- Taking care of our needs and capacities is not egoistic, but rather highly valuable for us and for those around us.
- An extreme form of romantic altruism is found in compersion, which expresses happiness for your partner’s romantic affair with someone else.
- Romantic relationships involve a greater portion of altruism than egoism.
- Profound romantic love is personal, as it emphasizes the needs of the partners, but is not egoism, or at least not an excessive type.
“Love is at the same time the most generous and the most egotistical thing in nature.” —Friedrich Schiller
Is romantic love egoistic, as many insist? And if so, is it possible that love also has altruistic motivations? I suggest four reasons that indicate the egoistic aspect of romantic love and four reasons that argue the opposite. How can we solve this apparent paradox?
Egoistic aspects in romantic relationships
"If we were not all so interested in ourselves, life would be so uninteresting that none of us would be able to endure it." —Arthur Schopenhauer
"Egoism is the very essence of a noble soul." —Friedrich Nietzsche
Egoistic motivation is evident in various features of romantic relationships. I will examine four major ones here: the partial nature of emotions, the value of belonging, connecting the partner’s happiness to oneself, and the centrality of self-fulfillment.
1. Partiality. Emotions are not detached theoretical states; they are partial in addressing a practical concern from a personal, interested perspective (Ben-Ze’ev, 2000).
2. Belonging is a prevailing attitude in romantic relationships. Despite its political incorrectness, lovers still commonly inform one another, “You belong to me.” The term “belonging” has to do with “possession” or “being a natural part” of something (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Belonging, in the literal sense of possession, is of course inappropriate and egoistic.
3. Connecting the partner’s happiness to oneself. Although romantic love encompasses genuine care for the beloved, the beloved's happiness is usually not a general concern in all circumstances. In particular, partners typically do not want their beloved to be sexually happy with another person.
4. These days, self-fulfillment has become an essential consideration of whether to stay in a marriage, or another committed relationship (Finkel, 2017). This development further enhances the egoistic aspect of romantic love.
Altruistic aspects in romantic relationships
“When the lover of my husband sits on his knees, I melt: “They’re sooooo cute!” —Swann, in Hypatia from Space, Compersion
Alongside these four features present in the egoism of romantic relationships, four opposing features challenge the assumption that love is egoistic: uniqueness, bringing out the best in each other, compersion, and the positive impact of self-fulfillment.
1. Uniqueness. In profound love, the beloved is perceived to be the most suitable partner, thereby creating a personal commitment to one another, as well as profound care for one another. This in turn creates intrinsic positive development, based upon reciprocal positive emotions and shared activities.
2. Bringing out the best in each other. Profound love has the potential to nurture flourishing and positive development, and to bring out the best in both lovers. Research has demonstrated that when a close romantic partner sees and acts toward their beloved in a manner that matches their ideal self, they move closer toward that self. This is expressed in statements like “I’m a better person when I am with her” (Drigotas, 2002).
3. Compersion. An extreme form of romantic altruism is found in the emotion of compersion, which is a form of sympathetic joy expressing happiness for your partner’s romantic affair with someone else. Compersion is the opposite of jealousy: jealousy involves a negative response toward your partner’s romantic affair with someone else while compersion adopts a positive attitude toward your partner’s affair. Compersion is a type of sexual and romantic generosity—of giving more than is expected (Ben-Ze’ev, 2022).
4. Self-fulfilment. Attempting to nurture one’s capacities and genuine needs is not egocentric. In romantic relationships, your flourishing should enhance, rather than oppose the flourishing of your partner and the bond between you. If personal fulfillment refers merely to feeling good, then it will certainly conflict with your partner’s well-being. However, if self-fulfillment refers to one’s flourishing, then it also includes the ability to love and care for those who love us (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019a; 2019b).
Profound love is personal, but neither fully egoistic or altruistic
"If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to all others, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism." —Erich Fromm
“By only giving we run empty very quickly. We need to refill ourselves in order to be able to keep on giving over a long period of time.” —Wilrieke Sophia
Romantic relationships involve a greater portion of altruism than egoism, though both are a moderate versions of their kind. Thus, moderate romantic altruism is largely motivated by the wish to benefit their partner, and moderate romantic egoism is largely motivated by the lover’s desire for their own good.
An additional relevant distinction is that between being personal and egoistic. The term “personal” may be characterized as affecting or belonging to a particular person rather than to anyone else. Egoism is regarded as an excessive concern for oneself. Whereas egoism is personal, being personal does not have to be egoistic. Profound romantic love is also personal, since it gives high priority to the needs of the two partners and their relationship; however, this is not excessive egoism. Taking care of our needs and nurturing our capacities across a lifetime is not egoistic, but rather highly valuable—when it is done in the right moderate manner.
The difference between the egoistic and altruistic aspects of romantic love is expressed in the lover’s answer to the following question: "Do you want your beloved to be happy more than you want her to be with you?" Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky (1988) argue that an essential aspect of love is a positive answer to this question. This is precisely the answer implied in compersion. Nevertheless, I believe that this answer, which makes love highly altruistic, is not straightforward. I agree that in profound love, altruistic features hold greater weight than personal ones, but personal features should not be completely ignored.
Your beloved is not a miserable person who needs your constant altruistic gifts. The beloved is an autonomous person who wishes to establish an ongoing flourishing bond with you. Accordingly, the beloved should be sensitive to their lover’s personal needs and cannot act in whatever way is good for them. Moreover, since the beloved is also a lover, their activities should also give some priority to their partner’s needs and wishes. Altruism toward a partner typically supports pair-bond establishment, happiness, and conservation (Acevedo, 2022).
Romantic altruism should not consist merely of bitter personal sacrifices with no personal gain for the lover. Acting out of personal concern can indeed be altruistic, especially in the case of romantic lovers, whose well-being is associated with their partner’s well-being. Lovers should be neither very egoistic nor completely altruistic, though their love should involve both personal and altruistic elements. Lovers should care about themselves as well as their beloved. This attitude is a kind of personal reciprocal altruism.
Acevedo, B. (2022): Love for one? Romantic love and altruism in pair-bonds. In: A. Pismenny & B. Brogaard (eds.), The moral psychology of love. Rowman & Littlefield, 109-126
Baumeister R. F., & Leary M. R. (1995). The need to belong. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2000). The subtlety of emotions. Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019a). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019b). Is self-fulfillment essential for romantic love? Revista de Filosofia Aurora, 31, 864-885.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2022). ‘I am glad that my partner is happy with her lover’: On jealousy, and compersion. In A. Pismenny and B. Brogaard (eds.), The moral psychology of love. Rowman & Littlefield, 127-150.
Drigotas, S. M. (2002). The Michelangelo phenomenon and personal well-being. Journal of Personality, 70, 59–77.
Finkel, E. J. (2017). The all-or-nothing marriage. Penguin.
Peele, S., & Brodsky, A. (1988). Love and addiction. Taplinger.