Freedom captured by the green-eyed monster: some existential perspectives on romantic jealousy.
Abstract: This paper undertakes an exploration of romantic jealousy from an existential perspective, taking the material of two of the author's clients, Nico and Chloe, as illustrative examples. The author makes her primary focus the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and his ideas concerning the capture of the Other's freedom; she also considers jealousy briefly in relation to the existential concepts of fidelity, shame, temporality and engulfment of the self, drawing on the work of Gabriel Marcel, R.D. Laing and Maurice Merleau-Ponty; finally reflecting on the implications for us as existential therapists working with romantic jealousy as a presenting issue. The paper seeks to demonstrate that romantic jealousy, which has perhaps been dismissed alongside other emotions as being an ontic experience, in fact contains deep undercurrents of ontological significance.

Key words

jealousy, possessiveness, freedom, existential, love, the other
Article Type: Essay
Subject: Jealousy (Analysis)
Existentialism (Analysis)
Liberty (Analysis)
Author: Acton, Helen
Pub Date: 01/01/2010
Publication: Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616
Issue: Date: Jan, 2010 Source Volume: 21 Source Issue: 1
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United Kingdom Geographic Code: 4EUUK United Kingdom
Accession Number: 288874130
Full Text: Introduction

From Shakespeare's Othello, through the infamous bunny-boiling scenes of Fatal Attraction, to today's ubiquitous television soap opera storylines, the emotion and consequences of romantic jealousy permeate our popular culture. Jealousy makes good drama. But to spend a little time with anyone in the grip of this most negative and destructive of emotions is to see the pain, shame and turmoil with which they struggle. In recent months I have found jealousy emerging as a theme with several of my clients, and though it is widely recognised that jealousy is 'a fundamental aspect of human social life' (DeSteno et al. 2006, p626), I can find little reference to it in existential literature. I myself have struggled with this emotion in the past and am familiar with its prominence in the themes, theories and literature of other schools of thought. For the psychoanalysts jealousy is a response to the Oedipal triangle or a narcissistic wound; attachment theory sees it as symptomatic of an insecure-ambivalent attachment pattern; and the evolutionary psychologists tell us that it has developed as a way of addressing and protecting against threat to our family units. But what of the existentialists?

What do we mean by Jealousy?

It is necessary in the first instance to distinguish jealousy from envy. Whilst envy is generally recognised as being related to something one doesn't yet (or may never) possess, jealousy is concerned with something one does have and fears losing (Neu 2000); it is a wanting-to-hold rather than a wanting-to-have (Tellenbach 1974). Jealousy is also to be distinguished from disappointment, which is a reaction to loss itself, as opposed to the fear of loss to which jealousy is a response. Nor is jealousy synonymous with revenge, since its goal is to prevent loss, rather than to avenge it (Hupka 1991). But there is a further crucial aspect to this emotional state which sets it apart from other responses to the fear of loss in that for jealousy to exist it must involve 'the loss of a relationship to a rival, whether this loss is feared, is actual and present, or is a fact of the past' (Parrott 1991, p16). Though jealousy can rear its head within a variety of social situations--namely friendships, work relationships, family situations, and indeed any triadic relationship--the specific experience I shall be examining here is prototypical romantic jealousy.

Romantic jealousy itself is highly complex and can take on a variety of forms in response to different jealousy-inducing situations; and it can be further categorized into two types. In the first, named variously as 'rational' (Ellis 1977), 'provoked' (Hoaken 1976), 'reactive' (Bringle 1991) and 'fait accompli' jealousy (Parrott 1991), the threat to the relationship is clear, real and unambiguous, whereas in the second--'suspicious' or 'irrational' jealousy--the threat is unclear, only suspected, and is experienced primarily as fear, anxiety and insecurity. Clearly, then, it is a question of a client's subjective judgment of threat and their individual response to it; it is this latter experience which has been recurring in my client work, and on which I shall focus in my exploration of the arising existential issues.

The Paradox of Enslavement

'I love Sarah, I want her to be happy. But she's mine--she's just for me--I can't bear the thought of her out there having fun with other people. She might meet someone. It makes me sick with jealousy.'

So says my client, Nico. In this statement Nico demonstrates a key characteristic of romantic jealousy--namely, possessiveness. But what is it that Nico is hoping to possess? According to Titelman 'in jealousy the existential object is maintaining-possession-of-something-desired and justifying the claim upon it, in the service of continuing one's ongoing and desired self-world relation' (Titelman 1981, p196). It seems to me that Nico is seeking here to possess or, certainly, to control his girlfriend Sarah's freedom. He confesses that if he had his way she would be forever at home with him, or waiting for him when he goes out, and he becomes nervous and accusatory when she is out if his sight. Freedom is a recurrent theme in the work of Sartre, and is never more vivid than in his writings on the nature of our relationship with the Other. For Sartre, sexual desire 'aims, fundamentally, at the appropriation of the Other's freedom' (Langer 1981, p314). Much of his writing relates to the purely physical aspects of desire, and the objectification of the Other as flesh (Sartre 1958), and he views love essentially as a means by which one can escape being object to the Other. But there is a difficulty in that in order to be loved, I have in the first instance to attract the Other, and in doing so I do make myself into an object (MacQuarrie 1972). Sartre's ideas on the objectification of the Other in sexuality lead on from his famous notion of 'the Look' which he says is the 'fundamental connection which must form the basis of any theory concerning the Other' (Sartre 1958). There is a perpetual tussle between the Other and me--at any given time one of us must be the subject and one the object--and it is this which forms the conflict at the heart of every human relationship, be it a love relationship or any other. In Sartre's view that 'by looking at me, the Other invariably freezes my freedom, circumscribes my possibilities' (Langer 1981, p 312) we can see the roots of the desire to capture the Other's freedom as illustrated in Nico. Merleau-Ponty takes the positive view that although desire may want the Other as a thing, love wants the Other as a person (Merleau-Ponty 1964); but to me it seems that if desire is for the objectivity of the Other, and love is for the subjectivity of the Other, then jealousy can be seen as a return to concern for the Other as object.

So even in what Sartre has to say about the love relationship, objectification plays a major part. It is precisely freedom of the Other--the freedom to choose to be unfaithful, or to leave the relationship--which poses the greatest threat to me: 'I have no security; I am in danger in this freedom' (Sartre 1958, p388), and so I seek at some level to capture it. Though Sartre would claim that in any relationship there is a degree of restriction of the freedom of one party by the other, it is in romantic jealousy that this is most clearly demonstrated. For Nico the risk to him and to his relationship seems to lie in Sarah's freedom to do what she pleases, and the way he attempts to find safety and certainty is to limit that freedom. To objectify the person one loves in this way is to reduce them to a 'being-as-object' (Sartre 2002) and to want to possess them rather than allow them the freedom to choose to be who they want to be; though of course herein lies the paradox, since one wants to 'wholly limit the freedom of the other and yet be loved by someone who is still free' (Warnock 1970, p118).

So for Sartre there is paradox in the fact that 'the lover does not desire to possess the beloved as one possesses a thing ... he wants to possess a freedom as freedom' (Sartre 1958, p389). He wants to be loved--to feel the security and certainty of a love which will not be taken away--but he wants to be loved by someone who is free to choose to love him, and it is with this paradox that the jealous lover struggles, for 'the love that [is] given in response to the demands of jealousy ... could never really satisfy those demands' (Neu 2000, p55). The lover craves the assurance that his beloved will choose him only--that she 'shall exist solely to choose [him] as an object' (Blackham 1952, p121) but he becomes entangled in his attempts to secure that assurance for himself; his instinct is to impose the restrictions upon his beloved which will make him feel safe from threat, but he is ultimately unsatisfied because his actions cannot secure her free choice to love him--there is no possibility of him forcing her to 'submit freely to him' (Lapointe 1974, p449). And according to Merleau-Ponty, who is in agreement with some (though by no means all) of Sartre's ideas on the nature of love and desire, to master the Other's freedom can never lead to fulfilment simply because once I have captured and 'fascinated' him in this way, he is no longer the person by whom I wished to be loved (Merleau-Ponty 1962).

Broadly speaking Merleau-Ponty has a more positive outlook than Sartre on the possibility of love, in that 'while Sartre sees love as a necessarily unsuccessful attempt at possession of the other as a person, Merleau-Ponty sees love as a creation of the other as a person' (Lapointe 1974, p457), a viewpoint which one can sometimes see borne out in the blossoming of an individual in love. But where does that fit in with the experience of the jealous? Well, while in contrast to Sartre, Merleau-Ponty does believe that the ultimate success of love is entirely possible, he nevertheless maintains that the impairment of the Other is inevitable. Indeed he conceives of a further paradox, in that a person's very efforts to allow the Other unlimited freedom are likely to incline her to want to make choices to please him (Merleau-Ponty 1962); and it is this irony which the jealous lover may hear, but is sadly unable to act upon.

In love there is a fundamental wish to be united with another as two free subjects; but again this is a desire destined to be thwarted, since to be actually joined with another would mean to exist in his body as he does an unattainable wish, for 'it is the liberty of the other that separates the other from me' (Blackham 1952, p121). Though again Merleau-Ponty has a more optimistic take on the achievable success of this when he states that 'to love is inevitably to enter into an undivided situation with another' (Merleau-Ponty 1964, p154), it is nevertheless true to say that we cannot escape the fact that we are ultimately two separate people, each living our own life with our own free will, a fact which the jealous individual finds intolerable. For Sartre it is this bitter frustration that lingers in the background of even the most passionate and apparently fulfilling of romantic trysts (Barnes 1974).

When Nico tells me that he would only feel truly happy and safe if he and Sarah were totally alone together on a desert island, he shows me that 'in Love the Lover wants to be "the whole World" for the beloved' (Sartre 1958, p389). He is also demonstrating Sartre's notions that an ideal love relation is spoiled by the intrusion and judgment of a third party, rendering solitude a desirable state for the couple (Caws 1979, Grimsley 1960), and that a satisfactory love relationship could only be maintained by two lovers totally alone in the world. Indeed, 'part of the impulse to possess one's beloved for oneself alone comes from the necessity of isolating oneself with him or her from the degrading presence of any witness' (Lingis 1985, p17).

For many, Sartre's views on love are overly negative and pessimistic, but for me his gloomy perspective is borne out in jealousy. His focus is on the combative nature of love relationships in which 'while I seek to enslave the Other, the Other seeks to enslave me' (Sartre 1958, p386). There is some criticism that Sartre's views here are actually focused on the desire to be loved, rather than love itself (Boros Azzi 1981), and he does maintain that to love is actually the project of making oneself loved; but it seems to me that in any love relationship which is not characterized by unconditional love the two do become entwined. And this is nowhere more evident than in cases of romantic jealousy: for Nico, his love for Sarah has become almost indistinguishable from his need to be loved by her and from his need to be the centre of her attention and her world. So to take a Sartrean perspective on love is to say that 'there is no way out: the essence of the relations between consciousnesses is not togetherness, it is conflict' (Blackham 1952, p126); but how to share that with a client who comes to us desperate for a 'cure' for his jealousy?

Love as a Contract

In attempting to remove Sarah's freedom to stray, Nico is seeking certainty. He is wrestling with the ontological aloneness of his being-in-the-world, the 'ultimate isolation which is the inextricable accompaniment of being a free consciousness' (Barnes 1974, p59) and the fundamental uncertainty of life. Though in his more extreme jealous moments he counteracts himself with the reassurance that he trusts Sarah and knows he is being 'irrational', there is a sense in which, existentially speaking, he is being entirely rational. The uncertainty is real; Sarah and her future choices are indeed uncertain and unknown--but crucially, they are not only unknown to him, but also to her. What Nico would seem to be longing for is the unshakeable knowledge that Sarah is there for him, solely, forever an unbreakable contract--and indeed she may wish to appease him, and her own sense of security, by making that contract. But it is here that we find yet another paradox, illustrating well Marcel's ideas around fidelity, at the heart of which lies the notion that 'fidelity is not a mere act of will' (Blackham 1952, p76).

Though Marcel's concept of fidelity applies to many different kinds of relation, it is especially pertinent to an exploration of romantic jealousy, since the jealous lover is so often 'driven to prove an infidelity he cannot tolerate and is unable to prove a fidelity he so obsessively requires' (Farber 1976, p188). The crux of Marcel's thinking is that we are in bad faith if ever we make a promise to remain faithful (Marcel 1964), and so once again the jealous person can never be fully satisfied even by the commitment to be faithful which he believes himself to seek. I can never actually know how I will feel in the future, so 'what does it really mean to swear fidelity?' (ibid., p158). Such certainty of the future is not possible, no matter how much the romance of marriage vows might suggest otherwise; so to make a promise of fidelity is either to lie to myself by pretending to 'an invariability of sentiment which it is not really in my power to establish' (Blackham 1952, p75) or to consent in advance to lie to the Other by being faithful despite an alteration in my feelings, should the time come. If I find myself at some future time feeling disinclined to remain faithful to my partner by choice, then my options are either to break my promise of fidelity, or to keep it simply because I have made it. Therefore, for Marcel, there is a disparity between fidelity and sincerity.

Surely even if fidelity is of importance to us, all we can really hope for from a partner is that he chooses in each new moment to be faithful to us--not because he has committed to be so, but because it is how he wishes to behave at this instant. Indeed for Marcel, fidelity can only be truly valued if it 'offers an essential element of spontaneity, itself radically independent of the will' (Marcel 1964, p155). So whilst Nico craves the apparent safety and release from jealousy that a concrete commitment from Sarah might afford him, he is trapped in the tragedy that he will be ultimately unsatisfied by 'the love of the Other through the kind of promise that is made in marriage and to which the lover will adhere only because he has so promised' (Macann 1993, p149), as observed by Sartre. One could even argue that 'to be sincere would .mean rejecting the idea of a fidelity which binds the future ... and leav[ing] the future uncommitted' (Grimsley 1960, p204). It is the choice of the beloved to be faithful in the moment which is to be cherished; but where does that leave the jealous lover fraught in his pursuit of the certainty of commitment?

And there is yet further paradox in the fact that the jealous lover believes that he is chasing the security of unconditional love, and yet to be loved unconditionally, such as by God or mother, is to be loved regardless of one's actions. Unconditional love does not select me as its distinctive, special object, and so it is yet another path to dissatisfaction. It is only the conditional love which chooses to love me specifically for who I am that will satisfy; and yet there is no security in such conditional love (Neu 2000).

A Shameful Business

Both Nico and my second client, Chloe, confess to me that they feel deep shame at their feelings of jealousy. For Nico it goes against the laid-back self-image and reputation which he guards so fiercely, and he relates powerfully to the notion that 'a man ... inevitably renders himself ridiculous as soon as he becomes jealous' (Kierkegaard, cited in Tellenbach 1974, p461), whilst for Chloe the ferocious rage it inspires in her renders her incapable of liking the person she sees in the mirror; both feel exposed. Ontic shame belongs to the realms of decency and morality, and a focus on individual flaws, but it always reveals an underlying layer of ontological shame (Holzhey-Kunz 2008); ontologically speaking the shame is of the fact that I am exposed to others, rather than the ontic shame of how I am exposed.

Here in the sense of shame we see again the negatively-experienced impact of a third party bearing witness to the love relationship and to the jealous feelings within it. For Sartre 'one would have to be alone in the world with the beloved in order for love to preserve its character as an absolute axis of reference--hence the lover's perpetual shame' (Lapointe 1974, p451). So here is yet another of the pitiable jealous person's struggles, in that the jealous feelings are potent and difficult to hide--they strain to be expressed--and yet 'every jealous person knows jealousy to be a brutally degrading experience and resists with all his might revealing the extent of his degradation ... to describe his jealousy is to illuminate his reduction as a human being' (Farber 1976, p182).

A Threat to the Self

My client Chloe experiences jealousy as an overwhelming sense of threat that brings out in her an angry and violent side. For her it involves a desperate need to protect herself which could at first glance be perceived as being out of proportion to the actual potential threat of her boyfriend, David, being unfaithful to her or, ultimately, leaving her. But it is in Chloe that I feel I am witnessing the notion that 'the fear of loss is tied to a deeper underlying fear: fear of annihilation' (Neu 2000, p62). She has so much of herself invested in the relationship with David, and her sense of her own identity is so much tied in with that, that it is her very self (self as defined by Laing as one's 'capacity to act autonomously' (Laing 1960, p47) and her identity which seem to be at stake (Neu 2000). And so 'always the occurrence of jealousy is a sign that the self can be wounded at its most vulnerable spot, and that thereby a tangible weakening of the self is immanent' (Tellenbach 1974, p463). For the jealous lover there is a validation of the self through the attention and affections of the Other such that, according to Sartre, 'in so far as the Other takes possession of me, I am founded in my being, as a concretely existing human being, by the Other' (Macann 1993, p148); indeed in the love of the Other my very existence is justified (Lapointe 1974). So we can see that the potential loss is great, and the drive for self-protection paramount.

There is a desperation about Chloe's anger which suggests in that moment a fervent dislike of both herself for being so jealous, and of David for 'making her' feel that way; indeed Neu highlights that for Spinoza hatred of the beloved should be built into any definition of jealousy (Neu 2000). Chloe seems to embody the sense that

in the grip of jealous passion one's state is reduced to a kind of craven non-being. One strives to appear to be the person he was, but he knows that he has lost his autonomy--his sense of self--and has become a slave whose diminished existence is at the mercy of his mate

(Farber 1976, p187).

In this fear of being at the mercy of the Other there are overtones of Laing's notion of the dread of engulfment as a manifestation of ontological insecurity (Laing 1960); indeed 'jealous fears are closely linked to the corresponding terror of engulfment' (Tov-Ruach 1980, p483). He suggests that it is those without 'a firm sense of [their] own autonomous identity' (Laing 1960, p44) who are at risk of feeling threatened with a loss of identity by the relationships they engage in. For Laing the fear of engulfment is associated with a lack of belief in the stability of my own autonomy, and is an expression of my anxiety that there is an inherent risk to me in becoming involved in a love relationship. Laing describes vividly that 'the individual experiences himself as a man who is only saving himself from drowning by the most constant, strenuous, desperate activity' (ibid., p44), and it is this struggle that I see in Chloe. A crucial characteristic of engulfment is that the threatened person experiences the Other as 'deadening and impoverishing' (ibid., p47) by reason of his or her very existence, rather than by any specific thing the Other does. For the jealous lover, therefore, there is a hopelessness in the attempts she makes to protect herself by controlling the Other's actions; they bring her no relief. She seems to lurch frantically between the polarities of isolation and merging-of-identity (ibid., p53), both of which terrify her; and she wrestles with the jealous individual's eternal question: 'before self-loss is safe, a trustworthy other or partner must be found. And who is trustworthy?' (Koestenbaum 1974, p29).

A Question of Temporality

Finally, as with any existential issue, there are threads of temporality running through the experience of jealousy; here they manifest in two ways. Firstly, jealousy as a fear of loss relates to the future: 'decisive in it is the time element in this menace, as of a thing to come, an apprehension of impending suffering' (Tellenbach 1974, p465). Though the root cause of a jealous predisposition may lie in the history of an individual's past relationships, it is essentially an obsession with protecting oneself from something which has not yet happened, but which may or may not happen at some point in the future. Nico is sure that Sarah has not been unfaithful to him--and that she is not currently planning to leave him--but for him the threat and the fear is that if she has fun with someone else now, she may end their relationship in the future; his is 'a fretting in advance, [an] anticipatory jealousy' (ibid., p465). The tragedy for such a person is that the fixation on the fantasy of future events detracts from possible enjoyment of the present moment: 'the valued and clung-to present is [experienced as] slipping away, and the foreboding and unwanted future is approaching' (Titelman 1981, p201).

Secondly, inherent in the experience of jealousy is the irony that once the feared event has occurred, and the loved one is lost once and for all, the jealousy in relation to that person ends. Whilst some individuals prone to jealous suspicions may on the one hand continue to be obsessed with the lost love object, and on the other seek further situations in which their jealous tendencies can be exercised once more, others experience a sense of liberation. Depending on the circumstances there may be new emotions to deal with such as anger, disappointment or grief, but jealousy itself is no longer experienced, since it is 'unconditionally interlocked with ... uncertainty, with an impending possibility of something slipping away that belongs to me' (Tellenbach 1974, p462). When asked how he would feel if Sarah actually did leave him, Nico tells me that in one sense it would be a 'relief'; for Chloe there was an immense feeling of release from the constant tortuous suspicion once David had finally ended their relationship. The unrestful experience of jealousy is so closely related to the sensation of, and protection against, something moving away from me, that when that movement comes to a halt in 'the certainty of ultimate loss' (ibid., p462), the jealousy ceases.


I have attempted here to draw together the thinking of some of the most well known existential writers in the service of proposing an existential perspective on romantic jealousy. There is no single existential issue present in the experience of jealousy, but rather it encompasses and illustrates so many existential insecurities, both ontic and ontological. I have taken various aspects of the experience and considered them in the light of the thinking of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Laing and Marcel. Rife as it is with paradox, that life-blood of existentialism, jealousy's absence from the existential literature is puzzling; it may be that this absence is due to a dismissal of the experience of jealousy as something trivially ontic, but I hope I have demonstrated that a closer look would suggest something containing deep undercurrents of ontological significance.

For me any exploration of the existential issues present in a person's situation is undertaken primarily with a view to considering the implications for our work as therapists. As with so many presenting problems, my experience of jealousy-related client work is that they come to us in a state of turmoil, asking for the pain to be taken away. They have very often learnt that their jealous feelings are in some way pathological, they witness that others around them don't suffer in this way, and they are desperate for a 'cure'.

And here lies the dilemma for us as existential therapists; for whilst there are no doubt ways in which some of the more extreme and obsessive symptoms of jealousy could be eased through therapy, we nevertheless have an ultimate responsibility not to deprive the client of awareness. We contrast with the traditional view of jealousy as irrational and inappropriate. The things of which the jealous client is apparently most fearful--namely infidelity or desertion by their lover--are things which really might happen. The client seeks certainty but there is no certainty. He tells us that he knows he is being irrational--and hopes that therapy will help him to become more rational; but where is the irrationality? It is not what the client wants to hear from us, but his fears have foundation. Is it not our responsibility to maintain that the uncertainty and possibility of loss are real, not only within the specific love relationship, but in all aspects of human experience? So perhaps our role is not so much to remove the experience of jealousy, but rather to assist our clients in tolerating it and choosing new ways to live with it, demonstrative as it is of so many of the anxieties of existence.

This paper was originally submitted as an essay in partial fulfilment of the Advanced Diploma in Existential Psychotherapy at Regent's College; I am extremely grateful to my tutor, Jonathan Hall, for his suggestion that I submit the paper for publication.


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Helen Acton is an existential-phenomenological therapist in private practice. At the time of writing she was in the final year of the Advanced Diploma in Existential Psychotherapy at the School of Psychotherapy & Counselling Psychology, Regent's College, London, where she was the recipient of a Hans W. Cohn bursary.
O! beware, my lord, of jealousy;
   It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
   The meat it feeds on.

   William Shakespeare, Othello
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