In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Are Second-Hand Lovers Merely a Second Best?

On the romantic value of being the last

"A second hand love....I'd rather have this kind of love, than not see you at all." Connie Francis

"Let us not be too particular; it is better to have old secondhand diamonds than none at all." Mark Twain

 People do not want to be second best; everyone wants to be the first, even if being second means improving their objective situation. What is so bad in being second? However in many romantic circumstances, being the last expresses more profound love than being first or second.

"Second best" implies being next in quality or importance to the best."Second hand" implies being previously owned or used; it is not new or original, as it has been received from another. The major concern in second-best love is not being the first in terms of quality; the major concern in second-hand love is not being first in the temporal sense. The wish to have sex with Madonna or Brad Pitt expresses the first concern (assuming that their reputation matches their performance), while the wish to have sex with a virgin expresses the second concern.

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It is commonly assumed that in the romantic realm there is some positive correlation between the two senses; for example, being temporally second is often taken to imply being second best. This assumption is questionable as the correlation may in fact even be the opposite. Thus, someone who has experienced a committed relationship may be better equipped to participate in a more flourishing relationship the next time. Similarly, a sexually inexperienced virgin may not be the best sexual partner, while a second-hand lover may be so. In many romantic circumstances, the best is yet to come.

A second-best love

The difficulties concerning being second best are clearly demonstrated in a study conducted by Victoria Medvec and her colleagues, which found that bronze medalists in the Olympic Games tend to be happier than silver medalists. The suggested explanation for this surprising result is that the nearest compelling alternative for the silver medalists would have been to have won gold, whereas for the bronze medalists it would be finishing without any medal at all. The silver medalists focused on having almost won gold because there is a qualitative difference between coming in first and any other outcome, and this exalted status was only one small step away. The silver medalists also finished only one step from winning bronze, but such a downward comparison does not involve much of a change in status. In contrast, bronze medalists are likely to focus their imagination downward, as there is a categorical difference between finishing third and finishing fourth in the Olympic Games. A clear illustration of can be found in the attached famous picture of US Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney, who makes a face on the podium because she is not impressed with her silver medal! Another illuminating example is that of Rise Stevens, who refused to sing at the San Francisco Opera House, although she had been granted the top fee she had demanded, because her other request -- that no other star should be paid as highly as she was --had been rejected. In this case, Stevens did not merely refuse to be second but also to share the first place.

The situation of the silver medalists is similar to that of an individual who misses out on the jackpot, but wins a modest sum for coming close. The prize provides some enjoyment, but the knowledge of having just missed the jackpot is bound to occasionally haunt the runner-up and ruin otherwise blissful moments.Despite being the second in the world, the fact of ranking below the winner overpowers the fact of triumphing over so many. Although we can understand the psychological difficulty of not being first, it is reasonable to aim to be happy with our own lot, which still may be better than the lot of 99% of other people.

A second-best love can refer either to having a second-best lover, or being a second best-beloved. The same holds for a second-hand love: it can refer to having a second-hand lover or being regarded by your lover as a second-hand love. In both cases, being a second best or a second hand love is more painful than having a second best or a second hand lover. It is easier to make compromise than to feel that you are treated as a compromise. The former is accompanied by the feelings of frustration due to missing something that you do not have; the latter is associated with the feelings of inferiority and humiliation.

The feeling that one has merely the second-best romantic option stems from the many romantic options available in current society. This greater availability of choices exacerbates the inability to be satisfied with one’s romantic lot. People no longer want to settle for anything less than Prince Charming. If such a prince is just around the corner, it can seem emotionally intolerable to leave him there and make do with someone who is viewed as second-best. At the basis of many romantic compromises, there is the agent's belief that she has given up, or failed to pursue, a more alluring option; accordingly, it becomes extremely difficult for her to be happy with her lot.

Consider the following sad statement from a married woman:

"My husband was always my best friend, and now that’s not true anymore. Instead I prefer to be with my friend, with whom I have no intimate relationship. I feel that my husband has many good qualities that made him the best partner for me when we married, but now that I am dissatisfied, it’s too easy to look at other relationships and think that I don’t have the best. I believe that my husband can discern that he is not my first anymore, which must be hard for him. It’s hard for me too. Not only do I feel for my husband, it’s distressing to feel like I don’t have the best partner for myself. And it's also upsetting to feel like I’m second to my friend’s wife. I hate that. I don’t even care that they are married and have sex. What hurts is that I want to be first, and I’m not."

Feeling that your partner considers you to be a second best is even harder to bear. This often occurs in affairs when one of the partners has an additional relationship that he considers as primary and more loving. If you choose a partner who seems to you a second best, it means that you did not win a better person, but at least you know that you may not have won that better partner anyway. It is even worse if your partner begins to consider you as a second best, because then you have lost the battle for the partner you actually have.

Being the first can therefore provide a sense of pride. A woman whose married lover had many lovers before her proudly said: "One of my lover's friends said to me in confidence 'You are the best I have seen so far!!!' meaning I was unrivalled in comparison to all the women he seen my lover with previously."

It should be noted that just as someone who was once considered the first can come to be regarded as the second, there are also cases in which someone viewed as a second best, and hence a romantic compromise, can become the best.

A second-hand love

"So sick of second-hand lovers carving names on my chest." John Ralston

In its literary, temporal usage, a "second-hand" love is a relationship with someone who has been in a (committed) romantic relationship in the past. But what is wrong with not being the first? Since people begin their romantic relationships quite early in their lives, it is rare to find the one and only on your first romantic journey. Moreover, sticking to the first is likely to generate feelings of perhaps having missed better alternatives. Thus, research indicates that when negotiators’ first offers are immediately accepted, negotiators are more likely to think that they could have done better and therefore they are less likely to be satisfied with the agreement than are negotiators whose offers are not accepted immediately.

In many cases, however, the temporal meaning of being second hand is associated with a negative normative meaning implying being contaminated or used. In this case, it is not merely that you do not get a new brand commodity, but like many other used commodities, it is defective.

This is many (though these days less and less) people's attitude toward virginity (that is, women's virginity). Virginity does not merely refer to a temporal order but to a state of never having engaged in sexual intercourse. In this sense, it differs from the more descriptive notion of premarital sex which can refer to more than one occasion of sexual activities. Violating virginity has a negative meaning,which premarital sex does not have.

However being a second-hand love does not necessarily carry a negative humiliating connotation. Thus, a single woman said, "I do not want to marry someone for whom our relationship is his first, as he may feel that he has missed out on something and might therefore have extramarital affairs." However, this single woman adds, "I don't want to marry a divorced man with kids, as he has already experienced with someone else the excitement of the birth of his children and he may also have to cope with difficulties raising his own kids. I would have to find him extremely charismatic and highly attractive in order to compensate for my compromise in marrying such a person."

A married person's lover may feel that her married lover has a more profound love for the woman with whom he has a shared history of activities and experience, but she would still like to be unique for him. As a married woman said about her married lover, "I know he will not leave his wife as I will not leave my husband, but I want to feel that I have a special place in his heart no matter what happens. I want to be his gem, the special thing he hides in his jewelry box and uses on very special occasions; I want to be precious and unique."Another woman expressed a similar attitude concerning her married friend: "It’s so important to be special and unique. Then I can at least be first in some area. Then I can deal with my friend being with his wife, who is really his first choice. I know he doesn’t have any other relationships like ours, and I can’t imagine he ever will either. That is how I cope."

The presence of another lover also arises in cases of widows or people whose great loving relationship has ended for nonromantic reasons. Those people can keep a unique place in their hearts for their late husband or ex-lover, while still loving another person. As one widow writes, “'Second love’ is different, but it's very good. I will always love and miss my late husband. It's really hard to understand sometimes how I can go from tears for my late husband into smiling and thinking of my new guy. There's an odd ‘divide’. I love both of them, the one here and the one gone.” It seems that we are blessed with a heart that is flexible and big enough to accommodate several people at the same time.

When "second hand" merely refers to the temporal aspect, then it has more positive connation than "second best," as the temporal second might be the first in quality. However, when "second hand" involves the aspect of being defective, then it is more negative than "second best" as it can be much lower than being second.

The value of being the last

“You can dance every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, But don't forget who's taking you home, So darling save the last dance for me.” The Drifters

In the song cited above, the man allows his partner to have her personal space by dancing “with the guy who gives you the eye,” providing she remembers who will be taking her home and for whom she should save the last dance.

First love has its own intense excitement, which may be remembered for a long time. But last love may express greater profundity. It is easy to be exciting when you are the first lover, but such excitement may stem from being first and novel and not from romantic profundity. Being the last may involve profound satisfaction. Although you and your partner may have the attitude of "been there, done that," which often expresses a measure of boredom or complacency, you are still in love.

A married woman, who in her 30 years of marriages also had two lovers, compares her attitude toward them: "The situation with my first lover was very exhilarating. We shared intensity that both of us did not feel with others. Although the second love affair may have been less exhilarating, it was not 'lesser' from an overall perspective, as in many aspects it was more. Above all, it was more profound, lacking the pain that my first lover gave me; the second lover gave me security and calmness that the first lover never did." What really count in romantic love at the end of the day is being the last (at least for the time being).

 Concluding remarks

"I know it’s worth it baby even if it’s just secondhand love." Cassadee Pope

The negative view of second-best and a second-hand love is associated with the all-or-none attitude: either I will be the very best and the very first, or there is no value whatsoever in this relationship. This attitude implies the assumption that previous relationships contaminate the purity of one's heart. But it may be the contrary: Such relationships may educate one's heart, enabling it to clearly detect the value of the current relationship as compared to the previous ones. Being second may be associated with bitterness, but this bitterness can still be valuable. Similarly, most people prefer sweets, but coffee is highly valued because of its bitterness. Moreover, what is the best for us is often unclear in the short run; often we only realize later what the best is for us in the long run.

In our dynamic and restless society, when (in the words of a popular song), "love is ended before it's begun," numbering is of lesser significance. As a married woman said about her attitude toward the fact that her married lover had many lovers before her, "The issue of not being the first or the second is less important as long as he loves me greatly. He may have had greater loves in his life, but who knows: I may be the last. I see myself as his dessert—the hot fudge over cool, sweet ice cream.

Thomas Fuller claimed that "A conservative believes nothing should be done for the first time." In the case of love, some people believe that nothing should be done for the second time. Both these views are wrong.

There is nothing wrong with second-best love, second-hand love, or last love. Each of these loving relationships can be of great romantic value. In our competitive, individualistic society, it is sometimes hard to believe that there is enough love to go around for all people. However, our hearts are flexible and big enough to enjoy love with various people, without ranking their relative qualitative or temporal aspects.

 

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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