A breakup can be excruciatingly painful. No doubt about it. Last month I’ve had several requests for a video about breakups.
I think we can get a lot of information from philosophy to make a break up a bit more bearable. So, I’ve decided to make a series about this, looking at different philosophies to see what wisdom they have to offer in regards to getting over a breakup. Let’s start off with Stoicism.
The concept of love and romance has changed over the centuries. Back in ancient Greece, I doubt that there was a dating culture similar to what we have now. Nonetheless, I think we can bring everything down to certain human core emotions like lust, craving, attachment or anger, that haven’t changed.
Unlike humans, nature has all the time in the world. So, even though civilization makes leaps and leaps forward, our physiology isn’t very different from what it was like 2500 years ago. That’s why an ancient philosophy like Stoicism is still applicable. Yes, we know much more now about how the brain works, but that doesn’t take away the validity of Stoic wisdom.
Now, that said, it’s essential to deconstruct what’s exactly happening when we break up and why we feel so bad.
Now, falling in love is a very intense experience. Our bodies produce chemicals that make us feel good and, at some point, the only person we can think about is the one we’re in love with.
So, I think that for a great part, it’s a chemical thing with the purpose of bonding and reproduction. That’s why after the so-called honeymoon phase, these intense feelings begin to wane until we stop seeing the other person through rose-colored glasses. So it’s a temporary high.
After the high is gone, there’s often still a deep attachment. Is this attachment wrong in itself? I don’t think so. At some point, we can’t really help it, right? If it’s there, it’s there. But we can change the way we approach this attachment and this situation in which we are separated from the person we’re attached to? This is where the power of the rational mind comes in, which the Stoics are masters at.
Even though we can’t just make the pain magically go away; what helps is changing certain wrong beliefs in order to accept the reality of the breakup, and find a sense of peace in it. I’d like to briefly discuss a few of these beliefs, and what the Stoics say about them.
1) I need that person to be happy.
This attachment can manifest itself in clingy behavior and the belief that we need this particular person to be happy. The common answer to this problem is that “there’s plenty of fish in the sea”. This is, of course, true, which is already a reason why it’s insane to think that there’s only one person for you. But, this doesn’t really solve the problem.
Because no matter if there’s one, ten or a billion fish in the sea; the fish is still something external. So, theoretically, it’s still possible that we can’t obtain any of these fish, even if there’s plenty of them. It’s beyond our control.
If we suffer from a breakup because we believe that we need the other person to be happy, we make the mistake of thinking that our happiness depends on something external. This is where Stoicism firmly disagrees with.
According to Stoic philosophy, virtue is the only thing we need to be happy. Moreover, living a virtuous life is completely in our control. Romance, a relationship, marriage and even having a family are all unnecessary for happiness and they’re also unreliable factors. The Stoics call these ‘preferred indifferents’. Preferred indifferents are nice to have but not mandatory for living a happy life.
2) I’m entitled to that person.
Now, this is a belief or idea that evokes a lot of anger in people. It could be that we begin to see the other person as a possession or, at least, a factor in life that we are entitled to. This idea often goes hand in hand with jealousy, which is basically a fear of loss.
When this person decides to break up with us, we feel wronged and think that reason for the breakup is, in some way, unjust. In the case of divorce, we might especially feel wronged because our ex-spouse broke the promise of staying together until one of us dies. Also, when the breakup involves cheating, we feel betrayed.
Things like monogamy and sexual exclusivity haven’t always been the norm. These are mere concepts, applied in social structures and part of, for example, religious traditions. And because these concepts are part of our normative framework, of course, this feeds a sense of entitlement and fear of loss.
In today’s day and age with ever-increasing sexual freedom worldwide, dating apps and the decline of sacredness in regards to marriage, chances are high that relationships fall apart. Thus, breakups are more and more common and so is infidelity.
Stoic philosopher Epictetus had some wise words to say about how we should position ourselves towards losing the things we love. I quote:
“Never say of anything, “I have lost it”; but, “I have returned it.” Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned. Is your estate taken away? Well, and is not that likewise returned? “But he who took it away is a bad man.” What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don’t view it as your own, just as travelers view a hotel.”Epictetus, Enchiridion, 11
3) I’ll never get over that person.
The excruciating pain that a breakup brings makes it seem almost impossible to get over it. But the cliché is really true: time heals the wounds. As Stoic philosopher and ancient Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius puts it:
Some things are rushing into existence, others out of it. Some of what now exists is already gone. Change and flux constantly remake the world, just as the incessant progression of time remakes eternity.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6-15
Now, the pain is something we can work with. Fighting it won’t help. Instead, it’s better to acknowledge that it’s there. Some people apply really bad coping mechanisms. I used to do that too; especially by lots of alcohol and other mind-altering substances. But these are just quick fixes that won’t help in the long run. I’ve also isolated myself often after a breakup, which is only good in moderation.
From my own experience, ideally, dealing with the grief is a combination of active engagement with the world and moments in solitude to really ‘sit with it’. The latter is important; it’s the embrace of what is, and to simply endure the detachment phase which is a slow process that can take months or even years.
In order to learn more about how the Stoics looked at the immediate grief after an unfortunate event, we might want to turn to Seneca. Seneca was not just a Stoic philosopher; he was also a statesman who held a high powered position in the Roman Empire until he was charged with adultery with the emperor’s sister. He was exiled to Corsica. He writes to his mother to console her because she mourned his absence. I quote:
I knew that I must not oppose your grief during its first transports, lest my very attempts at consolation might irritate it, and add fuel to it: for in diseases, also, there is nothing more hurtful than medicine applied too soon. I waited, therefore, until it exhausted itself by its own violence, and being weakened by time, so that it was able to bear remedies, would allow itself to be handled and touched.Seneca, Of Consolation: To Helvia, 1
Simply put: let the tears flow. Be human first. And when the initial shock wanes, let’s see if Stoic philosophy can be applied as a bandage to the wound.