Photo by Martin Parr/Magnum


Imagine there’s no jealousy

Why we should understand jealousy as nothing more than a vice that ought to be replaced by the new virtue of compersion

by Luke Brunning + BIO

Photo by Martin Parr/Magnum

Who hasn’t been jealous at some point? On the standard view, jealousy is the emotion of being pained by a perceived threat from a third party to the attention of someone we care about and to which we feel entitled. The involvement of a rival distinguishes jealousy from mere fear of loss; the sense of entitlement over the threatened affection distinguishes jealousy from envy.

Jealousy can be horrible. But jealousy can also seem inevitable since we habitually compare ourselves to others, and unruly emotions are hard to tame. What is more, jealousy can seem valuable when viewed dispassionately. What is bad about wanting to retain valued affections? Aren’t we suspicious of people who claim not to feel jealous? Some philosophers echo these sentiments in their defences of jealousy, suggesting that jealousy is integral to playful relationships, is an erotic catalyst, expresses care, prevents indifference, and promotes reflection.

Although occasional episodes of jealousy might have these benefits, jealousy should not be cultivated as a character trait. Many outbursts of jealousy are volatile and can fuel blame and anger, paralyse reflection, and make us feel pathetic. Much has to go right if jealousy is to be beneficial. Jealousy is hardly a universal aphrodisiac.

More worryingly, there is evidence that connects jealousy with aggression and manipulation, and so any instrumental benefits of jealousy have to be weighed against the risk of these harmful behaviours. The avoidance of harm takes priority in close relationships because intimacy can exacerbate cruelty.

Finally, jealousy is useful as a signal of care only because we struggle to understand and communicate our emotions within intimate relationships. Our romantic ideals valorise the implied and unspoken, not explicitness; and introspection and emotional articulacy are peripheral to masculine ideals. Once these norms and ideals are contested, as they should be, we see that there is a kinder way to signal love: say so.

Although jealousy is rarely of instrumental value, some think that jealousy is inherently valuable as a virtue. For example, Kristján Kristjánsson, a moral philosopher at the University of Birmingham in the UK, thinks that jealousy is often appropriate because it reflects what we deserve in our relationships. In his book Virtuous Emotions (2018), Kristjánsson writes that the failure to feel jealous when your beloved’s affections are directed elsewhere can be:

the sign of such a lack of self-assertiveness and self-respect, such a cringing spirit of tolerance – not to mention lack of sensitivity to injustice – that it can only be deemed a moral failure

I doubt deservingness lies at the heart of jealousy. Instead, we need only experience a mismatch between our romantic expectations, which are culturally supported, and the reality of our relationship, rather than foster a sense of what we are owed in virtue of our character.

Even if jealousy should be understood in terms of romantic desert and justice, it remains an open question whether it is virtuous to actually feel jealous. The US philosophers Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson have argued that we often have moral or prudential reasons within different contexts not to feel things that it would be appropriate to feel. For example, a solider seems courageous precisely because he is unafraid in a grave situation where fear would be appropriate. The soldier’s loose connection between his feelings and what is appropriate helps him to thrive in battle.

Similarly, a loose connection between some of our feelings and their conditions of appropriateness can help us to thrive in love. Intimacy is stifled when we are fixated on desert and justice; and just as we might strive to not feel anger at a beloved’s petty wrongdoing, or pity at their disappointment, so we might try to avoid feeling jealous – even if jealousy would be appropriate.

Finally, character traits must be considered holistically. Even if jealousy is a virtue, we would have to examine how it relates to other virtuous traits, and consider the practical matter of whether we should prioritise jealousy’s active cultivation over those traits.

This last point will resonate with many nonmonogamous people. In addition to agreeing that jealousy is seldom valuable, they also believe that jealousy can be tamed. But not only that. Some think that we can cultivate a new trait of feeling good when our partners flourish with other people. They call this good feeling ‘compersion’ (the word is a neologism that reportedly originated on an Ouija board in a nonmonogamous commune in San Francisco).

Irrespective of our views about monogamy, we should consider seriously the idea that jealousy can be tamed and supplanted by positive feelings. We can all benefit from the ability to feel good about the flourishing and pleasures of people we care about, especially in situations where we risk being blindsided by competitiveness, vulnerability and anxiety.

But what is compersion, exactly? Might it be a form of pride, vicarious joy or masochistic enjoyment: feelings of which we are wary? More importantly, how do we become compersive? Although compersion would not be a staple of nonmonogamous discourse if it was impossible to feel, the idea that we can feel good in situations where jealousy is socially expected and justified might seem implausible.

In answering these questions, I will conclude that compersion is a distinct trait within the reach of everyone. While it is perhaps most salient or vitalising in nonmonogamous contexts, where jealousy can be acute, compersion can thrive and enrich a life wherever jealousy takes root.

Here are several recent definitions of compersion:

  • the joy at seeing one’s partner(s) happily in love with others;
  • feelings of pleasure in response to a lover’s romantic or sexual encounters outside the relationship;
  • a feeling of joy experienced when a partner takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship;
  • acceptance of, and vicarious enjoyment for, a lover’s joy.

These definitions risk conflating distinct phenomena, but we make sense of compersion by attending to how it feels and its evaluative content (ie, how the emotion construes situations). Feelings and evaluations can be valenced: described as positive or negative. Our emotional evaluations are shaped by our basic concerns: eg, the fact that we love someone shapes how we feel towards their presence or their death.

An asexual person might feel compersive when their allosexual partner has sex with someone else

Fundamentally, compersion is sensitive to how other people fare. First, we feel positive, we do not just believe that others fare well. Second, our positive feelings mirror our positive construal of the situation. Compersion is not like feelings of recalcitrant amusement or masochistic pleasure, where we seem to feel good towards things that our emotions simultaneously construe as bad. (In masochistic enjoyment, we often feel good because our emotions construe situations as bad.)

Third, we feel compersive about a situation that the people involved think is good. Thus, compersion is unlike pride. We might be proud that someone is nonmonogamous, or think it is cool, but pride does not require empathy. Compersion does. Fourth, we can be compersive without wanting what other people have. An asexual person, for example, might feel compersive when their allosexual partner (or partner who experiences sexual attraction to other people) has a sexual relationship with someone else. Compersion is therefore not ‘vicarious enjoyment’.

If compersion were the mere acceptance of other people’s flourishing, or recalcitrant admiration, pride, vicarious enjoyment or masochistic pleasure, it would be hard to see why nonmonogamous people held it as an ideal.

We cultivate compersion as a character trait by reducing our propensity to be jealous, and learning to appreciate the flourishing of others. To tame jealousy, we need to know why it arises. In turn, we understand why it arises by considering its underlying concerns. These concerns are Janus-faced: because we enjoy affection, jealousy is sensitive to other people; because we care about ourselves, jealousy is animated by self-love. To my mind, François de La Rochefoucauld in 1671 was right that ‘In jealousy there is more self-love than love.’

Self-love is a response to the vulnerability that underpins most jealousy. We are vulnerable because other people shape our engagement with the world. From infancy, we become arationally attached (that is, an attachment not governed by reasoning or subject to rational appraisal) to people as sources of security. Attachment brings pleasure, but we remain highly dependent. Our flourishing is interwoven with the actions of others; our self-conceptions are relationally structured by social roles and identities that require other people to occupy complementary roles; and many evaluative concepts – of wealth, attractiveness, wit – involve comparisons with other people.

Dependency makes life risky. Harm and abandonment rob us of support, pleasurable company and aspects of a relational identity, and these losses undermine our self-conceptions. Because these risks are unavoidable, we are vulnerable.

In turn, vulnerability underpins possessiveness: the activity of seeking proximity to others. Possessiveness is rarely the product of reasoning: we just want to feel secure. ‘Possessive’ ambiguously denotes this psychological tendency and a normative attitude, but we can label the normative attitude entitlement, and reserve possessive for the psychological tendency. People who are possessive want the attention of others; entitled people think they are owed such attention.

Entitlement is constituted by beliefs that justify our possessiveness: beliefs about what is normal, natural and deserved. Entitlement mostly stems from social structures and norms such as patriarchal standards of feminine behaviour.

Contrary to some theories, both vulnerability and entitlement underpin jealousy. Jealous panic stems from vulnerability and potential loss; jealous indignation stems from the belief, usually misguided, that we are entitled to affection. To tackle jealousy, and cultivate compersion, we need to address vulnerability, possessiveness and entitlement. Tackling jealousy is therefore part direct reflection, part indirect nurturance. Approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy that emphasise only the need to change beliefs overlook vulnerability’s arational grip.

To understand our entitlement, we must reflect on romantic concepts and ideals such as commitment and exclusivity to consider whether we endorse their prevailing social interpretations. But to grasp these concepts fully, we must reflect holistically. To consider commitment, for example, we must contemplate communication, honesty and power. In turn, to interrogate power is to consider social structures, identities and norms, and to look at notions of consent, autonomy, misogyny, race, ability and gender, and so on.

Slow and incremental exposure to the idea of a beloved flourishing with others fosters resilience

More personally, we must consider our expectations and boundaries. What do we want from a romantic relationship, and why do we want that? Are we beholden to social archetypes or personal quirks? Are we too dependent on others? What triggers our insecurity, and how can that be managed? What affirmation do we want from a partner?

Reflection cannot completely tame jealousy because our vulnerability originates in arational attachments to other people, but we can tame jealousy’s worst manifestations through indirect emotional management. Slow and incremental exposure to the idea of a beloved flourishing with others fosters resilience since we have more opportunities to feel competent, and for affirmation and support to resonate. We can also strive to communicate openly and to discuss some of our uglier feelings because jealousy, like fear, thrives in silence. And we can work to identify and criticise recurring thought patterns – ‘What if they never come back?’ ‘What if he is better than me?’ Finally, we can maintain nurturing homes and community by talking to friends, practising rituals of affirmation, and expressing love. These practices are discussed frequently in self-help books on nonmonogamy.

It is one thing to stop ruminating on threats to ourselves, however, and quite another to actively appreciate the flourishing of other people. Therefore, alongside our efforts to tame jealousy, we also need to cultivate what Iris Murdoch in The Sovereignty of Good (1970) called a ‘patient, loving regard’ towards people. This slow endeavour involves moral imagination in at least three ways.

First, we can redirect our attention by asking of a situation: what does this experience mean to them? In focusing on their good, in the plural, we are less likely to focus on a beloved’s flourishing only insofar as it bears on ourselves.

Second, we have to interrogate our habits of thought, and resist construing other people as rivals, or social interactions as competitive. To resist these thought patterns, we have to critically consider common social portrayals of third parties; a difficult task when society rarely portrays nonexclusive forms of affection and concern beyond the family.

Finally, we can think empathetically about others. We frequently view people schematically without appreciating their perspective, interests and personality. It is hard to feel good for people who are portrayed poorly. In typical jealousy-eliciting situations, where a beloved flourishes with someone else, a point of departure for greater empathy is to recognise the similarities between us and this ‘someone else’; in particular, our affection for the same person.

Jealousy is hard to defend. There is no unproblematic connection between jealousy and a good relationship, and jealousy does not help us appreciate the flourishing of those we care about. Moreover, nonmonogamous people, and their experiments in living, give us reason to think that jealousy is neither indispensable nor untameable.

But suppose I am wrong about jealousy’s value. Even if jealousy were virtuous, we still have to consider it alongside compersion because it is possible that both dispositions are good. But if they are, we have to consider the practical issue of how and whether they can be actively cultivated together. Practically speaking, jealousy and compersion are in tension. In our society, the deck is stacked against feeling compersive because our attention is selective, we are vulnerable and often aggressive, and jealousy is frequently praised. Therefore, it would be hard to cultivate compersion while simultaneously developing a nuanced sense of jealousy.

More importantly, the risks of going awry while cultivating jealousy, like being aggressive or jealous in contexts where it is unreasonable, outweigh any purported risks associated with cultivating compersion, such as being insensitive to disrespect. When coupled with the fact that compersion also offers the instrumental benefits of jealousy in manifesting our affection, but without the threat of aggression, it seems clear that, when viewed holistically, we should favour the practical cultivation of compersion over jealousy. To do so would set us down the road of being less possessive and entitled, more able to manage our vulnerability, and better placed to appreciate and enjoy the good things in the lives of other people. To invert La Rochefoucauld’s maxim: in compersion there is more love than self-love.