When it comes to love, romantic inequality can lead to extramarital affairs, even though not many people seem to take it seriously.
When decreasing inequality enhances envy and increasing inequality stokes love.
“Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” – Mother Teresa
Everyone experiences envy. This common emotion involves a negative attitude toward certain sorts of inequality. Romantic love is grounded in the lovers’ equality. We might think, then, that if inequality is reduced, envy decreases, and if inequality is increased, envy increases. Sometimes, though, the opposite is true.
For example, in egalitarian societies, where there is less inequality than in non-egalitarian societies, envy does not disappear; in fact, it can even be heightened. And there are times when increasing inequality enhances the romantic relation. In both cases, it is the small gaps that matter.
Inequality and envy
“It is a wise man who said that there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.” – Felix Frankfurter
Envy is rooted in a sense of undeserved inequality–namely inferiority. The greater the perceived inequality and the more it seems undeserved, the stronger the envy.
Inequality is commonly seen as negative. For example, we speak negatively about the growing inequality between the rich and poor. But envy is usually not about a general moral concern for justice, but rather about a specific, personal concern for what we consider to be our undeserved inferiority.
Because inequality often generates envy, we might assume that decreasing inequality decreases envy. Think for a moment of egalitarian societies that have tried to reduce inequality by allocating similar resources for fulfilling their members’ basic needs, such as the kibbutz movement in Israel. Surprisingly, the level of envy in kibbutzim is no less than that found in non-egalitarian settings – and it is sometimes even higher.
There are a few reasons that egalitarian societies fail to decrease envy. One is that we have a hard time decreasing the significant inequality associated with natural differences, such as being attractive or wise. Another reason is that the egalitarian ideology condemns inequality, and thus may be seen as implying some justification of envy. A further important reason is the natural tendency to compare in circumstances of similarity in the background and current occupation. Many studies indicate that romantic partners strongly resemble each other in terms of age, education, physical attractiveness, height, political and religious attitudes.
Already in ancient times, the Greek poet Hesiod wrote that “the potter is furious with the potter and the craftsman with the craftsman, and the beggar is envious of the beggar and the singer of the singer.” Indeed, envy is more likely to emerge about those who are similar to us.
My focus here is on yet another reason for this failure to decrease envy: proximity to the desired fortune, that is, closeness in status, salary, or possession of a certain good. When we experience envy, we close in on the small gaps, namely, on those we see as immediately above us, since they occupy the first rungs we have to climb on fortune’s ladder.
These are the people we are most likely to be compared with and whose accomplishments we are most likely to experience as demeaning to ourselves. When the inequality is extreme, and especially when we feel that what the other person has is unattainable, we experience far less envy than when we feel as though “I could easily be in her place.”
Have you ever experienced or experiencing envy in your life? Read 7 Little Lies Jealousy Whispers in Your Ear
Inequality in romantic relations
“If equal affection cannot be, Let the more loving one be me.”
W. H. Auden
In my recent book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time, I show that equality is also the heart of romantic relations.
Inequality, associated with the feeling of undeserved inferiority, is damaging to romantic relations. We see this in Karin Prins and colleagues’ study (1993) on extramarital relationships. They found that involvement in these relationships is less likely in equal romantic partnerships than those in which there is a “superior” person, who feels that she could do better, and an “inferior” one, who may feel envy, jealousy, and anger for being unappreciated by the partner.