"Sex and Jealousy"

by Hugh LaFollette

Chapter 11
Personal Relationships: Love, Identity, and Morality
Oxford: Blackwell, 1996

Whenever two people have a close relationship, one or both of them may occasionally become jealous. Jealousy can occur in any type of relationship, although it is more frequent and typically more potent between lovers. Hence, I shall begin by discussing jealousy among lovers. Later I will show how that account is also applicable to other close personal relationships.

Identifying Jealousy

Frank and Joan are lovers. Joan begins to notice, though, that Frank seems especially pleased when one of her friends, Lucy, comes to visit. He warmly greets Lucy at the door, listens raptly while she talks, and gazes soulfully into her eyes. In these circumstances, we would not be surprised to find that Joan is jealous.

That is not to say that she would be jealous. She may not notice Frank's attentiveness to Lucy. Perhaps she doesn't interpret Frank's behavior as indicating any special interest in Lucy, since he is equally friendly and gracious toward most people. Possibly they have an "open marriage," and each expects the other to be attracted to, and even to become sexually involved with, others.

Nonetheless, it is the type of situation which typically makes people jealous. But not all forms of jealousy are created equal. Some forms are virtually unavoidable and morally innocuous, while others are morally destructive and should be avoided like the proverbial plague. Yet most accounts fail to adequately distinguish them; those that do distinguish them often treat them as differing only in degree. I think that is a mistake. Although these two types of jealousy have some significant features in common, in other respects they are profoundly different, perhaps so different as to warrant calling only the latter "jealousy."

To identify these differences I will take a closer look at the case just described. Joan is jealous because Lucy is getting something she (Joan) wants, namely, Frank's attention. This suggests a general description of jealousy which, although not entirely adequate, will suffice to begin the discussion: person A is jealous if C is getting affection or favored treatment from a third person (B) -- favored treatment which A wants (Farrell 1980; 1989).

This account isolates a crucial difference between jealousy and envy: jealousy standardly involves three people, while envy involves two. Joan is envious of Lucy if Joan wants an object or trait Lucy has -- for instance, money, a new car, green eyes, a warm personality, etc. The focus or object of envy is always an object or trait. However, Joan is jealous if Lucy is getting something she (Joan) wants, namely, Richard's affection. The focus or object of jealousy is paradigmatically a third person (Farrell 19889: 248-9).

This points to another difference between jealousy and envy. If Joan envies Lucy she wants what Lucy has. It may be, however, that what Lucy has, for example, a new car, can be had by more than one person. Perhaps Joan not only wants the car for herself, but also wants Lucy not to have it. But not necessarily. She could well be indifferent about what Lucy has. What bothers her is only that Lucy has it while she (Joan) does not.

Not so with jealousy. By definition, what the jealous person wants, namely, the be favored by another, is not something both parties can have. Both Joan and Lucy might be friends or even lovers with Frank; but they cannot both be favored in the ways and at the times. That is why the jealous person not only wants the favored treatment for herself; she also wants no one else to receive it.

This initial account, though, is deficient since, among other things, it treats the desire to be favored as a unitary and all-encompassing desire. But this desire need not be unitary or all-encompassing. The desire to be favored usually has a focus, often relatively narrow. Thus, to say that Joan is jealous of Lucy is not to say she expects to be favored by Frank in every respect. Although some people may desire such favoritism, that is not the norm. Indeed, to expect our partners to favor us in all respects, all of the time, is misguided. No one can satisfy all of anyone's needs.

Most people do not want to be favored in all respects. Although Joan might wish to be Frank's favored sexual partner and personal confidant, she may have no interest in being Frank's favored hunting or bowling partner. Not only is she not bothered if someone else is his favored bowling partner, she would probably be glad. Hence, we must refine our account: person A is jealous if C is getting some specific type of favored treatment from a third party (B) -- favored treatment which A wants. Thus, Joan might be jealous if Lucy were Frank's favored sex partner, but not be jealous in the least if Lucy were Frank's favored hunting partner.

Finally, to favor someone, I need not assume they are "the best," even in those respects I favor them. Simply because Betty favors Belinda as a friend does not mean she thinks Belinda is the very best friend she could possibly have. Betty might think this, but there is no reason why she must.

To assume her intimate must be "the best" commits two errors. First, it ignores the volitional and historical elements of personal relationships. As I explained in Chapter Three, we typically initiate relationships because we find ourselves attracted to them -- or simply because we choose to befriend them. After we relate to them, we may come to care for them, to favor them. Thus, we favor one another partly because of our shared experiences and activities -- not because we think the other best.

Second, to assume our partners are the best in every regard is a dangerous fantasy. We need not think our intimates are ideal lovers, thinkers, conversationalists, or parents. We can love them without thinking they are best at anything -- let alone everything. Love, as I argued earlier, is constrained -- but not dictated -- by the traits of the other. We have some choice in whom we love. And it is best if we exercise that choice, fully cognizant of each other's deficiencies. Otherwise we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

This account is still incomplete; it suggests that Joan is jealous because she thinks or fears that Lucy is receiving something she (Joan) wants (say, sexual pleasure) from Frank. It might well be, however, that she is jealous because Lucy is giving Frank something that Joan wants to give him, e.g., consolation or companionship or pleasure. Intimates not only want to receive from each other; they want to give. Most of us want to be the person who consoles or pleasures our partner. It seems intimates adopt some variation of the Biblical injunction that "it is more blessed to give than to receive."

This can be accommodated by slightly modifying the original account. Jealousy occurs whenever one party is bothered because someone else is being favored. Normally people are inclined to think of this favored status as something we receive. Sometimes, though, the favored status is being the provider of some good or pleasure to a third party.

One further qualification is necessary. Joan is not automatically jealous simply because someone else receives the favored treatment she desires. It might be that Joan wants Frank's affection, realizes Lucy is receiving it instead, yet still not be jealous. Why? Because she may not be bothered by or upset about the Lucy's favored status. Jealousy isn't merely the desire to be favored; it is to be bothered by someone else's being favored.(1) Of course different people may be differently bothered, and, as we shall see, these differences underlie the distinction between two types of jealousy.

Evaluating jealousy

Our culture has conflicting views of jealousy. On the one hand many people assume jealousy is not only unavoidable but even laudable. On this view, unless your partner is jealous if they think you are with someone else, then they do not really care for you. Sometimes this lore is expressed like this: "Don't worry about her jealousy; after all, it just shows she loves you." On the other hand, our culture also embraces the advice of Shakespeare: "... jealousy ... is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on..." (Othello, Act II, Section 3).

As it turns out there is something right about both views. One form of what is ordinarily called "jealousy" is virtually unavoidable and morally innocent, while the other is avoidable and morally odious. It is unfortunate that both are called "jealousy." It suggests, among other things, that they both fall along the same continuum: that jealousy in the second sense is just an excess of an unavoidable response. Not so. For, although these two senses of "jealousy" are alike in some respects (both stem from the desire to be favored) this desire is based on such radically different beliefs -- and functions in such radically different ways -- that it is misleading to call them both "jealousy." Let me explain.

George might strongly desire Millie's affections, yet not be substantially bothered by the realization that she loves Jonathan instead. Perhaps he thinks Millie should make her own decisions. That is, although he might wish that things were otherwise, nonetheless he might not be bothered in the relevant sense.

What, though, do I mean by "being bothered in the relevant sense?" Suppose, for a moment, that George really loves Millie and wants very much to be with her. Yet he realizes she loves Jonathan. We might even suppose that he realizes Jonathan will be better for her. Unless the claim that George loves and wants to be with Millie is Milquetoast weak, then of course George will be bothered that Millie is with Jonathan. After all, he does love her; she is very important to him. He will likely be depressed, mope, and cry. But if he is jealous, he is not jealous in the sense which most people find worrisome.

This attenuated sense of jealousy is virtually unavoidable. Any time we love and want to be with another, then if that desire is (or we fear it will be) thwarted, we will, of course, be bothered. Since being bothered in these ways and under these circumstances is a natural and unavoidable accompaniment of unreciprocated caring, it is relatively uninteresting; certainly it is morally innocuous. Doubtless this underlies the folk wisdom: if someone claims to love you dearly but does not seem bothered in the least by the prospect of losing your love, then you can perhaps infer that she does not really love you. This minimal sense of being bothered, I will call jealousy1; probably we shouldn't call it jealousy at all.

However, even if we continue to call being minimally bothered "jealousy," there is a considerable difference between this reaction and being bothered "in the relevant sense" -- what I will call jealousy2. Jealousy2 is not just an unavoidable result of the loss of favored status. Rather it is a certain kind of understanding of and reaction to that loss or feared loss. Someone who is jealous2 is not merely upset that he has lost his favored status; he is convinced that he should not have lost that status. Thus, if George is jealous2 of Millie, he thinks Millie should still be with him, that it is somehow improper or wrong for her to be with Jonathan.

George's belief that it is wrong for her to be with Jonathan is more than the belief that she has acted imprudently. He might honestly believe she would be happier or more fulfilled with him (George) than with Jonathan, without thinking her decision is wrong. However, if he is jealous2, then he thinks her choice is wrong, period. George perceives Millie as his in some sense. She is a thing which he (should) control. If Jonathan "has" Millie, it is only because he stole her. That is why George is jealous2.

This type of reaction to a loss of one favored status explains why jealousy2 is often thought to imply possessiveness. The jealous2 party thinks that his former (or desired) partner is, in some sense, his to do with as he pleases. That explains the ordinary conviction that jealousy2 is morally objectionable. But not even all instances of jealousy2 should be evaluated the same. For instance, if I am upset by your leaving and think, in some small measure, that it was wrong for you to do so, then my jealousy2 may be relatively innocuous. However, if jealousy2 becomes transformed into its more virulent forms, so that when you are friendly with another man I become incensed, then I have acted in a morally outrageous manner.

Although jealousy2 is morally objectionable, we should not infer that all desires to be favored in personal relationships are objectionable. We cannot have genuine personal relationships unless we are so favored. If no one preferred spending time with me, then I would have no close relationships. So the only way to eliminate jealousy1 is to cease genuine personal relationships. However, since personal relationships are valuable, we should not abandon them -- or the minimal sense of favoring required to maintain them. In short, jealousy1 is psychologically unavoidable and morally unobjectionable. Nonetheless, our desire to be favored by intimates should not be unbound, nor should our reaction to the loss of favored status be unbound. If you break off our relationship, I may legitimately be bothered by your decision -- that is, I may understandably become jealous1; however, I should not become outraged by your decision -- that is, I should not become jealous2 -- jealous in the morally objectionable sense.

Jealousy and adultery

It might be thought that my account overlooks the moral legitimacy of jealousy2 if one's spouse has an affair. But we must be careful to distinguish two forms of upset or outrage that a betrayed spouse might feel. If I have an affair even though I had agreed to be monogamous, then my spouse has good reason to be upset. After all, I have broken a promise, deceived her, and made light of our relationship. Under the circumstances, it would not at all be surprising were she bothered by my infidelity; indeed, it would be surprising were she not.

But perhaps she is not jealous2. Although she feels betrayed, she need not think I am hers to do with as she pleases. She may simply think that I have acted badly when I broke a most solemn vow. Of course, her sense of betrayal may be mingled with some jealousy (of either stripe). However, we should not confuse jealousy and betrayal. Nor should we evaluate them similarly. People are understandably hurt and angry when intimates deceive and betray them. But this in no way indicates that they believe they own or possess their significant others.

Finally, it is important to recognize that what differentiates jealousy2 from betrayal (or from jealousy1 for that matter) is not some event inside a person's mind, but her behavior. People who are hurt and betrayed act one way, while those who are jealous2 act differently. If I cry and am upset by your betrayal, then I am probably not so much jealous2 as distressed. If, instead, I verbally attack you for "giving it away" then I am jealous2. Of course, there is no single set of behavior which invariably indicates jealousy rather than hurt. My only point is that most of us can usually distinguish jealousy from hurt -- and it has nothing to do with what is residing "in the mind" of the person who was betrayed.

Sex and jealousy

In many long-term relationships sex is the primary focus of jealousy.(2) That is, we are more often jealous if the respect in which we are not being favored involves sex. For instance, Jo and Fred may have numerous friends, including opposite sex friends. Jo talks politics with Russell; Fred plays tennis with Cathy. Neither feels the slightest twinge of jealousy as long as each is confident the other is not sexually involved with (or interested in being sexually involved with) anyone else.

If, however, either thinks the other is (or is interested in becoming (or has not explicitly disavowed an interest in becoming) sexually involved with a third party, then trouble is brewing. Although Fred might think Jo has been faithful, he might well become insanely jealous once he learns Russell is sexually attracted to Jo -- and she has not explicitly rejected his overtures. Why? Fred would not be jealous if he thought Russell wanted to play rummy with Jo -- or that Jo was likewise interested in playing rummy with Russell. Yet he would likely be deeply disturbed if he thought she was seriously interested in a sexual encounter with Russell.

Why does Frank put such importance on sex? More generally, why do most of us expect sexual fidelity, but not archery or communication fidelity? Why do we fear loss of our favored status as a sex partner in ways and to degrees that we do not (generally) fear loss of our favored status as a bowling partner? Is it reasonable to put such a premium on sex relative to other activities?

At first glance there is something peculiar here. Often the same people who become insanely jealous if they think their partner is sexually involved with another will decry any suggestion that sex is the most important element in a marriage or a long-term relationship. That is odd. If people do not think sex is the most important element of their relationship, then why would they be so disturbed were they to lose their favored sexual status; after all, they would not flinch if they were no longer favored hiking partners, squash partners or conversationalists?

What, then, is the explanation of this apparent paradox? Apparently most people think that even if having sex is not all that important in a long-term relationship, there is nonetheless some special link between sex and love. Perhaps sex has a unique symbolic function: it indicates or signals that the other is especially favored -- not just as a sexual partner, but as a significant other. If so, then being sexually favored could be of special importance to a long-term relationship, even if sexual activity is not.

The belief that sex has such a symbolic function might well explain why sex is often the focus of jealousy. If Fred thinks sex indicates the presence of or desire for some special favored status, then if Jo sleeps with Russell, Fred will infer that she loves (or is desirous of loving) Russell. Fred's favored status is thereby threatened. Therefore, to ascertain whether it is reasonable that sex is the primary focus of jealousy, we must discern whether it is reasonable to think sex has this special symbolic function, that is, whether sex and love are intricately connected. I shall quickly canvass three explanations for this presumed link between sex and love.

The biological explanation

Some people suggest there is a biological correlation between sex and love. Thus, sex has some special symbolic function since humans are biologically predisposed to prefer sexual relationships with those they love. As it stands, though, it is difficult to ascertain how we might establish this claim. We don't have any study of human beings outside of culture. And, since cultures can inculcate a view so deeply that we come to see its expectations as if they were biologically necessary (Mill 1978: 5), then we should be wary of the claim that sex and love are biologically linked.

Furthermore, a survey of animal behavior would not clarify matters since some wild animals mate for life while others do not. Moreover, even if the preponderance of animals did (or did not) mate for life, we could not infer with any confidence about the natural condition of humans. Since humans have evolved differently from other animals, then our biological propensities may well differ from those of even our nearest biological ancestors. Consequently, we cannot claim that humans do or do not have a natural tendency to link sex and love. Nor would it be easy to ascertain that sex had some natural symbolic function; indeed, it would be difficult to know what that would mean.

The cultural explanation

We can, however, point to certain biological facts about humans which, although they do not necessitate linking love and sex, might, nonetheless, explain why many cultures have encouraged mating for life. Many animals are born sufficiently well-developed so they can fend for themselves almost immediately. Other animals may require some parental care, but they are dependent on adults for a relatively short period of time. But not humans. Virtually all human children below the age of four could not survive on their own; most six or seven year olds would fare little better. They simply would not have the wherewithal to survive if left without the care of an adult. Human infants are dependent on parent care far longer than any other mammal, even adjusting for the relative length of the life span.

Why? Because human infants are born prematurely to accommodate the size of the human brain. The human skull is large relative to overall body size. If birth were delayed until the infant could survive on its own, the baby would simply be unable to pass through the mother's pelvis. Consequently, the fetus must be expelled from the womb before it can survive on its own.

Relatedly, much behavior of lower animals is "hardwired" (and thus the infant requires relatively little instruction from its parents). Conversely, human infants are relatively soft-wired, that is, they rely less on instinct than most animals. Together these biological facts require that human infants receive extensive and prolonged care if they are to survive. Until relatively recently, the mother had to provide milk. Thus, although she could work in nearby fields, she could not be too far away from the nursing child.

To accommodate the infant's need and the mother's relative immobility, adults usually lived together. One person might venture some distance from home to gather or produce food, while another worked near the home and cared for the children. Who would hunt for the food? Often the children's father. Who would care for the children? Often the children's mother. Eventually social institutions were established to promote the "nuclear" family. Once established, these institutions perpetuated the family. Family units were further strengthened by two factors: there were no adequate methods of birth control, and there were potent economic-biological reasons for families to have numerous children. Consequently, the mother was often tied to the home for years.

In short, the needs of human infants likely established an expectation that heterosexual relationships would be monogamous and permanent. Since most of us were brought up thinking these units were natural, it is not surprising that most of us, to some degree or another, think sex and love are linked.

However, even if this is a plausible explanation of how we came to link love and sex, it does not provide compelling reasons for continuing to link sex and love. The cultural and biological conditions which spawned the need for multiple parents have not disappeared, but there are far less compelling than they once were. Changed economic conditions make it easier for either parent to support their children; neither is financially dependent on the other. Thus, the biological, cultural, and economic conditions which encouraged mating for life -- and thus linked sex and love -- can now be satisfied in alternate ways. Hence, although this argument might well explain our tendency to associate love and sex -- and give some reasons to continue to do so -- it does not explain the strong assumption which our culture propounds.

The psychological explanation

Those who wish to psychologically explain the link between sex and love do not completely dismiss the previous arguments. Rather, they claim the biological and cultural explanations can show, at most, that we have reasons to link sex with love if we have, or intend to have, children. If, however, we have no intention of having children -- especially if we have taken measures to virtually eliminate the risk of pregnancy -- then the concern for rearing children offers no reason for monogamy. Thus, the biological and culture explanations for associating sex and love are inapplicable to childless relationships. In contrast, the psychological explanation is supposed to show that there are reasons for linking sex and love, even when the possibility of pregnancy never arises (for example, if both parties are sterile).

Here's the explanation: Touch, according to all psychological theories, is a biologically natural way of showing intimacy, closeness, and caring. It is the primary sensation experienced by fetuses. It is also the first way adults care for infants. Parents quickly learn that snuggling and caressing a child is the best way to comfort her, to make her feel better. Of course the parents enjoy snuggling the child. Adults, too, need tactile stimulation. Indeed, when we don't get it from someone else, we may acquire a pet, or engage in "self-touching" -- crossing our legs or arms, rubbing our hands together, etc. (Marsh 1982: 92).

In short, touch is the first and most fundamental form of intimacy -- a form of intimacy we inherited from our evolutionary past. Monkeys and apes groom each other as part of a ritual whereby they both indicate and promote bonding within the group. Sexual interaction, whether it involves intercourse or not, is primarily tactile, and therefore, is often seen as a special form of intimacy.

Additionally, sex often creates conditions of vulnerability and trust -- conditions which make intimacy more likely. For instance, sexual interaction is most satisfying when the partners are to some significant degree, non-self conscious. Stopping during sex and noting, "Oh, my, I am having sex, isn't this fun?" detracts from the tactile experience, and thus, diminishes the intensity of the sexual encounter. Sex is best when we are absorbed in the sexual experience and are not particularly aware of our having the experience.

However, when we are non-self conscious like this, we are less able to control our verbal and bodily behavior, we have less control over how others perceive us. We cannot tailor how we look or what we say. The intellectual barriers we usually construct to keep others at bay are dropped. Thus, sex involves not only physical nakedness, but psychological nakedness as well. During sex we are physically and psychologically vulnerable. And most of us do not wish to be vulnerable with someone we do not trust. Since we are unlikely to completely trust someone with whom we are not close, then we will be less likely to pursue sex -- or at least unself-conscious sex -- with someone we do not love.

These observations do not in any way establish that love and sex must be associated, or even that one would be better off if we had sex only with someone we love. It is, however, to suggest that the general conviction that sex and love should be linked has some plausibility. Thus, to return to the original point, it is understandable why someone might be jealous if her partner has sex with another. She would plausibly infer (or fear) that she might lost the intimacy she wants.

Jealousy among friends

Although jealousy is more frequent and more potent between lovers, "companion friends are given to jealousy in precisely the same way as lovers" (Thomas 1989: 125). Jealousy has the same structure in both types of relationships: One person A fears that some person C will received favored treatment from B -- favored treatment A wants. Among companion friends, the favored treatment which A wants usually is B's company and time -- much as do lovers. That explains the similarities in jealousy among friends and among lovers. However, companion friends typically do not want to be favored sexually. Hence, the focus of the jealousy among companion friends is often narrower and thus, less potent. But that is not to say that jealousy among friends cannot be powerful.

Indeed, jealousy among companion friends -- like that among lovers -- may range from the relatively innocuous to the morally odious. That is, John can be jealous1 of Jeff in the minimal sense that he wants a personal relationships with Jeff and will naturally be bothered if that relationships is put in jeopardy. Or, John might be jealous2 of Jeff in the stronger sense that he thinks Jeff is -- or ought to be -- subject to his (John's) wishes -- that Jeff is, in some sense, his. The first form is innocent since it is a natural outgrowth of close relationships; the second is odious since it demonstrates John's attempt to possess Jeff. Jealousy2 among companion friends is thus, every bit a objectionable as jealousy2 among lovers -- no more, no less.

I should also mention a variation on jealousy among companion friends. Suppose Leon and Bertha are dance partners (or skating partners). If, after three years of dancing (skating) together, Bertha expresses an interest in dancing with Larry instead, then Leon may become jealous. Leon wants to be favored by Bertha, at least on the dance floor (skating rink). But if Leon and Bertha are nothing more than dance (skating) partners, then the nature of jealousy differs from cases discussed earlier.

For instance, his jealousy may simply reflect the belief that his chances of going to the nationals have diminished. Or, perhaps he and Bertha had agreed to stay together for at least five years, and she has, effectively broken that contract. In the former case he may be seriously disappointed; in the latter case, angry. In both cases he is reacting to the loss of his favored status. But the loss is different from the loss of being favored as an intimate. In the former case he had no reason to expect they would continue to be dancing (skating) partners, and hence, his jealousy, though understandable, is not justified. In the latter case his reaction may be justified, but no so much because of his loss of favored status, but because she broke her promise.

Of course -- as if often the case among dancing (or skating) partners -- Leon and Bertha may not merely be dancing (skating) partners, but have a personal relationship as well. Thus, Leon could be jealous for both professional and personal reasons.


At the base of jealousy lies the belief that especially close relationships -- whether between companion friends or lovers -- should be long-term. Often that has been understood as implying that intimates -- whether lovers or companion friends -- should have some kind of commitment. That is, most people assume intimates must commit themselves to preserve the relationship for a long time, perhaps come what may. In the following chapter I shall discuss the place of commitment in close personal relationships.


1. See Farrell's discussion of what it means to be bothered by the favored treatment another receives (1989: 256-7). Although I am indebted to his account, I think it must be further qualified.

2. Through the remainder of this chapter I will not use subscripts. "Jealousy" will imply both senses of the term.

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