Monday, March 27, 2006

On Jealousy

Envy consists in wanting what someone else has. Though potentially unpleasant, it’s understandable enough, as it follows naturally from a positive appreciation of the object’s value. Jealousy, by contrast, is the purely negative emotion which involves wishing that the other lacked the object of value. (I mean for these definitions to be stipulative.) Such an attitude seems quite thoroughly unreasonable, at least if the object in question is shareable. For rivalrous objects, one might want the other to lose the object solely as a means to one’s own gaining of it. Such “instrumental jealousy” lies in the service of envy, and so may inherit the latter’s reasons. But to begrudge another’s benefit, for its own sake and not for costs to oneself, seems blackly indefensible.

What, then, are we to make of romantic jealousy, i.e. the possessive desire for our partner’s exclusive attention? Is it simply unreasonable? Is the value of one’s relationship necessarily diminished in virtue of its non-exclusive character? Surely not: the value of a relationship is grounded in its deep or intrinsic character, not merely incidental or comparative aspects. (One occasionally hears homophobic rhetoric implying that one’s marriage would somehow be “devalued” if gay people were allowed to marry too. But this is absurd. Truly valuable relationships do not rest their value on such fragile foundations. Other discussion critical of zero-sum “comparative” values can be found here and here.) What matters is your relationship, not any other one – even if the other involves your partner.

(Granted, it may just be intrinsically unpleasant to imagine your partner having sex with someone else. But while we can give an evolutionary explanation of why such ‘pure jealousy’ might evolve, that doesn’t suffice to justify it. One can also give scientific explanations of violent anger, but we should resist such pernicious emotions all the same.)

So any reasonable grounds for objection here will need to be grounded in concern that your partner’s activities will negatively impact upon your relationship. There are two obvious ways this could happen: sharing might mean less of them (their time, attention, or affection) left for you; or worse, they might leave you completely.

It isn’t clear whether fear of breaking up should rationally make one more or less jealous. Presumably the worry is that non-exclusivity would give your partner more opportunities to meet and get attached to someone new. But on the other hand, it also reduces the incentive to break up if they do find someone else. In particular: if your partner still likes you, albeit less than they like the other, then non-exclusivity might in fact save your relationship, whereas jealous ultimatums would force them to break up with you. (The situation is complicated if the other becomes jealous of your partner’s continued attachment to you. The next section will address whether their jealousy could be reasonable.)

What of the concerns about ‘sharing’? They sound to me unreasonably possessive. Your partner’s time and attention may be taken up by any other hobbies or interests that they have, but those are not legitimate grounds for complaint (unless you are being thoroughly neglected). It isn’t clear why an interest in another person should be treated any differently, at least on those grounds.

I take it the real worry here concerns affection. Some may implicitly believe that individuals have a fixed emotional capacity, so that the more they care for someone else, the less they care for you. But when made explicit like this, such a view does not sound very plausible. Consider parental love. Surely nobody would claim that children from large families are loved less by their parents than is an ‘only child’. But why should romantic love (or its precursors) be any different?

Perhaps we want to be “special”; but it isn’t clear why exclusivity should create added value here. As previously noted, any non-deluded evaluation of one's partner needs to be consistent with the recognition that they’re not uniquely special, i.e. special in a way that everyone else fails to be. Our ‘specialness’ needs to be consistent with other people being special too. So, as noted above, we should look to intrinsic rather than comparative values. We have value for who we are, considered in ourselves, rather than considered in comparison to other people.

That’s all well and good from an objective point of view, but we still want to have a special significance for our significant others, even if it is recognized as a merely “subjective” or agent-relative importance. But we can grant this without requiring total uniqueness. Again, the parental analogy is illustrative: a child wouldn’t want her parents to treat her no differently from all the other kids in the world. She should have a special place in her parents’ world. But she needn’t be the only person in this place; she can share it with her few siblings, without diminishing its value in any way at all. So again: why is the romantic case any different? If someone has two significant others, must they be the less significant for this?

Perhaps I’m missing something obvious, since my armchair certainly doesn’t offer the most comprehensive view of the world. But at least in light of the issues discussed so far, it seems to me that jealousy largely is irrational, so that more reasonable creatures would not get so possessive or hung up on issues of romantic exclusivity. Whether we’re capable of being more reasonable creatures is, of course, another question entirely.



  1. I guess if you were part of that decision and consented to it it would not be a problem.
    Im some regards maybe i is just that you want to enforce the rule that you are both involved in "lifechanging" questions. in others maybe it is just a "religious sin" sort of a question -besides the evolutionary reasons.

  2. I think your last sentence is the most telling. But the emphasis, I think, with respect to jealousy should be explanation rather than justification. No one I know wants to claim that jealousy is justified, though people who are jealous like to try to justify their jealousy, but I think this is precisely because they need to feel like they are justified when they don't feel like they are. The reasons I would emphasize explanation over justification (in one respect at least) is that we seem to be hardwired to feel jealousy and for a very good evolutionary reason (because it prompts us to act in ways that will ensure a high probability of passing on genetic offspring). This is going to be no easy feat to overcome (though that doesn't mean we can't/shouldn't try).

    One other thing I would note is that you mix feeling jealous in with having multiple partners. This I think is misconstruing what's going on in those of us who don't want our partners involved with other people in the same way that they are involved with us. Many feel (and I include myself here) that when a person is in love, they simply don't want anything to do with anyone (romantically) but the person they are in love with. If one feels this way then it is only natural to expect one's partner to feel the same. If the partner instead wants to be with other people too, this makes us feel like they don't feel the same way about us that we feel about them. This, I think, is grounds for being upset. But this is not necessarily jealously. So I think you want to delineate between being jealous and being monogamous. I can get jealous irrationally when my partner shows attention to someone else (whether romantic or not), but I can rationally become upset if I believe that she doesn't care about me as I care about her. And this is not jealousy, but merely a wish for my partner to feel the same for me that I feel for her.

  3. G. - I certainly agree that one could justifiably be upset if their partner cheated in what was understood to be an exclusive relationship. But I don't think that would be a matter for jealousy, but rather, hurt due to betrayal or broken promises. (The content of the promise, i.e. monogamy, plays no crucial role here.)

    Hi Ben - thanks for the helpful comment. You raise an important issue that I didn't adequately address. And as you explain, that suggestion isn't really a matter of 'pure jealousy'. (Perhaps it qualifies as 'instrumental jealousy' on my definition, though.)

    Note that on your view, what matters is your partner's feelings or attitudes, so whether they act on them should make no difference. But I think most people would be more upset by their partner sleeping around than by their partner merely *wanting* to sleep around (wouldn't they?). So I'm not sure that it's the full story.

    More importantly, as discussed in the main post, it isn't clear to me why one should believe that "If the partner instead wants to be with other people too... they don't feel the same way about us that we feel about them." Clearly they feel differently than you do about *other* people, but it isn't obvious that this translates into a difference in how you feel about each other. At least, not without some further (implausible?) claims, e.g. the zero-sum or 'fixed emotional capacity' principle.

    I take it the basis is your own experience, of loving them and not anyone else. But why think that your disinterest in others is an essential (rather than merely incidental) feature of your love for them?

  4. Is the value of one’s relationship necessarily diminished in virtue of its non-exclusive character? Surely not: the value of a relationship is grounded in its deep or intrinsic character, not merely incidental or comparative aspects.

    I agree; there certainly are some great open relationships. But surely it doesn't follow from this that jealousy is unreasonable -- as far as I can see, it only follows if most non-exclusive relationships are not in fact reduced in value by being non-exclusive (or else: that it would seem this way to an impartial observer with a normal acquaintance with the facts). I would imagine that a lot of people would be skeptical of this claim, and for good reason: it does seem that most people who are non-exclusive tend to be so because they're being self-centered and are not taking the relationship very seriously. Even if this is only appearance, I think it's enough to support the conclusion that jealousy can be reasonable.

    To put it in other words: if nonexclusivity appears to be often, as a matter of practice, a sign of devaluation, then jealousy can under certain circumstances be rational. But it does often seem to be a sign of devaluation. Therefore, &c.

  5. Is jealousy by definition the negitive aspects of this behaviour?

  6. Hi Richard,

    I think that with respect to being more upset that one's partner actually slept with someone else than if they just thought about sleeping with someone else, herein comes the tangible commitment aspect of the relationship. If it is a normal relationship (normal meaning by today's standard, i.e. monogamous) then the partner has violated an implicit (and I think an explicit) agreement between himself and his partner by sleeping with someonelse. However, I am willing to accept two possibilities if the breach of agreement (i hesistate to call it a contract) doesn't quite satisfy you: A) that I would be more upset if my partner cheated than if she thought about cheating because of my evolutionary instincts, and therefore I am not entitled to be more upset by one or the other, or B) that I would not be more upset over one or the other, but equally with respect to both. (Also of note, one who has thoughts about cheating but doesn't may be Aristotle's continent agent who is on the path toward reconciling his emotions with his reason, though this ends up being a tangent into my crackpot theory that being in love is not solely an emotion but is also a notion one reasons themselves into, but nevermind that)

    Certainly though, if we lived in a society where it was expected that one could see other people while in a committed relationship, then the agreement breach couldn't hold, but for human beings qua human beings today, it seems that it does work in exactly that way.

    In addressing my own personal experiences I'm obviously on shakier ground. While I think it is certainly a possibility that my not wanting anyone else is not necessarily essential, I can't shake the fact that I can clearly delineate (in how it feels) between the emotion (that I would call loving someone) where I am still interested in other people possibly, and the emotion (being IN love with someone) where I am just totally uninterested in anyone else but my partner (and not because other people are thereby uninteresting obviously). On my side also, how do I know that someone is genuinely as angry as I am? I can only reference my own emotion, how it makes me act, and look for similiar signs in others to assess their anger. And while this does not solve the problem, it gives us the best we've got. We believe that people feel how we do when they act in similiar ways to us. Granted, different people with different personalities manifest emotional acts in somewhat different ways, but there is more common than uncommon ground there, and we adjust our expectations accordingly when we get to know someone. Equally with respect to being in love, one generally doesn't see two people deeply in love with each other and also interested in relationships with other people. And the better I know my partner, the better I'm going to know whether she can be in love with me and be with someone else at the same time. I know it's debatable in contemporary society where anything but monogamy is shunned, but I've certainly never met a single individual who even came close to meeting your requirements, and while that doesn't rule him/her out, it makes it look more like he/she may be so infrequent simply because being in love and maintining that love while at the same time seeing other people is just an impossibility for the human animal (a few well placed exceptions would not make my position fall to pieces, I think).

  7. Richard: just wanted to pick you up on this bit,

    ' it isn't clear to me why one should believe that "If the partner instead wants to be with other people too... they don't feel the same way about us that we feel about them." Clearly they feel differently than you do about *other* people, but it isn't obvious that this translates into a difference in how you feel about each other.'

    To make this work, we don't need any implausible premiss about 'fixed emotional capacity', but simply a very plausible premiss about attention. As has been pointed out already, falling in love with someone impacts on (among other things) how you perceive them, and what you pay attention to. Specifically, the blinders tend to come down, and you stop looking at other people (at least in *that* way). Now perhaps this doesn't last beyond the initial stages of a relationship, perhaps it does. But the fact that shifts in attention accompany shifts in how partners perceive each other indicates that the two go hand-in-hand: if one's attention is no longer simply on the partner, but on other people, that seems to be a good indicator of how one's relating to (or perceiving) the partner. And, trivially, time spent plotting the seduction of numerous others inevitably detracts from time spent planning, say, trips to the sea-side, and not in a way which the partner might be happy to endorse (unlike other hobbies). That the partner's unhappiness is (arguably) irrational doesn't mean that it shouldn't be taken into account.

  8. Why does a monogamist usually need their partner to be a monogamist as well? Being monogamist does not consist of others practicing the belief. For example, I find that someone who is "open" can carry a relationship with a monogamist, but seldomly can you find the reverse case to be true.

    Mad E. Laine

  9. I have read a few of your articles and I must say that I have very much enjoyed reading them. They are very well written and easy to follow. Within the article on jealousy I was particularly impressed with your insight into how "we should look to intrinsic rather than comparative values." I think that is a very strong point to make and I just wanted to thank you for saying it out loud. I have been comparing too much myself lately--unconsciously, of course--and this helps put things back into perspective.

  10. "Surely nobody would claim that children from large families are loved less by their parents than is an 'only child'." is simply not sure, or even plausible. I think that many people do claim just this, and far more believe it while not claiming it because it is considered immoral by some individuals in our society to make this claim. I would like love to be infinite, but surely in actuality humans have finite capacities for attention and thus for love. It is possible that typical parents with many children might even love them all more than typical parents with a single child love their child, but it's not plausible that the most intense possible love for a single child can be divided between arbitrarily many siblings (even limited by human biology) without changing it's character substantially.
    That said, I agree that jealousy is largely irrational, or at least that it is non-rational and is innately in conflict with many of our other values in a manner in which few of them conflict with one another.

  11. Ultimately I think the issues is that one can't fully comingle one's life with another person while they try to comingle their life with an outside party. Obviously if they have another lover who isn't close to you that means they can't share an important aspect of their life with you.

    Pragmatically there is also the issue of conflict of interest. One wants to be able to share very private or even embarrassing details of one's life with a lover . If they have another lover this means either they have to keep secrets from them or you have to come to terms with your intimate details being shared with a relative stranger.

    I don't see any in principle problems with a genuine multi-party relationship (where all parties are emotionally intimate and care about all others) but given the connection between intimacy and sex this will be rare among heterosexuals. In fact, given how difficult it is to maintain one relationship full mutual relationships with 3+ people will be quite rare, especially given cultural attitudes (it's pretty hard to pick up a third person).

  12. Truepath - interesting objection. Would it be just the same if they had outside friends that you don't know or get along with? Or hobbies/interests you don't share? Romantic relationships need not entail such total co-mingling, I would've thought. But I can see how it might undermine the very closest relationships, at least.

    Michael - attentional constraints are different from the kind of 'finite emotional capacity' ideas I was objecting to. If the only problem with other relationships is that they leave less time and attention for oneself, then they're no different in principle from hobbies or other interests. (And while it's true that time spent at a hobby is time not spent nurturing the relationship, this 'failure to strengthen' is not the same thing as actively undermining one's relationship.)

  13. Those who are monogamous cannot live with those who are open. Being open is in direct contradiction with the culture and tradition that supports monogamy.

    Monogamy is not questioned. When it is questioned, when its beliefs are attacked, those who believe in tenets clam up like the most diligent of limpets.

    Thus those who are open, if by some miracle of feeling fall in love or develop feeling for one who is monogamous, inevitably have to give up those behaviors in order to keep the peace or the relationship explodes like mount etna.

  14. No human being owns another. That said. Sharing another is not even a consideration. It is a matter of relationship. Relationships occur between dyads. Even if there are more than two, the basic units are still dyads.

    When sharing is considered, the object of discussion is tradition. The language of the tradition then says what can be done and what cannot be done. Those immersed in the tradition then express emotions to enforce that language. Jealousy is one of those emotions. as is envy.

  15. As someone who is open. I take ALL my relationships very seriously.

    Being nonexclusive does not imply a lack of commitment. In fact, you have to be even more committed if one intends to be successful.

  16. I think we guard relationships (with jealousy) not only to protect the value we realize from them (or potentially will) but also to avoid the costs we would incur should they break apart (grief, resource loss, social status change, Loss of related friends, loss of sexual partner, searching for a new mate, etc.) This is true whether the relationship is monogamous or open. Our ability to minimize or hold down our jealous impulses then are related to our general sense of trust in the world (we’ll be okay no matter what happens) and our sense of trust that the other more or less shares an equal commitment to maintaining the relationship. So I would say that jealousy is irrational, particularly when it is the result of a projection- that putting an unpleasant characteristic of yourself that you typically disown, onto another. I would also say there is no such thing as a rational world…or it is highly irrational to believe in an rational world.

  17. jealousy comes from fear....and nothing positive or beneficial forward moving action comes from fear

    if someone does not feel the same for you or has a different deffinition of love and relationships....then if you truly love them and blesd them on their way that their path may truly bring them what they had hoped

    jealousy is a self centered, protecting thought based on fear of loss...with no feeling for your partners gain



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