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2 November: Jean-Paul Sartre's Philosophy of Romantic Loving Relationships

Skye Cleary (MGSM, Macquarie University)

Skye discusses the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, a 20th Century existential Don Juan, who describes romantic loving relationships as a sado-masochistic battle of consciousnesses.

Sartre’s Love Life

Jean-Paul Sartre was a gorgeous kid with beautiful long curly hair. However this period of his life did not last long. One day his grandfather took him to the barbers and as the curls fell off they revealed a boy who was considered ugly by everyone around him. Aware of this, little Jean-Paul recognised from an early age that he would have to use his intelligence to attract women. Indeed it was what was in, not on his head that came to define his love life.

Sartre (1905-1980) thought of himself as a “scholarly Don Juan, slaying women through the power of his golden tongue.”(i)   He loved the game of seduction: “I was less keen on the woman than on the play-acting she gave me the opportunity for…Possessing her counted for less than the prospects of possession.”(ii)   Conquests were easy, but Sartre found the game of seduction was draining:  “I’d come back from a rendezvous, mouth dry, facial muscles tired from too much smiling, voice still dripping with honey and heart full of a disgust to which I was unwilling to pay any attention, and which was masked by satisfaction at having ‘advanced my affairs.’”(iii)   Nevertheless, he wanted deep relationships, tenderness and something profound, “…something that was not always bound to the sex life and that at that moment caused each of us to be himself at the very depths of himself.”(iv)

Sartre knew he was going to become a great man and thought a great man shouldn’t be restricted by the bourgeois concept of monogamy.(v)  Freedom was hugely important to him, so he offered all his girlfriends the precious gift of freedom from monogamy.  Whilst his girlfriends initially played along, the precious freedom Sartre offered generally wasn’t what they wanted. After a while they left leaving Sartre to move on to the next young lady.

That is, until 1929 when he met another brilliant young philosophy student at the Sorbonne who accepted the pact of freedom: Simone de Beauvoir.  They fell in love, inspired and challenged each other for the rest of their lives.  He thought his relationship with Beauvoir was the best and most complete and equal relationship he could ever have with anyone.  It wasn’t about sex or intimacy, but rather about intellectual discussions and conversations on the vital decisions in their lives.(vi)  The physical side of their relationship did not last long because Sartre preferred croissants to sex.  Some people have suggested that Beauvoir agreed to the pact because Sartre could not give her the intimacy she wanted.(vii)

They agreed to be primary lovers and would be free to have contingent or secondary lovers. They attempted to overcome the risk of jealousy with another pact of “transparency” (telling each other everything) – and I mean everything!  They eventually realised that the truth often hurt the ones they loved so even though they told each other the truth, they both lied to their other lovers to protect them. 


Existentialism is a philosophy to be lived, and now I have given an all-too-brief introduction to Sartre’s love life, we’ll now take a deeper dive into his philosophy and what it implies for loving.   I will outline Sartre’s philosophy with respect to romantic loving relationships between adults (as opposed to the loving relationship you might have with your children or your dog).  I am looking purely at his early existential phase, mainly in Being & Nothingness (“B&N”) published in 1943, not his later Marxist phase. B&N is 800 pages of very heavy reading (which may not be surprising considering his intimate relationships with drugs and alcohol, including an influential 1935 mescaline trip which left him with an entourage of lobsters for years to come).  I am going to talk about my highly condensed and simplified understanding of Sartre’s philosophy of romantic loving, which is a work-in-progress. 

Philosophy of Romantic Loving

A couple of things underlying Sartre’s existential philosophy as per B&N that I would like to clarify first:

i. The goal of life is being: life is a project of yourself, whatever you choose that to be.

ii. To exist is to be conscious and to be free.  So you can say an individual is a consciousness or is a freedom. 

iii. Difference between transcendence and facticity – which is what differentiates humans from cauliflowers.  A human is a for-itself and a cauliflower is an in-itself.  Cauliflowers just exist, things happen to them from without; they grow, but without thinking about it.  They aren’t conscious (as far as we know), whereas humans are conscious and have possibilities to change the world around them and create.  A cauliflower can’t cook itself, it needs a human (a for-itself to do it).  This is the difference between transcendence (Humans throwing themselves into a world of possibilities) vs. facticity (existing in the moment, without being conscious or free).

For Sartre, other people are important because there are aspects of yourself that you wouldn’t know if you were alone in the world.  Other people see you in ways that you can’t know yourself.  We can only know ourselves subjectively, because we cannot split ourselves in two to look at ourselves truly objectively. 

If you are a person that is interested in deeper self-discovery, Sartre says you will want to know what that objective dimension of yourself is like.  So what you will do is try to possess or enslave other people to try to get access to those ‘secrets’ that they know about you and to recover that part of your being that they have stolen from you.  But the other person is probably trying to do the same to you.  But no one wants to be possessed or enslaved, so power struggles inevitably arise. These struggles are futile as you can never truly possess another person or know what another person perceives or thinks about you, much less whether they are telling you the truth.  Even Sartre notoriously said in an interview that he lied to all his lovers, especially Beauvoir, despite their pact of transparency.(viii)

So you can never actually get access to the objective dimension of yourself and as a result of all this, Sartre asserts in B&N that there is an “ontological separation” (ix)  between people and that relationships are by definition conflictual.  Hence his famous quote in No Exit: “hell is…other people.”(x)


Sartre argues that to possess something is to want to be united with it.  So the goal of love is to possess your lover, or put more nicely, to be united with your lover. It’s not about physical possession or power; it’s rather about possessing their consciousness.  This idea harks back to the fairytale in Plato’s Symposium where people used to be round creatures with four arms, four legs and two faces. They attacked the gods and as punishment, Zeus cut them all in two. Since then, people have been looking for their other half. Indeed, this expression of searching for one’s other half, a ‘soul mate’ or ‘the one’ is still a familiar view of loving today. 

According to Sartre, in love, you want to possess your lover but not to the extent that you completely control them because then you’d destroy their objectivity and you wouldn’t be able to get access to that independent view they have of you. If you completely controlled them, they’d be like a robot and you can’t learn anything about yourself from a robot, let alone have a loving relationship with one. 

So what you actually want is to possess your lover in his or her freedom because you don’t want to force someone to love you.  If it’s a mechanical process, it’s cheap and meaningless. So you want your lover to love you freely. But on the other hand, you don’t want your lover to love you purely because they have promised they would.  Nor do you want them to be completely free because generally you want them to love you and you alone.  Even Sartre never wanted his secondary lovers to love anyone else. 

Not only that, but when you’re in love, you tend to want to become the absolute ends or “supreme value”(xi)  for your lover, to be their “whole world.”(xii)  You want to know that they would do anything for you, like betray their friends for you, steal for you or kill for you.(xiii)  You don’t want to be just another object in the world, but the key to revealing the world for your lover. 

In other words, I think what he is saying is that you want to be the top priority for your lover.  You don’t just want to be a means to an end for them – you want to be the only end for them.  Lovers want to become each other’s raison d’être.  Sartre says this explains the joy of love: when you find justification of your life in your lover. 

This is consistent with Sartre’s existentialism: we are abandoned in the world, without a god and without reason for being. If existence is absurd, then it makes sense that in the absence of anything else, lovers choose to make each other the reason for their existence.

According to Sartre, lovers typically aim for unity with one another. It is scary not knowing what others true ends are, so lovers try to find out what each other’s ends are and try to establish security from the threat of being used. However all such attempts are futile. For if the goal of individuals is the project of themselves and relationships are projects of self-discovery then aiming for unity leads directly to the lovers transcending each other, using each other and generating conflict. 

Basically, loving is a deception as Sartre formulates it because it is to want and to demand to be loved. Loving is a project of making yourself loved, which seems to be the opposite of the traditional agape-type loving based on generosity.  However, reciprocity is important in Sartre’s philosophy because the more you value the other, the more they are likely to value you.  But the problems are: (a) there is no guarantee of mutual reciprocity, and (b) lovers don’t like to think that they might be being used.  So part of the whole project of loving is trying to convince your lover that they are not just a means to your other ends, even though they really are.


Loving becomes an act of seduction in order to try to possess the lover without them feeling threatened by being objectified or used, or they’ll put their defences up. Sartre describes it as an attempt to impress the Other by making them recognise me as a full, deep and hidden being with an abundance of possibilities which “present me as bound to the vastest regions of the world.”(xiv) 

In other words seduction involves a bit of flaunting. Like a peacock I may give “examples of my power over the world (money, positions, ‘connections’, etc.)”(xv)   The aim is to make your lover idolise you. Sartre says it’s about capturing the Other’s freedom by “making it recognize itself as nothingness in the face of my plenitude of absolute being.”(xvi)

Certainly lovers do tend to be in awe of each other (especially in the beginning). While this particular strategy seemed to work well for Sartre, who was a master of language, I think it was more suited for the period in which he lived.  In today’s world I imagine an attraction based on money and connections would probably be quite shallow and I’m not sure that this sort of pick-up line would be a sure-fire means of seduction.  There is no guarantee that the lover would find those things attractive: you could easily come off appearing obnoxious and full of yourself!  No doubt, however, a master peacock would adapt the sales pitch to flaunt different sets of feathers for various target markets. 

But according to Sartre, the problem is that I realise my lover is trying to seduce me as much as I am trying to seduce him; we are both trying to fascinate each other and are both a project of each other.  So basically we both end up feeling used and seduction doesn’t work out.  The next strategy we try is masochism. 


Instead of trying to possess the Other through seduction, Sartre says I will let him absorb or assimilate me.  I become completely submissive to try to merge with him by annihilating my subjectivity.  But masochism is also doomed to fail, because even though I am being submissive, I am still using my lover to get access to his objective view of me.  Sartre says that, for example, if I pay someone to whip me, I am still using the whipper as an instrument and so I’m asserting my transcendence over him (and not annihilating my subjectivity after all). 


This doesn’t work, so Sartre says I’ll try sadism next: I’ll try to take my lover by force.  I try to dominate him into annihilating his subjectivity to merge into me.  And apparently the best way to do this is to have sex! (I do find it interesting that Sartre didn’t care much for sex but it’s such an important part of his philosophy.) The goal of sex isn’t what you think: it isn’t the satisfaction of sexual desire, but rather to incarnate the Other’s freedom or in other words, to access their consciousness.(xvii)  This is why Sartre thinks sexual desire is different to other kinds of desire.  Unlike hunger, sexual desire takes hold of you; it overwhelms and paralyses you.(xviii)   Sartre says that this explains why when you have sex your sexual desire isn’t fulfilled.

The way it works is as follows: I use my body as an instrument in order to fascinate my lover and try to force their body to reveal their thinking. Just as cream gets caught on top of milk, so too does consciousness get caught on the surface of the body. The same thing occurs if I happen to be torturing the other (caressing and torturing have a similar effect according to Sartre). He says, “This is why the moment of pleasure for the torturer is that in which the victim betrays or humiliates himself”(xix) because what the victim is thinking and feeling is written all over his face.

I think this makes sense in that in the throws of passion, you stop transcending and exist only in the moment. Without clothes, where skin touches skin, there is nothing physically to come between two bodies intertwined, so people feel close to each Other and feel as though they are present in the moment, forgetting everything except each other’s touch.  And in practice, it is typically between two people in isolation (or perhaps more if you’re into that sort of thing).  The point is that your focus tends to be very narrow.  Nevertheless, you can caress and torture another person all you like, but you are never going to really know what they’re thinking.  All you are ever going to know is what they look like when they are experiencing pleasure or pain and I am not convinced that would tell me a lot about myself, or even the other person. 

Sartre identifies the problem with sadism: if the lover exists only in the moment, they stop transcending, and would be more like a cauliflower in that instance.  And a cauliflower isn’t going to tell you anything about yourself.  And again, you’re still using your body as an instrument and treating the other as an instrument, so there is still no way to merge. 


That’s really where Sartre leaves the issue in B&N, except when he talks about sex being like castration, where a voracious mouth devours the penis.(xx)   In sum, relations with Others are by definition problematic. Lovers seek unity and attempt to merge in order to discover aspects of themselves that they cannot alone.  We can’t trust our lover, so we resort to strategies such as seduction, sadism and masochism, but they don’t allow us to find unity with the lover either.  True unity or merging is impossible because there is an insurmountable abyss between people and so we can never gain access to the objective part of our being.  Thus romantic loving relationships will be inherently disappointing if we accept that Sartre is right that the goal is to merge with the lover.

I’m truly amazed at the depth Sartre goes into, creating a very dramatic philosophy around the myth of lovers’ unity.  Although it’s natural for lovers to find some kind of alliance or common understanding, I’m not convinced the goal of all romantic loving relationships is to merge or take possession of the other’s consciousness. Nonetheless, some relationships are characterised by domination and submission or the desire to possess and be possessed, and that goes some way to explain jealousy.  When we say those sweet nothings like “I’m yours” and “You’re mine”, surely we don’t think we really own each other as we would another possession?  I think those statements are more like appeals to the other to seek assurance that you do value each other above all other relationships. 

Furthermore, I don’t think Sartre really needed to go through all those complicated sado-masochistic strategies to figure out that you can’t really merge with another person. The idea that two people can literally become one is absurd. Two people can merge only in the sense of the intertwining of fingers when holding hands, in sex, etc., so when we refer to merging it is just a metaphor for sharing of things such as experiences.

I find it odd that a philosophy that stresses the importance of life as an individual endeavour should be so willing to accept that in love, people want to lock into one goal: to merge, which implies giving up their individuality. If each person’s life is an individual project and it is up to each individual to choose their project, then according to Sartre’s philosophy it would make sense that merging does not have to be the one and only goal of loving. Rather, it is up to individuals to create their own meaning within the loving relationship. A romantic loving relationship then becomes a project of two individuals who find each other complementary to their individual projects and useful in discovering themselves. Yet this using each other is not necessarily malicious.  For surely in love you want to help and support your lover as much as you can. Loving is then about two individuals who desire to be close to each other and to experience one another.  Merging and possessing is unnecessary; I think that’s more of a decoy from getting on with life.

However, I think this perspective brings to the surface a neglected part of relationships: they are so significant because lovers tend to be more intimate with each other, spend a lot of time together and so experience more of each other than with any other person. As such, a lover is in the best position to help you understand yourself, so you are getting closer to this objective dimension. (Although this raises the issue that lovers shouldn’t be too tolerant and acquiescent, or they risk being ‘too close for comfort’.)  I wonder if loving is perhaps more than an attempt to know thyself, rather to enjoy yourself and enrich life and if that involves knowing yourself better, then great. 

I think Sartre is saying that yes, loving is fraught with difficulties, but that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother.  In a screenplay he wrote called The Chips are Down (1947), one of the key messages was that although loving relationships are absurd and by definition problematic, we always want to “try it anyway.”(xxi)   To be in a romantic loving relationship takes effort to embrace the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds or knowing whether the other really loves you. You don’t know if the relationship will last. There are no guarantees. All we can do is take a leap. 

If lovers accept that they can never merge, accept the abyss between them, constructively challenge each other, embrace the relationship as a tension, and respect each other as free individuals, then within Sartre’s existential framework, relationships are not necessarily caught in that vicious sado-masochistic circle. If a couple is committed to engaging in a loving relationship, then the best partner one can have is one who challenges and argues because they provide the most intense reflection. Indeed, Sartre’s relationship with Beauvoir suggests lovers can be good sparring partners. Sartre valued her relationship and opinion above all others and tested out all his ideas with her. 

After all that, what is Sartre’s secret to successful loving relationships like the one he had with Beauvoir? Many years later (1978, 2 years before he died), in a Playboy interview he says the keys to success in romantic loving relationships are: firstly, a similarity of cultures so that you view world in same way; and secondly, for the relationship superior to any other you have.(xxii)

(i)  Jean-Paul Sartre, War Diaries: Notebooks from a Phoney War, November 1939-March 1940, trans. Quinton Hoare (Verso, 1999) 266.
(ii)Ibid., 284.
(iii)  Ibid., 285.
(iv)  Catherine Chaine, "A Conversation About Sex and Women with Jean-Paul Sartre," Playboy January 1978: 116.
(v)  Sartre, War Diaries: Notebooks from a Phoney War, November 1939-March 1940  75.
(vi)  Chaine, "A Conversation About Sex and Women with Jean-Paul Sartre," 118.
(vii)  E.g. Edward Fullbrook and Kate Fullbrook, Sex and Philosophy: Rethinking De Beauvoir and Sartre (London and New York: Continuum, 2008).
(viii)  Olivier Todd, Un Fils rebelle (Paris: Grasset, 1981) 116 in Hazel Rowley, Tête-À-Tête: Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (New York: HarperCollins, 2005) 338.
(ix)  Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1992) 328.
(x)  Jean-Paul Sartre, "Huis Clos," trans. Stuart Gilbert, Huis Clos and Other Plays (London: Penguin Books, 2000) 223.
(xi)  Sartre, Being and Nothingness  488.
(xii)  Ibid., 479.
(xiii)  Ibid., 481.
(xiv)  Ibid., 485.
(xv)  Ibid.
(xvi)  Ibid.
(xvii)  Ibid., 515.
(xviii)  Ibid., 504.
(xix)  Ibid., 522.
(xx)  Ibid., 782.
(xxi)  Jean-Paul Sartre, The Chips Are Down, trans. Louise Varése (London: Rider and Company, 1951) 127.
(xxii)  Chaine, "A Conversation About Sex and Women with Jean-Paul Sartre," 124.


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