partner who has similar interests or a similar lifestyle. The problem, of course, is that these superficial traits are not strong enough to support a lifelong relationship. There is nothing wrong with finding someone who likes X activities or Y music, as long as that’s not your most important criteria for a relationship. Your most important criteria should be the one that will sustain your partnership through thick and thin: nobility of character and a shared love of inner excellence.
In fact, it’s possible to have a good partnership even if you don’t share many superficial interests--as long as you do share underlying values and priorities in life. You don’t have to like the same tv shows and have the same hobbies. As long as you’re both willing to work at the relationship, it doesn’t really matter what your personalities are. What matters is that you’re aligned on the big picture questions about life.
If you find yourself, for whatever reason, partnered with someone who has radically different values, there may be no way for you to move forward together. In these cases, separation may be the best option. It seems to me that this is what Musonius would advocate. He makes it very clear that such a partnership is not worth pursuing, because it only leads to misery for everyone. Fortunately for most of us today, it is possible to leave behind a toxic relationship. Taking such a step is never easy, but sometimes it is for the best.
Consider Your Partnership an Alliance
“Husband and wife should come together for the following reasons: to live with each other, to have children, and to consider all things as common possessions and nothing as private...In marriage there must be, above, all companionship and care of husband and wife for each other, both in sickness and in health and on every occasion.”
Once you have picked a good partner, you can consider your relationship to be an alliance on all fronts: mind, body, household, finances, children, success, failure, and everything else. This might sound like an intimidating level of intimacy, but I don’t think it has to be as smothering as it sounds. The key is to focus on a deep type of harmony and companionship rather than a shallow one. You don’t need to spend every waking moment with your partner, and you don’t have to do everything together or agree on everything. You don’t have to tell him or her every little thing about your day. You just need to find that deep level of connection that resides in shared goals and a knowledge that you always have each other’s backs.
This is especially true once you have children, since children tend to challenge your relationship in more ways than one. But if you see your spouse as an ally, then the project of having children can be another way that you grow together. If your marriage is a true alliance, then whatever you two face together--good or bad, sickness or health, preferred or dispreferred--can increase your sense of partnership.
As my husband told me early in our relationship, there are two ways to share something. One way is to cut it in half so that each person has 50%--this is your half, and this my half. This type of partnership can certainly work, but it is not a true alliance in the sense that Musonius describes. More than likely, each person is looking out for their own 50%, and they will get upset if the other person tries to take more than their fair share. This is how spouses end up arguing over money, responsibilities, emotional support, etc. Each partner feels that they must always guard their territory so that the other person doesn’t cross the line.
But there is another, better way to share a relationship. In this type, both partners have complete ownership--this is ours, we both have 100%. This seems to be what Musonius is advocating. In this type of partnership, spouses do not keep score, hold grudges, and get upset by their spouse’s behavior. They see themselves as allies working toward a common goal, and they mutually support each other in that goal. It’s rare, but when it happens, you can tell that this is a truly happy marriage.
I know, I know, this is all easier said than done. Like other Stoic ideals of wisdom and virtue, this seems impossible to reach. But like those other Stoic ideals, it’s also worth striving for, even if we know we will never actually attain it. We may get close, and we will be better people for trying. So let’s look at one more guideline that I think can help us to aim for this ideal Stoic partnership in real life.
Be Emotionally Generous
“Sometimes a spouse considers only his or her own interests and neglects the other’s concerns. Sometimes, by Zeus, a husband who acts like this lives in the same house as his wife but concentrates on matters outside of it, and is unwilling to work with, let alone agree with her. In cases like this, even though the couple lives together, their union is bound to be destroyed and their affairs cannot help but go poorly: they either break apart completely from each other, or they have a relationship that is worse than solitude.”
Musonius is very perceptive about what makes a marriage work. Sadly, his example here of a failed marriage in Roman times is uncannily similar to failed marriages in our own time. Whenever one person focuses only on themselves, the marriage is no longer a true alliance, and it’s almost impossible for the other partner to make it work on their own.
On the other hand, in a successful marriage, both spouses are attentive to each other’s emotional needs. This is a lot of work, but the end result is worth it: “When this mutual care is complete and those who live together provide it to each other completely, each competes to surpass the other in giving such care. Such a marriage is admirable and deserves emulation; such a partnership is beautiful.”
Inspiring, isn’t it? These two opposing images of marriage--selfish versus selfless--highlight one of the most important ways that we can work toward a harmonious partnership. We must be emotionally generous to our partners. Assuming that your spouse isn’t a complete jerk (see Guideline #1), maybe you can give her or him the benefit of the doubt. Do you really have to prove your point in that argument? Do you really have to get upset about that remark? Do you really have to be offended because she did that or didn’t do that again? (In case you’re wondering, the answer is no, you don’t have to.)
I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone should be a doormat, or that you should let your partner do whatever they want while you passively accept everything. That’s not what Stoicism is about at all.
What I’m suggesting is that you focus on the larger context of your marriage instead of getting hung up on whatever annoying thing your spouse is doing at the moment. Yes, you could get upset, yell, and feel insulted that your partner can’t even do this one little thing for you. Or you could zoom out for a minute and think about the bigger picture of your relationship. You could think about all the times she has done her part, or all the ways he is a wonderful husband. You could think about your primary goals: first being a good person, and second having a happy and mutually supportive marriage. As long as your partner is generally cooperative and supportive, maybe you can overlook this one little thing.
By focusing on the long-term quality of your relationship, you can make sure that your marriage balances out in broad terms. If you just look at one day at a time, it’s easy to get lost in the daily grind. My bet is that everyone thinks they do more than the other person. But different partners contribute in different ways, and each person brings what they can to the marriage. Your contributions don't have to be identical. Maybe one person isn’t as tidy, but she’s loyal and generous with her time. Maybe one partner is a little uptight, but he’s also organized and responsible. Maybe your partnership is even better if you both have different, complementary strengths, rather than the same ones.
The point is, your partner will probably do or say some things you don’t like, but these are just a small fraction of your interactions with them. Remember that he or she has many more good qualities than bad. (Otherwise you wouldn’t be with her or him, right?) If your primary goal is a long-term, loving relationship, you can afford to overlook a few trivial frustrations. (And by overlook, I mean truly overlook--don’t store them up to use against your spouse later.)
I call this “emotional generosity” or “emotional altruism” because it is truly a type of generosity or selflessness. I think we all have a natural instinct to defend our territory, and it can be difficult to overcome this desire. And yet, if we can cure ourselves of such argumentativeness and defensiveness, we will greatly improve the quality of our relationship. As Marcus says, “Kindness is invincible, if it be sincere and not hypocritical or a mere facade. For what can the most insulting of people do to you if you are consistently kind to him?” (Meditations, 11.18). By acting generously ourselves, we also encourage our partner to act generously. Unless your partner is a horrible person--which they aren’t--they will respond well to your kindness. You may have to be the one to take the first step, but if you are consistently wise and just in your actions, your partner will return the favor. You will be setting the tone for long-term harmony in your relationship.
Result: A Beautiful Partnership
So I think we can put Stoic principles into practice in our partnership by trying to change ourselves, not our partners. The beauty is that when you improve yourself, you will more than likely improve your partner's actions toward you, as well as the overall quality of your relationship. Any marriage or relationship takes work, and building a true alliance requires full deployment of the Stoic virtues (wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control). Just remember that a successful relationship is worth the work; as Musonius reminds us, "Such a partnership is beautiful.”