The Problem of Indifference in Relationships

What does it take to create a life of tranquility? Epictetus, being a Stoic philosopher, believes that a mix of rationality and freedom of control is required. The main principle in Stoicism is that man shares the common rationality of the divine and suggests that the virtuous live in harmony with reason that governs their life, and are not concerned with external things that are beyond one’s control. Epictetus distinguishes between things that are within our control, such as perspective, desire, and aversion, and things that are beyond our control, such as body, property, and reputation. To avoid disturbances and lead a tranquil lifestyle, one is urged to focus on the things that concern the inner self and be indifferent to everything else. Although Epictetus’s idea of indifference to external circumstances may be helpful in coping with everyday stressors, it fails to consider the significant role of reciprocity and emotional connection in relationships.

Indifference in Everyday Life

There are several aspects of indifference to Epictetus’s perspective on life that guide our behavior in such a way that helps us cope better with the horrible realities of the world, one of which concerns prudence. He states very clearly that one should be aware of they are getting involved in before taking part in it:

In every affair consider what precedes and what follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit, indeed, careless of the consequences, and when these are developed, you will shamefully desist… You must cultivate either your own reason or else externals; apply yourself either to things within or without you— that is, be either a philosopher or one of the mob.

That is, one should not make rash decisions because, in most cases, desired results come with a set of commitments. You have to be aware of your capabilities and what you are getting yourself into, as well as be mindful of the worst case scenarios, so that you do not get disappointed. For instance, if one desires to be among the top athletes, proper training and physique are crucial prior to the tournament. Assuming that one is ready mentally and physically for this tournament, one must carry on and give their best to succeed, yet acknowledging that he or she may lose since it is a possible consequence of being in a competition. Nonetheless, if one does not consider whether he or she is qualified to engage in a certain affair and ready to put in effort to be dedicated, one is bound to fail.

Additionally, Epictetus asserts that one should “remove [the habit of] aversion from all things that are not within our power, and apply it to things undesirable which are within our power”. Epictetus thinks that it would be foolish of someone to experience sadness as a result of something out of their control, as this feeling will not change the situation. In the cases of defeat, the wisest thing sportsmen can do is move on and work harder for the next competition rather than get fixated on the loss. Success is never guaranteed in any situation, so one must accept what life throws at them and plan next steps with no negative feelings. Hence, despite how much thought one gives to a certain event or outcome, it is a useless to be concerned about the things one cannot control.

It is evident that virtue, defined as action in accordance with reason, is held in high regards to Epictetus. Virtue is based on whether one realizes what is under their control (internals) and what is out of their control (externals), as long as one is able to do so. He suggests that it is foolish give value to externals. Worrying about matters that are out of our control, such as health issues and other people’s opinions, is useless. When one becomes truly aware that what is outside their control is completely beyond the scope of their responsibility, then one can act indifferently towards any outcome, event, or happening.

Epictetus’s idea of indifference is plausible in some cases that concern materialism, perhaps because pursuing externals may require sacrificing one’s own moral worth and dignity. If an individual is preoccupied with gaining as much material possessions as they can get hold of, the element of humility that comes with being virtuous is sacrificed. Epictetus encourages avoidance of emotions pertaining to things such as health, wealth, pleasure or fame, are because they are either instruments to attaining the greatest good or are otherwise worthless. Thus, indifference towards such externals in particular helps us be more virtuous and attentive to more valuable things that come from within, such as kindness and humility.

Consequences of Indifference in Relationships

While indifference to externals like material possessions and status may be a key component to living virtuously, to what extent an individual can be indifferent to people and their actions?

Indifference towards all external things disregards essential components that establish relationships with others, considering that other people’s actions are not our own affairs. Epictetus even goes as far as comparing the coping of the death of a loved one to the coping of the fracture of a favorite cup, disregarding the complexities of human emotional relationships and the importance of the affection that each relationship entails. What distinguishes an important person from any other ordinary one is the feelings that are associated with that person, which, in combination with interactions shared by the individuals, constitutes the essence of a relationship.

Emotions are vital

Emotions constitute the core of relationships and are vital for relational wellbeing. Emotions indicate whether one’s relationships with others are pleasant or not and allows one to adjust personal actions based on different social situations. Responding to a significant other’s actions is not necessarily weak because it signifies that they mean something to you. For instance, it is normal to you to feel frustrated if someone you love betrayed your trust. In fact, this response is expected because the person means something to you. Acknowledging the emotional complexity that the feelings of others entail is important for communicating and connecting with them effectually. People are more likely to be supportive and sympathetic when they witness someone else in misery or distress or even just in a bad mood. Mutual emotional attunement lies at the core of strong relationships.

Emotions exist in a social environment

Additionally, inner, emotional states are expressed to others through gestures, vocalizations, and facial expressions. Emotional communication informs another about one’s current emotional state, social orientation and intentions toward them. While system of emotion is situated within a person, emotion comprises a natural process within social environment. In other words, this system responds to environmental changes and signals the state of the occurring relational changes. Emotion can then influence one’s behavior towards others and socially regulate them. Therefore, while the structure of the emotion system is subjective, its function is connected to the outer social world, such as relationships. Thus, being indifferent to other people’s actions and emotions causes serious damages to the basis of the relationship.

Reciprocity

Reciprocity is another central feature of human relationships, which is when the same attitudes or feelings as others are mutually addressed. It designates an equal exchange, hence, depends on the actions of another person. This infers communication and intersubjectivity not only between two people, but also among groups. This is crucial for creating a social community that is based on support and interaction, where there are shared goals, experiences, values, or attitudes. Such relationships necessitate thorough relational knowledge and constant mindfulness of others, their desires, goals, and needs. Accordingly, the personal need to connect with others may be best fulfilled by satisfying others’ needs. With this being said, the idea of indifference to externals, such as people’s actions and behaviors, eliminates reciprocity, which is one of the most important components of relationships.


The emotional detachment from externals, particularly from people’s actions, that Epictetus advocates raises important questions on the consequences of this state of being. Emotional detachment, though extreme, does at least minimize threats of being hurt or feeling pain. When we keep ourselves from being emotionally involved in others’ behavior towards us, we are left rather safe from people’s disapproval or even rejection, always protecting ourselves from disappointment. In developing emotional independence to evade undesired hurt, we may start to regard our actual strength in relationships the same as detachment.

Constantly guarding our ego in this manner, however, has its own risks. It makes us lose the chance to be involved in those experiences that mostly related to the attainment of optimum health and welfare, intimate relationships specifically. Love and affection fall within the central human needs. Close relationships bring us pleasure as well as add meaning to our lives, and expressing affection is needed to both develop and maintain those relationships.

Irrespective of the risks of opening up and deeply sharing ourselves with others, to really enjoy our lives we need to let down our guard and be open to the joys of close relationships. It’s true that trusting others in not taking advantage of what we reveal to them can sometimes be a leap of faith. However, not taking such chances and choosing to be indifferent because their actions are out of our control will make our existence end up dull.

It is better to consider the wellbeing of the people we love and care about as something far more than rightly preferred, although Stoics are right that this denotes increasing the risk of loss and despair. However, in treating unwanted emotions, we can adopt the idea that the Stoics teach us that we are in control of how we feel about things, without agreeing about indifference. People need to know how to recognize what comprises an ideal combination of attachment and detachment in all relationships. We can be part of romantic or social relationships, and still exercise what is in our power, such as opinion, desire, or aversion, to regulate our emotions and alleviate disturbances.

In terms of relationships, we experience the most positive and satisfying feelings only when we can be open, confessing, engaged and concerned. We can form attachments with people with the help of our emotions, and in case things do not go well, we can alter the way we view the situation, as we are affected by the view of the object, and not the object itself. We can learn emotional regulation from the Stoics in order to cope with misfortunes better, especially because they advocate that we are the ones who allow what gets to us and what does not.

Epictetus’s perspective on moral ethics can be helpful in some cases, but not in the case of reciprocity and emotional connection in relationships. His idea of being indifferent to externals has many different aspects, including the recognition of human imperfection and finitude as things most people have yet to come to, as well as prudence being significant when wishing to attain a goal to avoid disappointment. However, his idea of indifference fails to recognize that external circumstances can serve many purposes regarding our relationships with people. The fact that the actions of others are out of our control must not scare us away from being emotionally involved with the people dear to us. We can learn from Epictetus that people are bothered not by occurrences, but by the views which they take of these happenings. In case we faced misfortunes, we can exercise what is in our power to alter the our perceptions of the situations and regulate our feelings to cope better with the situation.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. Brad Osborne says:

    Timely, poignant, and relatable!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sakshi Singh says:

    I needed to read this.

    Liked by 1 person

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