Enduring Heartbreak

How can we muddle though it?

There is very little more painful in life than the loss of a relationship you didn’t want to lose. This pain seems to be the most acute when our boyfriends or girlfriends break up with us, or when our spouses say they want a divorce.

When someone dies, you can find, at least, a small amount of comfort in the fact that death is inevitable and no one chooses when it happens. But in a breakup, someone has actively chosen to leave you. That someone is still out there in the world, living, and, worse yet, possibly loving someone new.

We can quote Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, or Epictetus as much as we want, but none of their wisdom is going to convince anyone that the pain of heartache is imagined or something we can simply choose not to experience. Heartache hurts, and the grief that comes with this sort of loss isn’t something we can just “Stoic” ourselves out of by memorising the Enchiridion.

We can, however, use Stoicism-inspired reasoning to shorten the timeline of our heartache, and, very likely, endure its lifespan with bit more grace than we otherwise might. I’ll start by explaining why heartache, and breakups, are indifferents. First, though, I’ll spend some time explaining “indifferents”, as you may be thinking my Editor missed a typo just then — that I meant to spell “indifference” instead. I did mean to use the word “indifferents”, however.

To the Stoics, if something is “an indifferent”, it is something which has no power over our ability to choose virtuously. If someone kicks us in the shin, we could choose to kick them back or we could choose to turn the other cheek and walk away (we could choose a number of other responses as well, of course). Being kicked prompts us to choose, but it does not dictate the choice we make. When we’re discussing more than one indifferent thing, we refer to them in the plural “indifferents.”

Indifferents and “indifference” are homophones; they are two words that sound the same but are spelled differently and mean different things. This has caused no small amount of confusion when people, upon first encountering Stoicism, are told by Stoicism influencers to “practice indifference” or that, for example, love is “an indifferent.”

When Stoicism influencers say things like “if you can’t control it, it’s an indifferent, so you must show indifference towards it” they are betraying their ignorance of the philosophy they’re claiming to understand (and influence you with).

Nothing can be considered indifferent (in the sense of it bing an indifference) to a Stoic. A Stoic cannot choose to be indifferent towoard indifferents. If you’re confused, and it’s natural that you would be, here’s why Stoics don’t treat indifferents indifferently:

If the ability to choose is the only thing which is truly ours, and the choices we make convey whether or not we possess the knowledge of how to live excellently (Virtue, the only good in Stoicism), then the way we choose to interact with indifferent things directly communicates the quality of our character (and whether we possess Virtue). We cannot, as Stoics, therefore, flippantly choose not to care about that which we cannot choose because that choice (the choice to suspend care due to a lack of “control”) is not rational and therefore not the choice a virtuous individual would make.

Stoicism260 on the Apple App Store | QOTD Meets Character Development

Every weekday morning you'll be greeted with a properly sourced and translated quote from the Stoic texts. This is paired with a 1-3 minute audio interpretation of the text and practical advice for implementing Stoicism into your everyday life.

As an example: we cannot choose whether or not our parents take good care of themselves. Perhaps they eat fast food everyday, drink alcohol with every meal, smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, have terribly high blood pressure, and are pre-diabetic. It is objectively true that the healthfulness of our parents is an indifferent in that it has absolutely no impact on our ability to make virtuous choices.

On the other hand, however, whether or not we choose to care about the health of our parents is something we choose to do (or not). This choice, whichever we make, says something about how we understand our role as their children. Do you think the Stoic sage would choose not to care about the health of their parents, just because they couldn’t choose the health of their parents? Very likely they would not.

I’ve just used the word “role” for the first time in this “newsletter”, and that means I must now explain Stoic role ethics to you. Don’t worry, we’ll get back to enduring heartbreak in a moment.

A role can be thought of as an individual’s duty or responsibility — it is an expectation you, specifically you, are meant to fulfil.

The Ancient Stoics believed that human roles were acquired in a few different ways. To paraphrase: (1) assignment by society (2) assignment by Nature (3) assignment by consequence (our actions and choices) and (4) assignment by our personal preferences.

Roles assigned by society are, for example, having a job, being a contributing member of our communities, or being a tax payer.

Roles assigned by Nature are, for example, being human, or being a man or a woman.

Roles assigned by consequence can be things like being a parent — we chose to have sex with someone and, some months later, a child was born.

Finally, roles assigned by our own preferences are things we choose to do or be. Perhaps we choose to be a firefighter or a soldier, or an artist or a singer, or an athlete or an entrepreneur.

One of the central tenants of Stoic role ethics is that no single role can conflict with any other single role — and if it does, we’ve inadvertently taken on, or been assigned, a role we shouldn’t have taken on or been assigned and, to resolve the conflict, we’ve got to abandon one (or both) of those roles. The consequence of this approach is a necessary limiting of our ambitions.

Pursing a new role always requires that we consider whether we can pursue that new role without abandoning the ones we already have. This necessarily means we must be careful about how much we take on at once, we must maintain “balance” so we can adequately fulfil all our roles.

Lest it be misunderstood, Stoics are able to abandon (most) roles if they deem it appropriate to do so — it’s not as if once you’re a firefighter you can never choose to become a school teacher or small business owner and are stuck in one career forever — but they must consider such choices very carefully.

Is it morally just, for example, to abandon our role as caregiver to our ailing parents so we can travel the world simply because we really really want to see Europe or Japan? The answer could be yes, every individual’s context will be different, but it could also be no. The Stoics insist that we make such decisions with a sort of intellectual rigour and honesty that requires a lot of practice to muster regularly.

There are also some roles we cannot abandon; these are those assigned by Nature or consequence. We cannot abandon our role as a human being, for example, nor can we abandon our role as a parent, or as a son or daughter. These roles are part of what we factually are, they cannot be changed. We could functionally abandon our role as parent, but we’d still be a parent no matter how little we behaved like one. In either case, abandoning roles in an unjust way (we’ll talk about Stoic Justice in the not so distant future) certainly arrests your progress along the Stoic path — it is not in keeping with the ethics of the philosophy.

Stoics are big on fulfilling their roles appropriately, but what do roles have to do with breakups and heartache? Quite a lot. How can we fulfil our roles as children, parents, members of society, or human beings, if we allow heartache to reduce us to quivering puddles of tears hiding in locked bedrooms and refusing to serve any role but the role of jilted ex-lover? The answer is we cannot.

This answer provides the motivation necessary to reframe our heartache in a useful way: as an indifferent which could pose a threat to our progress towards cultivating a good character (our progress towards becoming better than we currently are).

“But, you said an indifferent couldn’t impact our ability to develop a good character, so how can it be a threat?” 

— You, right now, probably

Because the indifferent, if you remember, prompts us to choose, and choice reflects whether or not we are virtuous — whether we possess the knowledge of how to live excellently. Heartache is an indifferent, but all indifferents are opportunities for you to fail to choose virtuously — in this way indifferents are dangerous to us.

We need to see heartache not just as an indifferent which is natural and completely human to experience, but also as a hurdle to our much more important aims in life.

It’s okay that we’re a puddle of tears for a bit, but we can’t stay that way. There’s far too much at stake for us not to, as quickly as possible, accept what has happened to us and move forward with the understanding that indifferent things do not have the ability to dictate how we relate to the world or ourselves (or how we serve others or ourselves).

Now that you know this, though, what happens next? How do you survive and move on from a breakup?

I’ve got five steps for you:

  1. Accept that the other person was unhappy or unsatisfied (never mind whether or not you think they should have been, just accept that they were).

  2. Realise that, no matter how much your heart might be trying to convince you otherwise, you have no interest in letting someone remain unhappy and unsatisfied just so you yourself can be happy and satisfied.

  3. Internalise the belief that no one, who isn’t yourself, can make you miserable and malcontented. These internal characteristics are yours to choose to embody, not your ex’s. Your grief will reach a point where it stops being overwhelming, and becomes something you can choose to indulge in or step back from. You need to be ready to step back as soon as you reach this point, so be on the lookout for it.

  4. Show up for your other roles. You’re still a son or daughter, you’re still a mother or father, you’re still a student or a member of a local community — you’re still a lot of other things. Don’t choose to abandon everyone else just because you feel someone chose to abandon you. Remind yourself of all the other meaning and purpose in your life. You’ve lost one thing, not everything.

  5. Show up for yourself. You’re hurting, and you need to address it. Take walks, take time off, see a therapist, and spend healthy time with friends. Whatever it is you need to do to give yourself the space necessary to nurse yourself, recover, and move on, do it. You’ve been stabbed. It’s not a mortal wound, you’re going to survive, but it hurts and you need to treat yourself with care for a while. There’s nothing un-Stoic about that.

The Stoic approach to handling heartbreak is one of rationality and sensible care. You’re a human, you’re feeling a human thing. Feel it, don’t repress it — it’s not natural to repress your natural emotions. It’s also not rational to let your raw natural emotions rule you for any longer than it takes your rational mind to gain influence over them. How long it will take for your rational mind to gain that influence depends on who you are, how badly you feel you were hurt, and how dedicated you are to regaining that rational influence from the start.

Take care,

What did you think of this edition of Practical Stoicism?

By voting, you help me to craft content that is more useful and wanted

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

Join the conversation

or to participate.