Simone de Beauvoir suggests that for a relationship to be healthy, it must augment the freedom of those involved, rather than diminish it. ‘Authentic love’ revolves around reciprocity and respect, not enforced self-sacrifice.
What does a healthy adult relationship look like? What does an unhealthy adult relationship look like? Is there a way we can better approach relationships?
For the French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, the answers to all these questions tend to revolve around one core theme: freedom.
It is through respecting and promoting one another’s freedom, Beauvoir suggests, that we can cultivate healthy, authentic relationships of mutual benefit.
Before we can dive deeper into Beauvoir’s views here, however, we need to briefly establish why freedom plays such a crucial role in her wider philosophy.
Throughout her rich body of work, perhaps the key ethical principle upheld by Beauvoir is that it is wrong to interfere with or tyrannize the freedom of others — specifically, the free choices of others.
Why? Well, as an existentialist, Beauvoir broadly subscribes to the view that existence precedes essence: that we are not born with a fixed ‘essence’, but that we create and recreate ourselves as we move through time.
By doing what we freely choose to do, we thus shape our own ‘essence’, and derive meaning and value from our free individual choices.
Undermining someone’s capacity to make a free choice thus robs them of the ability to authentically create themselves, Beauvoir thinks, and saps meaning and value from their lived experience.
If we value our own freedom, Beauvoir observes, then it is inconsistent not to value the freedom of others.
We thus have a shared obligation to uphold one another’s agency and respect each other’s freedom. In her 1947 work The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir writes:
To will oneself free is also to will others free.
And it is this principle that undergirds her theory on what authentic love looks like from an existentialist point of view.
By practicing authentic love, Beauvoir notes, we can form relationships that, rather than apply constraints on freedom, promote the individual liberty and growth of all involved.
So, what is authentic love? How can we cultivate healthy, freedom-enhancing relationships with our friends, families, and partners? To shed light here, Beauvoir first presents two problematic kinds of love: that of narcissism, and that of devotion.
A narcissistic relationship is characterized by self-interest, Beauvoir writes in an early notebook:
[it means] loving oneself and loving in the other, the love he has for you.
In other words, the narcissistic person loves themselves, and values the other person simply for the love they also have for the narcissist.
On the other side of this coin is the love of devotion, a love of ‘self-abnegation’ in which the devoted person sacrifices everything — their projects, goals, opinions — for the other.
Both narcissistic and devotional relationships are problematic, Beauvoir thinks, because they undermine the freedom of those involved.
The narcissist cares only for their own freedom, and thus denies the other’s; the devoted person, meanwhile, cares only for the other’s freedom, and thus denies their own.
By deferring absolutely everything to the other, the devoted person relinquishes control over their own freedom, and thus slips into what existentialists call ‘bad faith’.
Bad faith means limiting your own freedom — be it consciously or subconsciously — by living according to the opinions of others. Rather than authentically create yourself through free choice, you outsource your decision-making to convention, society, the other...
A love of absolute devotion is a particularly subtle form of bad faith, Beauvoir thinks, for it is often dressed up as ‘selflessness’ or ‘duty’.
Living in ‘bad faith’ is not all our own doing: we grow up with cultural narratives that serve to ‘mystify’ us about our own freedom and existential potential, Beauvoir claims — narratives that might even encourage us to think it’s ‘natural’ to play a certain role.
Writing in the 1940s and 50s, Beauvoir argues that women in particular are subject to such mystification about their own freedom. In her 1949 work The Second Sex, she writes:
It is difficult for men to measure the enormous extent of social discrimination that seems insignificant from the outside and whose moral and intellectual repercussions are so deep in woman that they appear to spring from an original nature.
The cultural ideal for women, Beauvoir goes on to observe, is to cultivate marriages of devotion and self-sacrifice, whereby their individuality is subsumed in favor of fixed, predefined, ‘feminine’ roles like ‘wife’ and ‘mother’.
But this kind of default blueprint for women — i.e. to become creatures of devotion — is a recipe for creating relationships that foster inauthenticity, resentment, and bad faith, Beauvoir thinks. In a 1950 essay, she asks:
Is it not possible to conceive a new kind of love in which both partners are equals — one not seeking submission to the other?
Such relationships, she writes in The Second Sex, would form a middle ground between devotion and self-interest: they’d be
founded on the mutual recognition of two liberties… [where] neither would give up transcendence [and] neither would be mutilated.
Meeting as equals — as unique individuals with their own potential for becoming, self-making, and flourishing — neither party subordinates the other nor allows themselves to be subordinated.
This kind of love is authentic, Beauvoir thus thinks, because it augments the existential potential of the people involved, rather than diminishing it; it is based on principles like reciprocity and equilibrium, rather than exploitation and self-abnegation; and it promotes freedom and becoming, rather than bad faith.
When it comes to forming healthy, life-enhancing relationships, then, expecting one party to embrace absolute devotion is just as harmful as allowing one party to practice utter self-interest.
To really improve our lives with love, we must approach our connections with others as we approach life: authentically, without slipping into roleplaying or bad faith.
Not seeking to control one another, not seeking to sacrifice ourselves for one another; but striving to bring out the best in each other — to help each other fulfill our existential potential and freely become who we are.
If you’re interested in learning more about Beauvoir and existentialist philosophy, consider checking out my brief introduction to existentialism as both a movement and philosophy. You might also like my reading list of existentialism’s best books, as well as the following related reads:
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