In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Do Lovers of Married People Experience Envy or Jealousy?

Lovers do not lead a very pleasant life.
I have never been envious. Not even when my dad finished fifth grade a year before I did. (Jeff Foxworthy)

The way to hold a husband is to keep him a little jealous; the way to lose him is to keep him a little more jealous. (Henry Louis Mencken)

Envy and jealousy are common, painful emotions; their meanings, however, overlap, and the distinction between them is unclear. This makes coping with them difficult. Here, in seeking to clarify the nature of these highly powerful emotions, I also suggest that their co-occurrence is frequent and clearly evident among lovers of married people.

Envy involves a negative evaluation of our undeserved inferiority, whereas jealousy involves a negative evaluation of the possibility of losing something-typically, a favorable human relationship-to someone else. Envy and jealousy would seem to address a similar emotional attitude. Both are concerned with a change in what one has: either the wish to obtain or the fear of loss. The wish in envy is for something one does not have, while in jealousy it is something one fears losing. This distinction is not negligible: the wish to obtain something is notably different from the wish not to lose it.

Another difference is that jealousy is typically associated with exclusive human relationships. Envy has no such restrictions. The focus of concern in envy is our undeserved inferiority. Because inferiority can stem from a variety of factors, envy may be born of any or all of them and not merely from the threatened loss of some human relationships. While in principle jealousy may also refer to the possible loss of something other than exclusive human relationships, typical jealousy is concerned with most painful loss: that of an exclusive relationship in which our partner prefers someone else.

Envy is concerned with our undeserved inferiority. The issue of desert is always accompanied by the issue of our inferiority. Our concern is not a general moral concern for justice, but a particular personal concern for what we consider as undeserved inferiority. The desert claim in jealousy is stronger than in envy since in jealousy we are already involved in the relationship which we want to maintain, and we believe that we deserve to do so. We feel more entitled to something that we already have than to something that we have never had.

In contrast to envy, which is essentially a two-party relation, jealousy is basically a three-party relation. It concerns the mate's relationships with others, since these may threaten our favorable and exclusive relationship with the mate. The threat in jealousy may be either of completely losing our relationship with the partner, or losing qualities of that relationship, even though the relationship itself may endure. The prototypical instance of jealousy is romantic jealousy.

Jealousy is more personal and generates greater vulnerability than envy; it is more likely to cause profound injury to our self-esteem since it touches on far more significant aspects of our self-esteem. The threat it carries is posed by a person with intimate and reliable information about us. The severity of the threat may explain why jealousy is so intense despite the prevalence of sexual infidelity. The intense pain generated by jealousy is not because something extraordinary has happened, but because we may lose something of crucial importance to us.

In jealousy maintaining self-esteem comes by proving the suspicions groundless. Improving our situation in envy greatly depends on us; in jealousy, the partner's attitude is more significant. Therefore, the motivation to improve ourselves is more salient for envy than for jealousy.

In envy we are mainly troubled by an existing inferior situation rather than, as in jealousy, by a threat of winding up in such a situation. Envy is concerned with a current situation in which our inferior position is already evident; jealousy anticipates a future or possible threat. Accordingly, the envious person wants to change the existing situation, whereas the jealous person fears a change in the existing situation. The cognitive element is therefore usually more veridical in envy than in jealousy as the threat in jealousy can be imaginary. Jealousy often involves fantasy. Proust compares jealousy to a historian without documents. Frequently, our jealousy does not die when we realize our error; any pretext whatsoever is sufficient to revive this emotion. Indeed, the most frequent event eliciting jealousy among married people is not actual infidelity, but involves the partner paying attention, or giving time and support to, a member of the opposite sex. This situation tends to elicit extreme jealousy when the third party is the partner's ex-spouse.

Jealousy stems from the desire to be "favored" in some respect and the suspicion that one is not. The choice of someone else over us contributes to the painful nature of jealousy. The loss is no accident but a clear preference for the other. The issue of preference is of crucial importance in jealousy. This also suggests that jealous people do not treat their partner as an inanimate object, but as a free, responsible person able to make reasonable choices.

Typically, envy and jealousy involve unpleasant feelings which disturb us and which we would like to overcome. Jealousy is a more negative personal attitude, expressed in more intense desires and feelings and in being more aggressive than envy. Jealousy is usually more painful than envy because of (a) its more personal nature, and (b) it is more difficult to bear the loss of something you have than not to gain something you never had. This means that the stakes in jealousy are higher and the unpleasantness unpleasanter.

How should we characterize the attitude of the wife's lover toward the husband? The lover's attitude is not a typical case of jealousy since the wife does not clearly choose the husband over him; hence, the lover does not experience a loss to someone else. The wife's original choice was made long before she knew the lover, and there are objective difficulties in the current situation-related, for instance, to the couple's children-which inhibit canceling that original decision. The lover can, therefore, believe that the wife does not really prefer the husband and his attitude may be closer to envy than to jealousy. The lover's attitude is complex, with features typical of both jealousy and envy. The lover will be jealous of the wife's sexual relations with her husband, and be envious of the open and intense social interaction the husband has with his wife.

Lovers of married people, then, often experience both envy and jealousy-suggesting that, contrary to the common image, lovers do not lead a very pleasant life.

Adapted from The Subtlety of Emotions

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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