How Stoicism Can Help You Love Better

Note: This is a guest post from Monil Shah

After reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, I started pondering over something he said – The salvation of man is through love and in love.

After a couple of heartbreaking relationships, I thought to myself – that’s bull shit. Love sucks. Love’s so damn painful. Why would anyone want to love and risk getting hurt? 

Another part of me, however, was curious. It wanted to find out what Viktor meant, it wanted to really explore the depths of love, what it means, and why it seems so special. More importantly, it wanted to go beyond that euphoric feeling and really learn what it takes to love someone. 

So, there began an inquiry. My goal was simple – maybe, just maybe, if I understand what it means to love by reading dozens of books, I can think about getting myself out there again and save myself from getting hurt. 

After reading and understanding a couple of books, I tried to summarize my learnings in a blog post, and, as comprehensive as my work seemed (to me), something felt missing. It felt like most of these lessons were too good/wise to be applied to real life. 

And so, I started looking at love from the perspective of a Stoic, the one school that emphasizes practicality versus theory. 

This is everything I learned from that lens. 

#1 Dichotomy of Control

One of the most central tenets of Stoicism can be captured from this line by Epictetus:

Our chief task in life is simply this – to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals (not under my control) , and which have to do with the choices I control. Where do I find good and evil, then? Not in externals, but within myself from the choices that are my own. 

After applying this to relationships, I observed how so much of what affects us (especially when we’re in love), is beyond our control. 

For starters – that euphoric feeling you get when you speak to/ think about/ see your loved one. Most of us confuse that with love, and end up bouncing from one relationship to another, craving more and more of that feeling., forgetting that eventually, in order for a couple’s love to mature, it’s actually essential for that phase to pass. We, instead, keep falling in love instead of growing in it. 

However, if looked at it closely, we’d notice that this feeling is not in our control. It just happens. There are psychological reasons for it, but, to a larger extent, we cannot control the flow of that feeling. 

Only once we let go of feeling good all the time, can we start focusing our energies on something more important (and yet, rare) – being a good enough / virtuous partner, which means understanding oneself, one’s partner, being empathetic, listening, staying present with them, and in a way – understanding what loving someone really means, so we can grow in it. 

For me, this meant being aware of my own wounds and biases (stemmed from my past relationships), so, I don’t repeat them again. It would be unfair to my present partner, if, for instance, I didn’t trust her just because one of my partners in the past cheated on me. Of course it’s a risk, but, as Stoics, our job is to do as our nature demands, to be good. Nothing else matters.

#2 Unconditional Kindness

Stoicism, to some extent, has always had a bad reputation of being “too tough”, in fact, if you Google the word “stoic”, this is the first meaning that pops up – a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining

And yet, if one decides to study and implement stoic lessons into her daily life, she will realize how profoundly incorrect that definition and reputation is.  

Yes, of course we endure pain and hardship, but not without showing/exercising/meditating over our feelings. We do it because it’s the right thing to do, because our nature demands for it. Because, after some serious thought (and journaling), we believe that our actions will make a difference. 

When Marcus got the news of Cassius (his most trusted general) rebelling in Syria, and declaring himself Caesar, what was his reaction to this betrayal? 

He did not let his feelings affect his decision. Despite it all, he still did the right thing – first and foremost, he did not speak ill of him. Then, to deal with the tension that was affecting his city, he told his men to capture Cassius, but not kill him. Further, after resolving this problem, he chose not to punish anyone involved in the conspiracy. 

Simply put – he decided to take personal responsibility. Later, he would brilliantly meditate over this in his journal – I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.

Yes, it’s horrible that my past partners cheated on me, but, what am I going to do about it? Feel sorry for them, decide whether or not I want them to be a part of my life anymore, and go inward to make sure I can heal, with time. 

Ask yourself – are you showing your partner kindness only if certain conditions are met? Or, are you doing your job and loving them with all your heart? 

Implementing this requires heart, for some of us at least, that means fixing a wounded one. 

Either way – it’s a self-transforming journey, one where we can heal and rediscover the goodness of people. 

#3 Giving enough space

The art of giving space in a relationship is something we must learn and practice regularly. Regardless of how much in love we are with our partners, in order for the relationship to thrive, a sense of independence needs to be established between your partner and you. 

Here again, Epictetus shines some light – 

When you are delighted with anything, be delighted as with a thing which is not one of those which cannot be taken away, but as something of such a kind, as an earthen pot is, or a glass cup, that, when it has been broken, you may remember what it was and may not be troubled… What you love is nothing of your own: it has been given to you for the present, not that it should not be taken from you, nor has it been given to you for all time, but as a fig is given to you or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year. But if you wish for these things in winter, you are a fool. So if you wish for your son or friend when it is not allowed to you, you must know that you are wishing for a fig in winter.

How can one attempt to give enough space? 

This process can be two-folds. 

First – we should remember that despite what the romantics say, our purpose on Earth is not to live for our partner, that – cupid doesn’t really give a shit, or that he doesn’t exist. Our purpose, therefore, is to try and make this world a better place with our work. Now, whether you’re a fireman or a freelance writer, it’s up to you to decide how you can leverage the power of your field of practice to make a difference. 

In relationships, it’s common for most of us to forget ourselves and our priorities for the beloved, this is especially relevant during the initial phase. That is something, however, that should be avoided. We’re here to change lives until death gives us that humble call. 

Second – we need to learn to be grateful and exercise that mindset daily. 

Odds are – your partner and you have done things/ do things that makes life easier and more livable .In essence – we need to tell our partners how grateful we are for them, and for the things they do for us. This can help us understand that these nice things aren’t a given, fate can decide to flip the cart at any moment. 

However, while things are good, as long as we’re fortunate enough to see our partner everyday, we can appreciate it and be grateful for it. 

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926), the Austrian poet and Novelist put this perfectly in his book “On love and other difficulties” – I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. 

#4 Self-Knowledge

It’s a sad fate for a man to die too well known to everybody else, and still unknown to himself  – Seneca. 

 

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it – Rumi. 

Whether you trust a Roman playwright or an Afghan poet, the insights remains – self- knowledge, like in many areas in our lives, is essential if we want to learn how to love. 

More often than not, after the honeymoon phase subsides in a relationship, little arguments start turning into big red flags in our brains. Our partners are not what we thought they were, or so it seems. Suddenly, interests don’t align anymore, and things that first seemed cute are now broadly labeled as co-incidental. 

The more obvious inclination at that time is to believe in a rather naive claim made by your mind and heart – that, this person is not the one. We’ve fallen into the wrong camp, and our puzzle pieces don’t align with theirs. 

Now, if we follow that voice, we can end up falling into the same cycle over and over again, hoping to gain that blissful honeymoon phase throughout a relationship. If we decide to question that claim, however, interesting things happen. 

First – we get the opportunity to take a step back and simply watch the thoughts that are parading our minds. Instead of blindly following this claim, by questioning it, we start asking important questions about why we think and feel the way we think and feel. 

Why is it, for instance, that you always end up seeking a partner that, to a greater extent, shows affection like a paternal figure? Or, why do you often feel insecure when your partner talks to you about how much fun they had hanging out with an individual who’s the same sex as you are? 

Simply put – stoicism teaches us that we don’t need to create anything. All we need to do, instead, is to remove the barriers that are inhibiting us from being who we naturally are as human beings – kind and loving. And, in the process of getting rid of these barriers, we discover ourselves and our biases. 

Yes, of course, getting to know oneself is a project of a lifetime, and is an endeavor that is certainly not simple. However, maybe the real gift we can give our partners is an insight about who we really are after being stripped down from all the niceness and trivialities of modern society. 

A very handy tool that can help you (and your partner) on this endeavor is a journal. 

Over To You

I am not going to quote another statistic about how the divorce rate in America is going up, instead, I am going to ask you to look into yourself and observe your curiosity in regards to love. 

Are you excited to be in it? Or, are you scared to get hurt again? 

Whatever that curiosity is – note it down and begin your personal discovery. The moment we stop treating love as something automatic, or something controlled by forces beyond our control, can we start learning what it really means to love someone. And, if you really love someone, and I mean really really love someone, then perhaps the biggest gift you can give them is the light of knowledge and growth, one that will contribute to a relationship that just may, perhaps, last through a lifetime. 

Afterall, as lovely as Romeo and Juliet was, wouldn’t it be a hundred times more meaningful and helpful if Shakespeare wrote a play about what happened to the modeled couple after they kissed and moved in to an apartment together? Raised a child? Because maybe that’s where love really lies, more than the mere euphoric feeling, but more of a promise that lasts a lifetime. 

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