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date: 17 August 2019

Simone de Beauvoir on Love

Abstract and Keywords

The best kind of love is authentic love. To love authentically involves respecting one another’s freedom, being tender and caring, and supporting each other’s independent projects. This is what Simone de Beauvoir argued, and to some degree practiced. The problem, as she saw it, was that throughout history, few have loved authentically, primarily because of women’s oppressive situation. Her existential philosophy—which foregrounds freedom from oppression and freedom to choose how to live—underpins everything she says about the challenges of loving well. Beauvoir argues that lesbian relationships and friendships point to ways in which we can transcend the bounds of traditional loving roles and expectations and realize something closer to her ideal of mature reciprocal nonsadistic, nonmasochistic mutual respect. Nevertheless, her nonsystematic approach creates tensions between freedom and commitment, marriage and authentic loving, and pragmatic means and existential ends.

Keywords: Simone de Beauvoir, existentialism, love, marriage, friendship, lesbian relationship, authenticity, freedom, choice, oppression

Although Beauvoir said that she was not a philosopher, she is, rightly, one of the greatest philosophers and feminist icons of the twentieth century.1 Sarah Bakewell declared Beauvoir’s The Second Sex to be “the most transformative existentialist work of all”2 and when Beauvoir died, French author Elisabeth Badinter announced, “Women, you owe her so much!”3 Beauvoir sparked a new wave of feminism not only because The Second Sex was the first major work systematically to challenge women’s oppression, but also because of her influence in paving the way for the legalization of abortion in France, including composing and signing the “Manifesto of the 343”—a petition for women’s reproductive rights—in 1971. She has been nominated as one of the most influential authors of the twentieth century and is one of the most widely read female authors in universities.4

It might seem in retrospect that Beauvoir has always been hailed as the intellectual force behind the movement for sexual equality, and a figure who commanded great respect. In her day, however, she had many critics and enemies. On publication of The Second Sex,5 Albert Camus declared that she made the “French male look ridiculous”; the writer François Mauriac in a misogynistic side-swipe wrote that Beauvoir’s vagina no longer held any secrets for him; and, among many other things, as she records in her autobiography, she received torrents of letters calling her “Unsatisfied, frigid, priapic, nymphomaniac, lesbian, a hundred times aborted, I was everything, even an unmarried mother. People offered to cure me of my frigidity or to temper my labial appetites”—and more (FC 187).

Criticism also came from other feminists who accused her of advocating masculine values at the expense of feminine ones, and for overgeneralizing about women’s experiences.6 Even since the publication of the new English translation of The Second Sex in 2009 that corrected the distortions and omissions of the original 1953 version, the criticism that she overgeneralizes has some merit: Beauvoir does look at the world and history through white middle-class Parisian glasses. Moreover, Beauvoir’s ideal of love draws too heavily on the way some people love, that is, that men integrate relationships into a rich, diverse, and authentic life, and women use love as an escape from independence. However, she also draws on friendship and lesbian loving to expand on her description of an ideal relationship that encourages lovers to respect one another’s freedom.

In the Western world, women are no longer as oppressed as they were in the middle of the twentieth century. For example, many legal and structural changes that free both women and men from fixed roles and destinies have been implemented widely, such as birth control, no-fault divorce, and same-sex marriage—even though they have since been repeatedly challenged. The successes of these changes exemplify just some of the freedoms that Beauvoir was fighting for. However, Beauvoir’s contributions are not merely of historical interest: Beauvoir’s views on love remain vitally important because she identifies the ways in which relationships can limit, modify, and expand our freedom, and the importance of freeing ourselves from psychosocial chains—whether they are self-imposed or foisted on us—in order to be free to live and love in authentically meaningful ways. Here, Beauvoir’s ideas about authentic love are addressed before delving into specific relationships, their problems, and potential resolutions.

1. Authentic Love

While Beauvoir describes the experience of love, her greater concern was with the moral dimensions of love, that is, the choices that we make about our loving behavior. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir distinguishes between maniacal and generous loving. Maniacal loving is dominated by the desire for possession. Generous loving, on the other hand, is “renunciation of all possession” (EA 67). In The Second Sex, she came to prefer the term “authentic” love:

Authentic love must be founded on reciprocal recognition of two freedoms; each lover would then experience himself as himself and as the other: neither would abdicate his transcendence, they would not mutilate themselves; together they would both reveal values and ends in the world. For each of them, love would be the revelation of self through the gift of self and the enrichment of the universe. (706)

This is her core definition that underpins all forms of loving. It requires generosity, modesty, equality, and above all, it must be a “free exchange” (SS 732).

For Beauvoir, freedom is central: we must be free from social, economic, and legal oppression in order to be free to create authentically meaningful relationships. This flows directly from the existential maxim that “existence precedes essence”: we are thrown into the world with much that we did not choose, such as our bodies and our situations; but we are fundamentally free, and we realize our freedom by actively choosing our lives, propelling ourselves purposefully into self-chosen projects, and taking risks. We create and discover meaning in our lives by “transcending,” that is, by launching ourselves into the world beyond our given situations (the facts, or “facticity,” of our lives) into relationships and activities.

One of the most fundamental questions regarding Beauvoir’s philosophy, and existentialism generally, is to what extent we can make authentically meaningful choices. Beauvoir acknowledges that there are many varieties of limitations on our freedom. Children, for example, cannot take responsibility for their own lives until they see themselves as agents and understand themselves in a trajectory that links their past, present, and future (EA 27). Yet, even as adults there are cases in which situations limit our freedom. There is little that we can do about natural disasters, for example. Beauvoir argues that we must realize that droughts, floods, or grasshopper plagues are simply aspects of our facticity—although she does not consider human-induced changes in climate (EA 81–82).

Poverty, ignorance, and oppression restrict our freedom too. Beauvoir was especially concerned with the way that women’s gender roles constrain their freedom. Throughout most of history men have oppressed women and prevented them from exercising their freedom. Women have been doomed to immanence, passively assuming their normal destiny, that is, marriage and maternity, relegated to dependency on men, and being entirely for-others. They have generally existed as men’s property—initially belonging to the father and then given away to a husband—and not existing as self-governing subjects, for themselves.

Nevertheless, not everything can be blamed on men, because, Beauvoir notes, women have been complicit in their subordination. Constraints can indeed be comforting, since they relieve us of the responsibility for our own lives. It is easier to fall back into expected roles in society rather than to create our own path. For example, a woman who leaves a tyrannical spouse risks poverty and loneliness. She may indeed prefer her golden cage to the risk of being on her own. Beauvoir does not deny that a self-chosen existence can come with a high price, but to be dependent on another is to devalue oneself (WF). It is an exercise in disappointment and mauvaise foi (bad faith) because it is an escape from justifying one’s own life (because one defaults to another to define one’s existence), and it easily becomes possessive and tyrannical when lovers rely on each other to be their sole reason for being. In the former case, one undermines one’s own freedom. In the latter, one undermines the other’s freedom. One can choose not to choose, but Beauvoir dismisses this as lazy, if not tantamount to committing a “moral fault” and annihilating oneself (SS 16). One is what one does and if one passively floats through life, refusing to act positively, refusing to be an agent in one’s own life, then one is nothing (SS 270).

By contrast, in authentic relationships, neither partner gives up their self-definition to the other. In her first novel She Came to Stay, Beauvoir describes ideal relationships as those in which lovers are affectionate, respectful, trusting—and friends. Friendship is the reciprocal acknowledgment of one other’s freedom, by which she means being unselfish and resisting the desire to control one another (SCS 303). Love can and does exist without friendship, but the main character, Françoise, says that this kind of love is “wretched” because it treats the other like an object (SCS 237).

The description offered in She Came to Stay is consistent with her broader view about ideal relationships.7 For example, Beauvoir proposes that although love tends to be held in a tension between greed and generosity, overcoming the desire to possess one another, and striving for reciprocity and collaboration, are key to creating authentic relationships.8 Throughout her work, Beauvoir refers to a variety of possible loving collaborations, including creating a home, raising children, or sharing in a common struggle. For example, when Clarice asks Jean-Pierre in Beauvoir’s novel Who Shall Die, “How does one love ‘on this earth’?” he replies, “Just by joining in a common fight” (48).

Despite Beauvoir’s extolling of friendship as an ideal foundation for authentic loving, she provides little philosophical analysis of it, and skips over the fact that friendships can be as susceptible to power games and manipulation as romantic relationships. Moreover, concrete examples of authentic relationships that could be considered successful are lacking in Beauvoir’s writing. For example, while Françoise and Pierre in She Came to Stay illustrate elements of an authentic relationship—including romantic freedom, mutual respect, and independent projects—the book mostly highlights the challenges and anxieties inherent in such a relationship stemming from possessiveness, jealousy, and the desire for security (159), accompanied by highly problematic solutions, such as murder. In The Mandarins, Anne and her husband, Robert, also respect one another’s freedom, but it is far from ideal: the novel ends with Anne considering her profession to be a joke, that Robert would have been just as happy with any other woman or alone, and contemplating suicide (607, 610). Elsewhere, Beauvoir presents Brigitte Bardot as a dazzlingly authentic figure, and yet she is still steeped in power relationships with her lovers, suggesting that either power struggles are inevitable or authentic relations can be achieved despite them (BB 17, 20).

Even if authentic loving remains in the realm of the hypothetical, it is an ideal worth striving for, and Beauvoir points to some of the ways in which we are hindered from achieving it. Authentic loving presents more challenges to women than to men because of their oppressive situation, and this is Beauvoir’s focus in The Second Sex. She argues that women have sought to exercise their freedom either by embracing their conjugal and maternal prison or through sexual love, but as long as women are dependent on men, these strategies are doomed to wallow in sadomasochism (SS 664). The following sections address the existential risks within these loving dynamics and opportunities to create more authentically meaningful relationships.

2. Conjugal Love

Even if a marriage begins lovingly, Beauvoir proposes that it is such a perverted institution that it will kill that love (SS 521). Marriage quickly relieves spouses of “erotic magic” and can suffocate love with a quagmire of habits and hurtfulness (SS 467). Conjugal love is also hypocritical because under the guise of care and love, it is plagued with resignation and repression. This is not only because the relationship relies on duty to the marriage vow, but also because “Daily intimacy creates neither understanding nor sympathy” (SS 511) and invites the couple to take each other for granted. Dependence and demands on one another for love and protection escalates with time, but the older spouses grow, the less able they are to satisfy one another, and the more likely they are to disappoint and persecute each other (CA 351–352). If spouses do love one another genuinely, it is in spite of being married and not because of it.

Yet, Beauvoir does not blame the individuals as much as the institution. Marriage was never supposed to have anything to do with love, and the Romantic attempt to fuse them together has been awkward from the start. The structure of marriage is inherently in tension with Beauvoir’s idea of authentic love because by imposing traditional roles on individuals, marriage compromises their freedom. While this is particularly the case in arranged marriages, even when individuals are free to choose whom to marry, societal roles and workplace norms encourage women to place their husbands’ careers ahead of their own.

Traditionally, marriage has been marketed to women as their greatest destiny and of such importance that women came to be defined by whether and to whom they were married. In return for their devotion, women were promised security and happiness. Yet in effect, Beauvoir argues, marriage has been a legally and socially endorsed form of slavery. Wives were expected to perform sexual and housekeeping services in return for a husband’s guardianship (SS 439–440). The situation turned marriage into a “sad science” of entrapping husbands who would be expected to provide security, and love became irrelevant (SS 505–506). Courtly love improved women’s situation only slightly because women were treated with more respect, but they were not given any concrete freedom. The promise of enduring happiness in traditional marriages was rarely fulfilled, the deal was rarely a fair exchange, and because it demands love to be a duty, Beauvoir’s view is that conjugal love is not really love (SS 510).

Although marriage was created by men and in their own interests, Beauvoir rightly points out that it can oppress men too. She paints the institution as one of the starkest manifestations of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. In Hegel’s dialectic, two consciousnesses meet, struggle, the weaker one submits, and yet, the slave holds the power to define the master as master. Similarly, marriage is dangerous for husbands because, Beauvoir argues, “in oppressing, one becomes oppressed” (SS 522). Loving devotion and generosity can be used as a weapon to demand, for example, attention or fidelity. Beauvoir writes:

In making herself a slave, she has found the surest means of subjugating him […] Acceptance is thus a commitment that ties the lover up, without his even having the benefit of appearing to be the one who gives; the woman demands that he graciously welcome the loads she burdens him with. And her tyranny is insatiable. The man in love is authoritarian: but when he has obtained what he wanted, he is satisfied; but there are no limits to the demanding devotion of the woman. (SS 696)

Nevertheless, according to Beauvoir, any power women have had in this psychological realm pales in comparison to the economic power that men have had over women because financial independence enables one to avoid poverty outside a conjugal relationship. As long as women are economically dependent on men, power structures will thwart reciprocal recognition and women will remain the weaker party.9

Yet, Beauvoir did not rule out the possibility of authentic marriages entirely. She said that such a relationship would require sincerity and equality, both partners would be undemanding and generous, neither would treat the relationship as a full-time career choice, and both would be free to choose it and leave it: “The ideal would be […] that each human being, perfectly self-sufficient, be attached to another by the free consent of their love alone” (SS 511).

The primary issue with this is that if the couple is attached only by the free consent of love, then surely a marriage contract would be redundant. It does not seem to involve any genuine commitment, unless they are committing to being noncommittal, which is contradictory. Beauvoir attempted to live her philosophy, for example, by creating authentic relationships based on free commitments. Both Jean-Paul Sartre and Nelson Algren proposed to her, but she turned them down and never married. Yet, in her letters to them, she calls each her husband and herself a wife.10 Beauvoir and Sartre referred to their relationship as a “morganatic marriage” and joked that they were “Monsieur and Madame M. Organatique” (PL 21). They never lived together and were not monogamous, but their relationship was very much like a traditional marriage: they were lifelong companions, and although their physical intimacy faded after a few years (TLA 208), they always considered one another to be primary in their lives, and are buried together in Paris’s Montparnasse Cemetery. They called their relationship “essential” and based on a “certain fidelity,” while their other affairs—such as Beauvoir’s with Algren—were “contingent” or “secondary” (PL 24). The problem is that if Beauvoir and Sartre felt themselves necessary (“essential”) to one another, then either it was not an authentic relationship because the label implies they were not free to live without or to leave one another; or, if they did not take it seriously, then the commitment was insincere.11

Some of Beauvoir’s letters suggest that she was aware of the tension, and that she did not see herself as free. For example, she writes to Algren: “Sartre needs me. In fact, he is very lonely, very tormented inside himself, very restless, and I am his only true friend, the only one who really understands him, helps him, works with him, gives him some peace and poise […] I could not desert him” (TLA 202). There are many possible reasons Beauvoir would write this, such as she was providing excuses to break up with Algren, Sartre was emotionally manipulating her, or that she loved Algren less than Sartre, but her letters suggest otherwise. She writes to Algren, “it is not possible to love more than I love you, flesh and heart and soul […] the idea of losing you, seems to me as hard as the idea of death” (TLA 202). If what she writes is true, then being in a primary relationship with Sartre did limit her freedom because it closed down possibilities for other primary relationships. Although Beauvoir was acutely concerned about preserving freedom in her relationships, the constraint that Sartre presented was a major one.

There ought to be no incompatibility between making commitments if the couple and their situation do not change and projects are compatible. However, lovers and their projects do change, so it is unclear how lovers can uphold freedom while making commitments that, by definition, limit their future possibilities. If individuals are, as Beauvoir argues, free, then they cannot make a commitment that pledges their future being. One might argue that if authentic love is defined as making free choices, some of which may result in commitments, then it need not be a violation of one’s freedom, since it is also an individual’s choice whether and when to honor these commitments. Nevertheless, a commitment that can be freely abandoned undermines the commitment in the first place.

Embracing the ambiguity and contingency of one’s freely chosen commitments seems to be Beauvoir’s best solution, but this is insufficient: leaping into a commitment means leaping out of freedom and, potentially, out of existentialism because, as she says in The Second Sex, voluntarily to limit one’s freedom is a moral fault. Yet on the other hand, a life void of commitments is meaningless too, since, she writes, “I take on a shape and an existence only if I first throw myself into the world by loving, by doing” (PC 130). This tension is a problem not only for Beauvoir but also for existentialism in general.12

Despite her weak attempt at describing an authentic marriage, Beauvoir was ultimately skeptical that conjugal love could ever be lived authentically because oppressive chains are so deeply embedded in the institution, and implicitly encourage women to abdicate their transcendence and resign themselves to an unequal exchange. While men have been able to transcend through their work because their activities contribute to society, Beauvoir maintains that marriage destines housewives for domestic repetition, the tedium and immediacy of keeping the home clean, cooking, and raising children (SS 483). It is perhaps no wonder, then, that some mothers have sought to find meaning in their lives through their children.

3. Parental Love

Although history has shaped women’s role in society, and in many ways determines the situation in which women find themselves, Beauvoir argues that there is nothing fixed about a woman’s psychology or biology that determines her destiny, hence her famous statement, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (SS 283). Further to this logic, Beauvoir claims that maternal instinct is a myth and love for one’s children is a choice, pointing to widely variable relationships between mother and child as evidence. It is an extremely challenging choice because a child demands much from a parent and requires many years of generosity even if there is little reciprocity.

In the time when Beauvoir was writing, contraception and abortion were either illegal or widely restricted. Sex often meant pregnancy, which in turn meant marriage and maternity or a risky and clandestine operation. Because women had virtually no choice whether to go through with a pregnancy, Beauvoir declared, “she is the prey of the species that will impose its mysterious laws on her, and generally this alienation frightens her” (SS 541). Having a baby might seem like a natural authentic choice since babies need a caregiver, mothers want and love to feel necessary, and mothers can and do find a sense of justification in being needed. Moreover, not only is it socially acceptable for women to become mothers but also it is widely expected, and a child’s birth and upbringing can be a creative endeavor.

However, Beauvoir argues vehemently against this view. Having a baby, she argues, is simply repetition and nourishment of life. To seek the justification of one’s life in a child often provokes a mother’s sadistic and masochist tendencies. For example, a mother can easily find the same sense of domination and superiority over a child that a husband finds over her. Most women, Beauvoir proposes, do have a sadistic streak, which is inflamed when women are frustrated about their lack of power over their own lives, and children are easy targets. While most women restrain from exercising their sadism “out of morality and decency,” they do exert their control over children in more subtle ways, such as using them like toys or pets, attempting to shape them into someone they admire or the opposite of someone they hate, reliving their youth through them, or forcing a unity with them that mothers could not find in adult relationships (SS 556–557).

Masochism is another strategy by which, Beauvoir proposes, mothers use their children to find fulfillment. They become like slaves to their children—sacrificing their careers and desires—so that they can better interfere with their children’s activities. Beauvoir writes of mothers,

they cannot bear to let their child do anything on his own; they give up all pleasure, all personal life, enabling them to assume the role of victim; and from these sacrifices they derive the right to deny the child all independence; this renunciation is easily reconciled with a tyrannical will to domination; the mater dolorosa turns her suffering into a weapon she uses sadistically; her displays of resignation spur guilt feelings in the child, which he will often carry through his whole life: they are more harmful than aggressive displays. (SS 559)

Devotion easily slides into tyranny and manipulation when, for example, a mother uses her sacrifices as emotional blackmail and demands that the opportunities that she has foregone be repaid in obedience, respect, or gratitude. Such sadistic and masochistic strategies are much more insidious when involving a child than with adults since, Beauvoir argues, “Tossed about, baffled, the child finds no defense mechanism” (SS 559). Children are manipulated until they are old enough to rebel against it and it ought to be no surprise that they do. The attempt to force a child to be what a parent dictates is to treat the child as an instrument instead of a human being-in-progress, that is, an object instead of a subject.

Beauvoir criticizes fathers for sabotaging authentic relationships with their children, too. For example, in Pyrrhus and Cineas (118), she describes a father who is frustrated about his ungrateful child. He complains that he brought the child into the world, did everything for her, and believes that he deserves respect for that. Yet, the child never asked to be born, and a father’s devotion is the father’s choice.

Authentic parent–child relationships would be possible, Beauvoir envisaged, when a mother does not abandon her transcendence or use the child as a means to her own ends. When she can choose both a child and a career and has the structural support to do so, such as paid carer’s leave and good options for childcare (presumably options that do not create a new cycle of oppression by exploiting carers), having a child will be a freely chosen responsibility and authentic engagement (SS 439, 566). A parent will not need to worry that by having other interests she is neglecting her child, because “it is the woman who has the richest personal life who will give the most to her child and who will ask for the least” (SS 568). A good mother, according to Beauvoir, is one who leads a balanced and responsible life, and the payoff is a more serene loving relationship with her child.

Women’s situation has changed since Beauvoir’s era and children pose less of a threat to a mother’s freedom than the mid-twentieth century. Nevertheless, there are still a few issues with her account of parental love, three of which are addressed here. First, Beauvoir overstates the case when she describes motherhood as a vastly unfulfilling enterprise, almost universally infused with horror and remorse, in which a mother’s life is derivative and slavish, boredom far outweighs any sense of meaning, and any fondness for a child is secondary to a mother’s relationship with her husband.13 Beauvoir is right to point out that parents can be as sadomasochistic with their children as with other adults, but many parents can and do derive a huge sense of meaning from their children, and that does not necessarily make their relationships inauthentic. Beauvoir is ambiguous about how much meaning a parent can authentically derive from a relationship with a child, and leans toward devaluing such a relationship. The risk here, to paraphrase Hillary Rodham Clinton, is to confuse having a career with having a life.

Second, for Beauvoir, an authentic parent–child relationship is one in which the parent outsources much of the caregiving in order to have a career. The imperative behind this is that social and structural power dynamics strongly influence how parents choose to allocate roles and time, specifically, channeling women into home-making and child-rearing roles and men onto the treadmill of paid labor. Beauvoir is right to call out the structural impediments that treat men and women differently, such as workplace policies that provide maternal and not paternal leave. She is also right to call out the issue that society puts no economic value on raising children and housekeeping and women in these roles have long been exploited for free labor (WF).

However, Beauvoir’s argument weakens when she claims that the main road to freedom is paid work (SS 513, 721). Beauvoir acknowledges that there are many jobs that are at least, if not more meaningless and exploitative than housework. Indeed, working is rarely an authentic activity in itself, since it often requires selling one’s freedom for a paycheck. The argument that work buys freedom is pragmatic and not existential because, while a job creates the money to survive, to buy time for more authentic pursuits, or to walk away from a relationship in comfort, the existential moment is defined by overcoming one’s situation, reaching beyond the given, and not its financial payoff.

Beauvoir’s existential philosophy emphasizes choosing one’s own path, and so it ought to be up to the parents to decide how they wish to allocate their time. In an ideal world, parents would be free to pursue a plurality of projects, and they would be free to choose to raise their child either simultaneously or consecutively to their career. Taking a career break to focus on a child’s upbringing need not violate one’s authentic existence as long as one does not turn the child into the foundation of one’s entire existence. While it is prudent for mothers to work, financial stability is not an existential requirement, and there ought to be no problem with deriving a sense of meaning through one’s child—as many people do without treating them as objects—while accepting that children will grow up and have their own lives.14

Third, it is by no means guaranteed that spending less time with one’s children will foster a more authentic relationship. Beauvoir assumes that the imbalances of power that flow from gender roles are primarily to blame for sadomasochistic relationships. So, when women are financially independent, there ought to be no basis for a power struggle. However, gender roles are not the only reason for power differentials between men and women. For example, Sartre thinks that all relationships are fundamentally in conflict, and Beauvoir also argues, “Of course, all human relationships entail conflicts; all love entails jealousies” (SS 359). The possibility of sadism and masochism potentially applies to any relationship and any situation.

However, Beauvoir did say that she was less interested in creating a strict philosophical framework and more interested in practical solutions,15 which means that we could understand her views on work to be pragmatic means to existential ends. This is a trade-off Beauvoir seems willing to make, since, in the longer term, having a career can provide financial security. While divorce laws in many countries have since changed to be fairer on career wives so that they are not left in poverty upon divorce, having a paid career provides an additional safety net.

While maternal and conjugal roles have traditionally been thrust on women, and women have sought to make the best of their situation by transcending within it, Beauvoir proposes that sexual loving, being an active choice, manifests similar problems, albeit in slightly different ways.

4. Heterosexual Love

Being in love can be a different experience for men and women, and they can expect different things from it. Men, Beauvoir proposes,

never abandon themselves completely; even if they fall on their knees before their mistresses, they still wish to possess them, annex them; at the heart of their lives, they remain sovereign subjects; the woman they love is merely one value among others; they want to integrate her into their existence, not submerge their entire existence in her. By contrast, love for the woman is a total abdication for the benefit of a master. (SS 683)

The different view that the sexes have of love is not a necessary result of their biology, but rather the historically different situations of the sexes. Biological differences play a role, Beauvoir argues, “but the emphasis placed on these differences—the importance they take on—come from the social context around them … [Biology] is a pretext around which the feminine condition is built, but it’s not what determines this condition” (WF). While procreation is a biological process, a wife giving up her career to support her husband is not a biological fact. It is rather an oppressive social role that has traditionally been required of women. It is oppressive because many women did not freely and actively choose it; they accepted it under the duress of social expectations.

In The Second Sex, Beauvoir paints a philosophical portrait of women in love. Love is used as a strategy to seek salvation via proxy because she cannot do it independently. She turns love into a religion, worships her lover, and voluntarily becomes a slave by giving up her own world and adopting her lover’s friends, interests, and opinions. She aims to merge into an “ecstatic union,” obliterating the “I” and becoming a delectable “we” (691, 693). She is happy to annihilate her freedom because her reward will be to share his life and worth. Because she defines herself through him, as he transcends, she feels as though she is realizing herself. It does not matter to her that she is not a sovereign subject herself, since she feels necessary to someone who is, and that makes her feel fulfilled (691).

Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins also paints a picture of a woman in love: Paula Mareuil, a glamorous singer. Paula’s boyfriend—the writer Henri Perron—could not believe his luck when she fell in love with him. Their relationship was, initially, a soul-searing and passionate romance. Paula gives up her singing career to devote her life to Henri because she believes it to be the highest expression of love. She feels necessary to him, as if they are one being, and considers herself to be responsible for Henri and his successes: “it was I who made Henri. I created him as he creates characters in his books, and I know him as he knows them” (194). Beauvoir’s view is that a woman in love, such as Paula, is mistaken for a myriad of reasons, including the following.

First, as with devotion to a child or spouse, devotion to a lover is not an authentic activity. Adopting another person as one’s life project is a strategy doomed to failure because, “She abandons herself first to love to save herself; but the paradox of idolatrous love is that in order to save herself, she ends up totally disavowing herself” (SS 691). Henri is a sovereign subject who affirmatively chooses his existence and takes on concrete projects. Paula provides him with emotional support, but she escapes from the risks and anxieties of exercising her own freedom. Paula claims that her love is her career; Henri tells her that she is vegetating (TM 129). Henri reflects Beauvoir’s broader sentiment: one cannot be for-oneself by being purely for-another, and to give up one’s own freedom and attach oneself to another is parasitic.

Second, love is disappointing because passion fades. As in marriage, it is easy for lovers to arouse and satisfy one another at first. However, as familiarity extinguishes the fascination and freshness of new love, it becomes more difficult over time to awaken desire. This works against women particularly, since, while female attachment tends to deepen with carnal intimacy, Beauvoir proposes—in an overgeneralization—that “male desire is as fleeting as it is imperious; once satisfied, it dies rather quickly” (SS 699). Once passion fades, Beauvoir suggests that a woman will attempt to secure the relationship with something other than love, such as “tenderness, friendship, habit; or she tries to attach him with solid ties: a child or marriage”; however, such attempts usually fail and love devolves into fighting, hating, and loneliness (SS 705).

Third, love easily slides into tyranny. Paula, for example, believes she has rights over Henri’s life because she gave up her career. Henri rejects Paula’s claim because he never wanted her to do so and insists it was her choice. The relationship comes to feel like a prison in which Paula is the warden. Paula’s emotional blackmail wears thin and Henri admits that although it is unfair to stop loving someone who is so generous, love is not fair, and he leaves her. Henri’s behavior is not explicitly denounced, leaving the impression that he is relieved of responsibility for the relationship. Paula is left without a career, without a lover, and with no one to blame but herself. The example illustrates the risks and harsh realities of relationships: if we are free to enter into a relationship, we are free to leave too, reiterating the importance of Beauvoir’s recommendation that one ought not to give up a career for a lover.

Without love, a woman who has devoted herself to her lover has and is nothing, and Beauvoir proposes that a breakup is catastrophic for her. She concludes, melodramatically, in The Second Sex that to pass on the responsibility of one’s life to another is a crime with a harsh punishment because “her salvation depends on this despotic freedom that formed her and can destroy her in an instant” (706–707). While Beauvoir’s emphasis is on women who become financially dependent on their lovers, she suggests that such a path is tempting for women who are independent too, because taking responsibility for one’s own life is hard (685).

The problem with treating a loving relationship as a project is that it turns other people into means to one’s own ends, rather than respecting the other as an end in themselves. There is, indeed, a problem with attempting to control the other and block their freedom, as Paula tries to do with Henri. Nevertheless, there ought not to be a problem with making the other person a priority, especially if one derives a more fulfilling sense of meaning in and with and through the other. Moreover, it ought not to be a metaphysical crime to be financially dependent on one another at various stages in one’s life. A dual income certainly provides financial security, but it is potentially just as hard for a wage slave to be authentic as it is for one who is unemployed or underemployed.

The problem that Beauvoir faced in her own relationships was that generous freedom might well kill a relationship as surely as manic loving. For example, tormented by questions about whether love can survive absolute freedom, Beauvoir writes to Algren: “Nelson, I love you. But do I deserve your love if I do not give you my life? […] Is it right to give something of oneself without being ready to give everything? May I love him and tell him I love him without intending to give my whole life if he asked for it?” (TLA 51–52). The answer to these questions, she discovers, is no. The story of Anne and Lewis in The Mandarins mirrors parts of Beauvoir and Algren’s situation.16 Anne insists, “love isn’t everything” and later Lewis tells her, “you can’t love someone who isn’t all yours the same way as someone who is,” and they break up (462, 474). Anne and Beauvoir were both heartbroken. Nevertheless, Beauvoir and Sartre did maintain a generous and free relationship throughout their lives.

A relationship in which Beauvoir thought that generosity tends to outweigh greed is lesbian loving. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir classifies lesbian loving as a stage in a woman’s “Formative Years,” and yet her analysis takes the relationship far beyond an adolescent whim.

5. Homosexual Love

Beauvoir seemed reluctant to take a definitive stance on the role of choice in homosexuality. Although she claims that it is “no more a deliberate perversion than a fatal curse,” she also says that it is a “freely adopted” choice that is not entirely determined by “physiological facts, psychological history, or social circumstances” (SS 436). Even if Beauvoir is wrong about the extent to which we can choose sexual preferences, her point that situations also influence them merits consideration. While sexual preferences may well be a fact of our existence—determined by our genes—the context of our existence shapes how we experience, interpret, and act on our desires. Just as marriage, children, and heterosexual relationships can provide meaning in one’s life, so too can homosexual relationships: “[Homosexuality] is one way among others for woman to solve the problems posed by her condition in general and by her erotic situation in particular” (SS 436).

It ought not to be surprising lesbian relationships are so tempting, Beauvoir proposes, given the way that the sexes are portrayed: “every adolescent female fears penetration and masculine domination, and she feels a certain repulsion for the man’s body; on the contrary, the feminine body is for her, as for man, an object of desire” (SS 419). Even though it is a stretch to assume, as Beauvoir does, that many women have lesbian tendencies “in a more or less latent form” (SS 416), it is understandable that refusing the male body in favor of the female body has been a problem-solving strategy given women’s oppressive history. Beauvoir puts forward a variety of reasons for this, such as that women are undergoing a natural and fleeting stage of their youth, seeking to explore the pleasures of femininity, interested in seeing reflections of themselves, reacting to their disappointment with men, or rebelling against male domination (SS 359, 428–431).

Homosexual relationships are privy to significant advantages over heterosexual loving, according to Beauvoir. She notes that while psychoanalysts—and society in general—has “moraliz[ed] conformity” and categorized homosexuality as inauthentic, the taboo nature of same-sex relationships has been an existential advantage (SS 419). External pressures—including socially endorsed predefined rules, customs, and conventions—have inhibited them less than traditional relationships. Since marriage has not dictated their structure, homosexual relationships can be sincerer. Furthermore, the similarity between homosexual lovers means that they have less to hide, and therefore experience love in a more authentic way. They can achieve a greater closeness, deeper intimacy, and have a more direct experience of themselves. Less distracted by power struggles than heterosexual lovers (and possibly also male homosexual lovers, on which she is virtually silent), Beauvoir proposes that lesbian lovers can establish a more collaborative and thoughtful reciprocal relationship (SS 416, 429, 432).

Nevertheless, Beauvoir acknowledges that lesbian lovers can play sadomasochistic games as much as anyone else, if not more. Because lesbian lovers are more free and open with one another, they are also potentially subject to more violence, possessiveness, and storminess than other relationships (SS 433). In a statement that might well say more about Beauvoir’s own sexual encounters than the universal experience of homosexuality,17 she asserts that to lesbian lovers’ detriment, their similarity means that they do not experience the same dizzying ecstasy and overwhelming erotic excitement that they would with a heterosexual loving (SS 432–433). Lesbian loving is, however, an important example for Beauvoir because it illustrates that it is possible to love generously without the need to possess, and to love without needing the other for social or existential survival.

6. Conclusion

Beauvoir’s philosophy of love remains important because it highlights that some of the tensions in relationships come from the ways in which people seek to escape their freedom, and the associated responsibility of justifying their own lives, through love. The problem with being overly dependent on a loved one to be the central source of meaning in our lives is that it tempts us into giving away our own freedom or trying to rob the other of theirs, creating sadomasochistic power games. Traditional societal roles, rules, and rewards, and romantic illusions do not help, since they channel us into marriage, parenthood, and the misplaced belief that love calls for sacrifice and devotion. While women’s situation has changed much since Beauvoir’s time, traditional structures of relationships persist and questions remain about how to navigate independence and intimate relationships, as well as freedom and commitment. In Beauvoir’s philosophy of love, marriage cannot be reconciled with authentic loving, and while she suggests the key to authentic relationships is to be independent—by continuing to pursue a career with or without children—this is a prudent measure rather than a purely existential one, since transcendence does not depend on its financial payoff.

Beauvoir’s concern was with how to create authentically meaningful relationships where people actively choose to love because they want, but do not need, one another. What is most important is for people actively to decide how to behave in loving relationships without forfeiting themselves. Love can be intoxicating and might feel as if it is out of one’s control, but the moral implication of Beauvoir’s conception of love is that we are responsible for our passions, behavior is a choice, and we can and should choose to restrain our desire to control one another and, instead, choose to love generously. Beauvoir is right to point out that loving relationships would benefit greatly if we were to ensure that we treat one another as subjects, and leave behind the power struggles that hold lovers back from pursuing an open future. While Beauvoir does not provide concrete examples, friendships and lesbian relationships provide clues as to how this can be possible, because they are not as weighed down with the baggage of marital presumptions.

Ultimately, authentic love calls for freeing ourselves from absolute devotion, dependence, demandingness, sadism, and masochism. With generosity, self-sufficiency, acceptance of the other’s limitations and differences, and respect for one another’s freedom, authentic loving can provide a deeper awareness of the world and the lovers themselves, foster new ways of looking at things with and through other people, and be a means to transcend together into the future while enriching themselves and the world around them.


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(1) In an interview, Beauvoir said, “Anyhow, Sartre is a philosopher, and I am not, and I have never really wanted to be a philosopher. I like philosophy very much, but I have not created a philosophical work. My field is literature. I am interested in novels, memoirs, essays, such as The Second Sex. However, none of these is philosophy.” See Margaret A. Simons, Jessica Benjamin, and Simone de Beauvoir. “Simone de Beauvoir: An Interview.” Feminist Studies 5, no. 2 (1979): 338. For further discussion about the philosophical relationship between Beauvoir and Sartre, see Christine Daigle and Jacob Golomb, eds. Beauvoir and Sartre: The Riddle of Influence (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009). In another interview, Beauvoir said that she wrote The Second Sex as a theoretical work and although the initial reaction was harsh, activists took it up later. See Simone de Beauvoir, “Why I’m a Feminist: Interview with Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber,” Questionnaire, 1975, accessed August 18, 2016,

(2) Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café (New York: Other Press, 2016), 21.

(3) The quote and title of the article that appeared in Le Nouvel Observateur read, “Femmes, vous lui devez tout!,” meaning, “Women you owe her everything!,” but Badinter said it was a mistake and should have read, “Femmes, vous lui devez tant!” (“Women you owe her so much!”). See Catherine Rodgers, “Elisabeth Badinter and The Second Sex: An Interview,” Signs 21, no. 1 (1995): 147.

(4) David Johnson, “These Are the 100 Most-Read Female Writers in College Classes,” Time (2016), (accessed August 18, 2016). See also Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophical Writings, ed. Margaret A. Simons, Marybeth Timmermann, Mary Beth Mader, and Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 1.

(5) I cite Beauvoir’s texts using the following English-language acronyms: The Blood of Others (BO), Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome (BB), The Coming of Age (CA), Ethics of Ambiguity (EA), Force of Circumstance (FC), Letters to Sartre (LS), Pyrrhus and Cineas (PC), Prime of Life (PL), She Came to Stay (SCS), The Second Sex (SS), A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren (TLA), The Mandarins (TM), What Is Existentialism? (WE), Why I’m A Feminist (WF).

(6) For example, although Judith Okely criticizes Beauvoir for her narrow focus, which describes her own experience as if it were universal, she also proposes that Beauvoir’s subjectivity is a strength because many women were able to identify with her analysis (Judith Okely, Simone de Beauvoir: A Re-Reading [London: Virago, 1986]). Judith Coffin similarly points out that letters that Beauvoir received in response to The Second Sex not only highlighted its shock value, but also made her approachable and resonant (Judith G. Coffin, “Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir, 1949–1963.” American Historical Review 115, no. 4 [2010]: 1061–1088).

(7) For example, see SS 520, 762; BO 84, 174; TM 79; TLA 208.

(8) Susan J. Brison, “Beauvoir and Feminism: Interview and Reflections,” in The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir, ed. Claudia Card, 189–207. (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 190–191.

(9) For further discussion of the conditions required to achieve reciprocal recognition in heterosexual erotic love in Beauvoir’s writing, see Nancy Bauer, Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 226–228.

(10) For example, see LS 12, 19, 150, 152, 162; TLA 69, 190, 192, 193, 194, 205, 212, 219, 223.

(12) Existential commitment is widely acknowledged as problematic. David Cooper elaborates on the tension between commitment that Beauvoir espouses and the openness and availability of Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel’s philosophies. Ultimately, Cooper recommends a solution that sounds very much like Beauvoir’s thesis, that is, authentic existence is committing to reciprocal freedom—willing one’s own freedom as well as the freedom of others—since “Being available, which is never a solo feat, is participation in relations characterized by mutual ‘collaboration’ with the freedom of each party.” See David Cooper, Existentialism: A Reconstruction, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 178–184.

(13) See SS 534–535, 551, and 556–558.

(14) Hélène Peters argues that as long as the relationship is not an escape or remedy, “This fundamental quest is situated in the specific roles of mother or wife, not determined by them. It is lived in each instant.” See Hélène Peters, The Existential Woman (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1991), 96.‬

(16) Beauvoir said The Mandarins was based “very approximately” on her affair with Nelson Algren and aspects of the characters Anne and Henri were both based on herself (FC 124, 268).

(17) Beauvoir was bisexual and has been criticized for pursuing romantic relationships with female students. She said that the students were in love with her freedom and saw their own future in her (Hazel Rowley, Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre [New York: HarperCollins, 2005: 106]). One student who became intimately involved with her was Natalie Sorokin, whose mother complained to the school that Beauvoir was corrupting her daughter. Beauvoir was fired, and although cleared of the charges, never returned to teaching (Lisa Appignanesi, Simone de Beauvoir [London: Haus Publishing, 2005], 74–75). Another student, Bianca Lamblin, wrote a book, called A Disgraceful Affair, about her relationship with Beauvoir and subsequent seduction by Sartre.