Does My Partner Belong to Me? The Justification for Jealousy

The desire for exclusivity is at the heart of jealousy.

Posted Apr 04, 2008

You don't own me, don't say I can't go with other boys. (Bette Midler)
It's hard to know another's lips will kiss you. (Hank Williams)

Romantic jealousy is often perceived to express our fear of losing an important human being who belongs to us; accordingly, jealousy is criticized for regarding another person as our property. However, it seems that the meaning of possession indicated here may not be mechanical, like when I say that I own a car, but a psychological one, which implies that I deserve to exclusively have certain types of relationships. The presence of the psychological meaning is indicated by the fact that the loss in jealousy is not accidental; it is rather an expression of a deliberate preference for another over me. Accordingly, jealous people do not treat their mates as an inanimate object, but as free responsible people able to make reasonable choices.

Exclusivity, which is at the heart of jealousy, does not necessarily mean the exclusion of all people. There are various types and degrees of exclusivity. A very strict jealousy forbids all types of social relationships between a married person and an unmarried one. A less strict jealousy may refer only to sexual relationships. There can even be some flexibility in the sexual context. Some people may allow their mate to have one short affair, say once every year, or to have an affair with people they do not know, without considering it as an abrogation of their exclusive relationship, and hence without giving any cause for jealousy, at least not of an intense kind. Consider, for example, the following attitude of Lynn, a divorcee, who interviewed for the book, In the Name of Love: "If I loved someone and wanted to be with him, and he wanted to be sexual with others, since I couldn't change his desire then I think I could simply allow it and see what it truly means. I don't have now the same need to protect myself from jealousy (like I did back then)."

People who accept a limited type of exclusivity may nevertheless be somewhat jealous of keeping this exclusivity intact. A woman in a polygamous marriage may not be jealous of any of the other women married to her husband, but she may be jealous of women outside the marriage. Similarly, a woman having an affair with a married man may not be so jealous of his wife, but be highly jealous if he engaged in an affair with a third woman. Thus, a married woman who has a long-term loving relationship with another married man says: "I cannot come into somebody's life and say, now you belong to me and I am not going to share you with anybody else. I have no right to do so, although certain aspects of sharing hurt me. And the problem of (in)fidelity is doubled here." Limited exclusivity takes into account existing circumstances and limitations and may therefore reduce jealousy.

The greater flexibility of romantic relationships in modern society is bound to have some impact upon jealousy. This impact will probably be in the direction of more frequent cases of jealousy with typically reduced intensity. Jealousy will become more frequent as opportunities to break a relationship and establish new ones continue to increase. (Jealousy is usually generated by the mere presence of threatening options, and not in the actual presence of infidelity.) However, as the prospects of establishing new relationships increase, people will become more accustomed to the circumstances associated with jealousy and its intensity will decrease.

In cyberspace, where obstacles to the nonexclusive romantic love are of lesser weight, jealousy is often less intense, but nevertheless it exists also there. Consider the following description by a woman having an online relationship that later developed into a successful marriage: "My feelings for him began to grow stronger and I could tell he felt the same about me. I began to get jealous if he talked to others in the chat room and he was doing the same with me. He finally told me he didn't want me to talk to any other men because they did not know me as he did. He didn't want his lady to be talked down to. I respected his wish and refrained from talking to other men."

Despite various challenges to the requirement for exclusivity in love, this constraint does have a basis, as it expresses a genuine psychological concern. Nonexclusive love may be accepted on a normative level, yet be quite painful on the emotional one. Married people who are having an extramarital affair may still feel intense jealousy if they suspect their lovers of having an additional affair. The bad news for our future is that jealousy will be part of romantic relationships for a long time; the good news is that people will gradually give less weight to it.