A Stoic upbringing, Dichotomy of control, Love

Happy families: A Stoic guide to family relationships


See an expanded version of this post on the Stoicism Today blog at Modern Stoicism.

“All happy families are alike,” wrote Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, and “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” When I first read this line as a teenager, I couldn’t understand what Tolstoy meant. How could there be many kinds of unhappiness, but only one kind of happiness? Don’t happy families have their own unique set of circumstances and characteristics, just like everyone else? In the novel he seemed to be saying that happiness is dull and prosaic. It didn’t really make sense.

But as the years have rolled on, I’ve started to understand his point. Trying to create my own version of a happy family has made me think about what is absolutely required for harmonious relationships: respect, responsibility, commitment, compromise. Maybe this is what Tolstoy meant? Not that happy families actually do everything the same way, but that they have certain habits of mind that let them laugh, understand, and be comfortable with each other?

Stoicism throws a beautiful new light over the puzzle of family happiness. Of course there are secrets to a happy family–they are called the disciplines of desire, action, and assent. All the virtues that Stoicism develops in a person are also requirements for family harmony. And just as virtue can lead us to eudaimonia as individuals, a family might be called “a happy family” if its members have learned to be reflexively kind, wise, forgiving, and fair.

Granted, most happy families in the world don’t use Stoic terminology to describe their actions. They might not be able to clearly articulate how and why they get along so well, or they might use words from other cultural or religious traditions. But if you really examined their behavior, I’m guessing you would find these same virtues at the root of their contentment.

So how do we cultivate harmonious family relationships? This task is somewhat different from being a virtuous individual, because we clearly do not control our family members. We do not choose our relatives (except our spouses or partners), and most of what they do is outside of our control. Unlike personal virtue, family harmony is a preferred indifferent, albeit an important and highly preferred indifferent. So as we work toward family happiness, we have to remember that we can only do so much. Like the Stoic archer, we can aim for a happy family, but we cannot guarantee the outcome of our efforts.

What we can do is focus on our own contributions to family harmony. We can apply wisdom, fairness, generosity, and self-control to all our interactions with our loved ones. No matter what our family members do, or how they respond to our good intentions, we can still play our part well. Stoicism gives us all the mental tools we need to take a patient, rational, loving approach to our most important relationships.

With that in mind, here is a summary of (in my opinion) the most important Stoic advice on relationships. It revolves around three main points: amathia, emotional altruism, and your role in the family. If you genuinely put all these techniques into practice, you will be able to say that at least one member of your family (yourself) is truly happy with your efforts.

Amathia. Epictetus talks a lot about how no one tries to be wrong, but most people are simply ignorant of the right way to be happy. Everyone acts in the way that seems best to her or him. The problem is, most people think that their happiness lies in serving their own narrow self-interest. They might believe they are accomplishing their own best interest by pursuing external goods or shoring up their own egos. They don’t understand that true happiness only results from treating other people with fairness and kindness.

As Massimo Pigliucci points out in How to Be a Stoic, there is even a label for this type of un-wisdom: amathia. He defines it as, “the opposite of wisdom, a kind of dis-knowledge of how to deal with other human beings” (p. 116). I don’t think we should limit this word just to people committing horrible crimes (Medea killing her children, for example). It also explains the petty cruelties that people inflict on each other in everyday relationships. Fighting, resentment, defending your own turf, intentionally misunderstanding, trying to control other people, choosing to take unnecessary offense. Even people who love each other often display this dis-knowledge of how to get along. It is all too human. In fact, this way of relating to others makes sense if you hold the mistaken belief that happiness lies in defending your own ego.

Because such people are incapacitated by their blindness, says Epictetus, we should pity them rather than resent or despise them. Especially when it comes to our most important relationships in life, we should try to understand rather than accuse. Which leads to the second important reminder…

Emotional altruism. In his discussion on friendship, Epictetus tells us that a Stoic “will be tolerant, gentle, forbearing, and kind with regard to one who is unlike him, as likewise to one who is ignorant and falls into error on the matters of the highest importance” (Discourses 2.22, 36). In discussing our relationships with others, he reminds us again that we shouldn’t be harsh with anyone, because people err against their will.

Marcus Aurelius, who also knew a thing or two about putting up with unpleasant people, goes further and says that we should treat others with genuine goodness, “with affection, and a heart free from bitterness.” (Meditations XI, 18, 18). This is very, very hard to do. But if you truly internalize the Stoic position on virtue, then it becomes easier to stop defending your own position in an argument and start supporting your family member.

We should also remember that backing down from an unnecessary argument, or showing benevolence in other ways, does not make us weak or wrong. It seems to me that some people make the mistake of believing that emotional generosity is equivalent to weakness or vulnerability. In fact, the opposite is true: “It is not anger that is manly, but gentleness and delicacy. It is because they are more human that they are more manly; they possess more strength, more nerve, and more virility” (Meditations XI, 18, 21). Strength (which applies equally to women and men, despite Marcus’ identification with manliness) lies in wisdom and justice, while weakness lies in pettiness and selfishness.

Remember your role. We no longer live in the patriarchal society of ancient Rome (thank goodness!), so some Stoic advice on social roles does not apply to 21st century relationships. But some of it does. The underlying message is as relevant as ever: your father or brother may mistreat you, but you should still remain a good daughter or sister to them. Other people, even your closest family members, cannot truly injure you. Your brother could steal your inheritance or your father could forbid you from studying philosophy, but you must still behave appropriately toward them. It is better to be the person wronged than the one who is wronging others.

We should always approach our relationships with good-heartedness. But the way we apply our understanding will be different depending on the specific relationship in question. So let’s take a look at some of our primary family relationships and think about what a Stoic approach might be. Obviously, these are just some general observations, which might not apply to every family and every situation. (Contra Tolstoy, every family is different, even happy ones!)

With all that in mind, maybe we can revise Tolstoy’s quote to fit our Stoic perspective on relationships: All happy families possess the wisdom of emotional altruism; but each happy family can still be happy in its own way. This version might be much less poetic than Tolstoy’s, but I think it’s a good characterization of what to aim for in our own families. So as you sit down with your family over the holidays–or any other time of year–remember that we were made for one another. We owe it to our families to at least aim for happiness.

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