In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Loving Two People at the Same Time

I've got two lovers

"Torn between two lovers feeling like a fool, loving both of you is breaking all the rules" (Mary MacGregor).

Empirical evidence clearly suggests that humans are capable of loving and having sex with more than one person at the same time. Indeed, most people I interviewed for the book, In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims, said that they can romantically love, and actually have loved, a few people at the same time.

Esther, a widow who was a great advocate of Romantic Ideology, confesses: "In the seven-plus years that I have been dating since the death of my husband, I have never been seeing just one person." Also Iris, who was married to the father of her children for fifteen years, loved two people at the same time: "I got involved with another man while I was still living with my husband. We did it openly. My husband even supported it for a while and the three of us lived together—to see if we could make it work. During that brief period, I had sex with both of them—one upstairs and one downstairs."

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Although both Esther and Iris have loved two people at the same time, each really craved the old-fashioned romantic love. Thus, later on in her life, when she had three potential lovers, Iris admits that "I don't like having three men from which to choose. I liked the simplicity of one." And Esther admits: "I subscribe to Romantic Ideology. I want the Perfect Guy...or one slightly imperfect guy. But my experience has been just the opposite. There isn't just one who has been able to satisfy me." Several songs describe this phenomenon; another example is the following: "I've got two lovers and I ain't ashamed, Two lovers, and I love them both the same" (Mary Wells).

Despite such testimonies, it is not obvious how to explain this phenomenon as emotions are typically partial and exclusive. This is especially so in romantic love which requires a lot of energy and resources. People sometimes express the difficulty in loving two people at the same time, by posing it as a logical contradiction: "He cannot romantically love both me and her at the same time."

A plausible way of explaining this difficulty is to claim that romantic love is based upon a few significant characteristics of the beloved, and hence loving more than one person at a time may not be entirely unfeasible, as the additional love would be based upon a different set of characteristics, and thus the two loves could be considered complementary rather than contradictory. Another context for such polyamorous love is having two romantic relationships which are at a different stage: one could be at the infatuation stage and the other at a later, more mature stage. It seems that there is no logical contradiction in romantically loving two people at the same time, and the issue here is psychological, as it generates profound emotional dissonance. The dissonance stems from the fact that by definition, emotions demand partiality, that is, the preference of one over another, which entails some sort of exclusivity. Emotionally, it is extremely painful to imagine your lover in the arms of another person. Indeed, most of those who told of being romantically in love with two people at the same time and pleased with the experience also claimed that they would not like to be at the other end of the relationship; that is, they would find it enormously difficult, if not impossible, to share their beloved with someone else.

How can human society cope with such emotional dissonances? One approach may be to adapt our accepted norms concerning romantic and sexual exclusivity to reflect the occasional dissonances of our reality, a change which has indeed begun to take place in modern society. People now allow their spouses to have more freedom in their personal relationships with others, and attitude is more flexible also concerning sex. In many societies, for example, extramarital sex is disapproved of socially; nevertheless, the transgressor is only mildly criticized for such activity. Indeed, extramarital affairs begin to be described in more neutral terms. Instead of the highly negative terms of "adultery" and "betrayal," some people begin to use the more neutral term of "parallel relationship."

The deeper problem, however, does not concern normative values, but rather emotional ones. Even if this process of relaxing of moral norms continues, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t, a major problem remains: the partiality that colors our emotional system, and in particular jealousy, fear, humiliation, and sorrow which are associated with realizing that your beloved partner is in love with someone else.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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