Is Love a Zero-Sum Game?

by Jason Stotts

Many people tend to assume that love is a zero-sum game and I think that that’s an interesting assumption.  In order to figure out if it’s true, let’s take a look at what it would mean and see if we can come to understand whether love is, in fact, a zero-sum game.

Let’s start by noting that a “zero-sum game” is one in which there is a finite and fixed amount of some resource for which two or more people must compete.  It’s called zero-sum because what one person gains, another must lose; therefore, if you were to sum all of the changes in the positions of the participants, the sum would be zero.  The key idea in a zero-sum game is that since there is a finite and fixed quantity of X: for one person to gain X, another must lose X.  The question is: does love operate this way?

In order to answer this question, we need to ascertain whether love exists, for any particular person, in finite and fixed quantities.  So, let us consider some examples.

1. If a couple is completely in love with each other and they have a child, will that child be without love, since its parents have already allocated all of their love to each other?  If they decide to love the child, will they have to withdraw some of their love from their partner?  What if the couple only planned on having one child and so held back loving each other somewhat, so that they would have love to allocate to the child once it was born, but accidently had twins?  Would each baby only receive half of the allocated love?  What if this ends up completely using up the love of the parents and then they accidently have a third child?  Will this child be loveless?

2.  What if a person is happily married and his father, whom he loved, dies?  Does this mean he will be able to love his wife more now?  Should one in a relationship that needs more love consider killing other people that one loves so that the love can be reallocated?  Can love be withdrawn from a person without having to kill them?

3.  What if a child grows up loving her parents completely and then decides that she wants to be in a relationship?  Will she be unable to love her partner?  Will she have to love her parents less in order to love her partner?  What if she then gets a kitten?  Will the poor animal be without love?

As you should be able to discern from the above examples, the idea of love as a fixed and finite amount, a zero-sum game, is absurd.

Should we therefore assume that love is infinite and that one can love however people, children, and animals that a person chooses?  No, clearly there are practical issues that limit the amount of people that one can love: the number of good and compatible people in the world that one will meet, the amount of time and energy a person has to expend on relationships, the depth at which one is able to maintain one’s love, etc. There are very real limits to love: it is not infinite.  I think that Aristotle makes the point well:

One cannot be a friend to many people in the sense of having friendship of the complete type with them, just as one cannot be in love with many people at once (for love is a sort of excess, and it is the nature of such only to be felt towards one person); and it is not easy for many people at the same time to please the same person very greatly, or perhaps even to be good for him.  One must, too, acquire some experience of the other person and become familiar with him, and that is very hard.  But with a view to utility of pleasure it is possible that many people should please one; for many people are useful or pleasant, and these services take little time. (NE VIII.6.1158a10)

The deeper and more intense the love that one has for a person, the less time and energy one will have to develop love or maintain love for others.  It is important to point out that Aristotle is using love in the way that we would call romantic love now and does not mean love in other senses, like love of family or country.  It is sexual love that drives us to excess and consumes us: while philia may create bonds, it is only eros that consumes us in her passion.

I think this point is easier to understand if we take a look at the end of sexual love: intimacy.  First, there is the obvious direct sense, which is physical intimacy: we desire to be around our lover, to gaze upon her, to know she is present, to spend our time with her, to have her be a part of our life.  However, this is not enough and is ultimately unsatisfying.  Sexual love seeks a deeper kind of intimacy: not just temporary physical connection through sex or being around our lover, but to become one with a person through union.  This should not be taken to mean the Platonic ideal where two lovers want to literally become one by finding their other half.  The union that sexual love seeks is that of a shared identity.

While union sounds like a fuzzy mystical concept, it is not.  Union is just the coming together of two individuals who commit themselves to each other and henceforth act together in their lives.  The embodiment of this in our culture is marriage, which is an institution where two lovers bind themselves together before their friends and the law.  In the best kind of marriage, union will arise.  In order for it to do so, the lovers must spend lots of time together and develop a shared past.  Further, they must care very deeply about each other and value their partner for their own sake, and not simply for the pleasure or utility that they bring.  Once this happens, the lovers will come to internalize each other’s ends as part of their own: the happiness of one lover will become partly constitutive of the happiness of the other, and vice versa.  By having shared their past, sharing their present, and committing to share their future, in addition to their values and ends, the lovers achieve a shared identity and the intimacy that sexual love desires.  Far from being mystical, this shared identity is real: were one of the lovers to die, the other would lose part of herself in a very real sense.

The danger of this sense of shared identity is that the lovers can lose their own identities.  If this happens, then the relationship will dissolve, as the partners will lose interest in each other as time goes by.  In order to avoid this, the lovers must guard their individuality and keep from being dependent on their partners.  After all, it is your unique personality that originally attracted your lover.  Thus, there must be a balance between each person’s individuality and their shared identity that is their relationship.

This intense kind of loving does not have to be exclusive.  It certainly has room in it for children, friends, and family.  However, it does seem as though there is not much room in it for other lovers, or at least that most people cannot concurrently maintain deep levels of love for multiple people.  It’s hard to imagine a person being able to have a shared identity in the sense we’ve been discussing with more than one person, or at least one would spend all of one’s time trying to maintain those relationships and would have little time for anything else.  It’s not hard to see that a person could maintain a deep love for one person and a shallower love for another, perhaps enough that the couple could want to jointly decide to pursue a limited sexual engagement with this third person.  However, I think that the viability of having multiple deep loves over the long term is poor.

So, we have seen that love is not some small limited quantity, but neither is it infinite.  Indeed, it seems that the more intense the love one has for one’s partner, the less one is able, or willing, to love another.  It also seems to be the case that one’s love in one realm (friendly love, familial love, sexual love) is largely independent of the other realms: those who have big families and love them need not worry that they will be unable to love a sexual partner or that they will be unable to have friends.

6 Responses to “Is Love a Zero-Sum Game?”

  1. Bill White

    I have two questions that I have heard as objections to the Objectivist position on romantic love. One of them I sort of agree with:

    1) Regarding zero-sum-game: I have heard it argued that the dating world is a zero sum game in that men and women are competing for the best lovers/partners that they can find. So, if you and I and Tom all find Susan attractive but Susan chooses to date someone else entirely, we lose. There are also sophisticated mathematical arguments of this type that will say there are only so many single females between the ages of 18 and 34 and that all the men 18 to 65 (or so) are competing for these girls and there will be winners and there will be losers. Plus, the sad realization is that the losers often face a life of involuntary celibacy. I could go on as I have seen countless arguments of this type especially from evolutionary types that are obsessed with “sexual fitness indicators” and sexual competition in the “human sexual market”, etc.. My guess is that they would look at your analysis and say “unscientific mumbo jumbo”. I have had it said to me many times.

    2) Regarding the marriage contract: What exactly is it for? I mean a contract is supposed to be about two or more parties giving up compensation for some gain. But what is the compensation given up in the marriage contract? I guess I don’t understand how it is a legitimate concept. It does seem like mystical stuff to me. Perhaps it operates under the same set of principles as corporate law. I don’t know enough about it to know one way or other.

  2. JasonStotts


    1. I don’t think that the picture you paint of the way dating works applies to humans. Women are people. They hold ideas, make choices, and have preferences. The class of possible mates for any particular woman is not “all men between 18-65,” but that small set that corresponds to her preferences and whom she will actually meet. Human dating is much more complex than can be statistically modeled now (or perhaps ever). I especially think your idea about “Susan” is wrong. If Susan wants to date Jim, who is her ideal, then what would you or I or Tom gain by dating her? We would be her second best, her not ideal, her “good enough.” Why would I even want that? What sense am I really “losing” by not being what she settles for? I think that you should reconsider the way dating works.

    2. Before I take this question on, a contract is not “two or more parties giving up compensation for some gain,” but rather something more like “an agreement between two or more parties for some end, by which each agrees to be bound.”

    Now, the “marriage contract” is two different things. First, it is literally a legal document one signs when one marries. This carries with it a whole host of rights and obligations. If you mean this sense, ask a lawyer to explain all of its ramifications.

    Second, and the one you probably mean, is that marriage is a very serious commitment to another person. Besides the legal ramifications, the exact nature of this is up to the individuals inside the couple. Is the marriage going to be forever? Are there going to be children? How will the children be raised? Who will work? Who will control the money? Will the marriage be monogamous? The exact form of a relationship must be negotiated by the parties to it and is thus described as a “contract” that defines the marriage. This isn’t usually literal, but rather is just the agreements and understandings that those in the couple come to in defining their relationship.


  3. Bill White


    I would like to ask your view on something related to this post and our discussion of it. Here is a link to a study done on the relationship of marriage and career:

    The conclusion is this: “The results show that if there were no returns to career choices in the marriage market, men would tend to work less, study less, and choose blue‐collar jobs over white‐collar jobs.”

    The implications of this is that the major motivational force behind work is sexual. Do you agree with that? I don’t know if that is consistent with Objectivism or not. Also, I am going to like to someone who analyzes this study from the study of evolutionary psychology. His conclusion is that the “sexual market” is a zero sum game. His views are cynical but from my experience they strike me as consistent with reality. I don’t know how to square this with Objectivism though.




    […] Is Love a Zero-Sum Game? – A More Intimate Love of Wisdom […]

  5. JasonStotts


    I don’t have access to the full text of that article, but it seems from the abstract that the idea is that men are primarily motivated to get a good job because they want to gain economic/social power in order to attract a good mate. While this surely describes some people, it is a very second-handed way of living and a terrible choice. Consider this: what happens once you get married? Now you’re stuck in a job you that you got and keep only in order to find a wife, but now you have one. If you hate your job, which you likely will, you’ll grow to resent your wife and/or family for forcing you to stay in it to support them and you’ll become a bitter person. Furthermore, since you’re stuck in a job you got only in order to get a wife, and you’re in a job that’s not really what you want to be doing, you’ll be fundamentally frustrated in your life and never feel satisfied, since you were not true to yourself or to what you really wanted to do.

    I think that a person should focus on achieving his goals and getting his life in order first, before he ever thinks about marriage.


  6. On Polysexuality (Revised) at Erosophia

    […] more than one person at a time, I do not believe this (for a fuller discussion of this, see my “Is Love a Zero-Sum Game?” Clearly, we are capable of loving a partner, friends, family, children, etc. all concurrently […]