Maybe It's Just Me, But...

Musings of a mildly mad multi-disciplinarian

Are You in Love with One Person While Committed to Another?

Can we truly and fully love two people at once?

In comments on my various posts on adultery, as well as in recent conversations with friends both new and old, the topic of loving two people (romantically) came up rather often. Can we truly love two people at once, or will we unavoidably be abandoning one love for another? And if indeed we can love two people at once, are we shortchanging one or both of them by doing so?

We'll be looking at this topic in the context of a committed relationship in which this type of emotional infidelity may exist (or could potentially develop), whether or not there a physical dimension to the outside relationship (or the committed one, for that matter). And for the time being, we're not going to worry about defining emotional infidelity—does flirting count, or what about emailing or texting throughout the day, and so on—that's a topic for another day and another post (or perhaps another blogger!). We're talking about being in love or falling in love with another person, which I think most people would consider to represent emotional infidelity (or, at least, is a good sign of it).

Some people would deny that you can truly and fully love more than one person at a time. In their view, love represents a total devotion of one person—heart, soul, and body—to another, which implies that you can never love a second person without taking something away from the first. But this assumes that whatever you give when you love someone is limited or scarce, so that giving some (or more) to Jane or Joe means giving less to Janet or John. This may be true with some resources like time or money, but not as obviously true with respect to affection; after all, parents can have more than one child without loving any of them less, so why can't a person romantically love more than one person?

Another way to make such an argument is to claim that love is monogamous by definition—in other words, monogamy is an essential feature of true love, implying that polyamory is a contradiction in terms. (See Deborah Taj Anapol's great post on polyamory here.) But why? One could argue that by its very nature, loving somebody includes promising your affection exclusively, so the other person can reciprocate with confidence. But this assumes that both persons desire monogamy, which begs the question; naturally, monogamy-oriented people will desire monogamous relationships, but this doesn't explain the desire for monogamy itself! Of course, desiring a mongamous relationship doesn't need justification, but neither does a desire for any other type of relationship (including not being in a relationship at all, as Bella DePaulo emphasizes on her Living Single blog). But it seems hard to defend a essentially monogamous nature to love itself without first assuming that lovers want monogamy, which is circular reasoning.

But if you're in a relationship with someone that does expect monogamy and exclusivity (as many of us are), then loving somebody else at the same time does represent a problem. The most obvious problem is that you may be devoting resources to the other person—especially time—that your committed partner expects from you. But let's imagine that this doesn't happen; that is, you manage to engage in the new relationship without neglecting your partner in terms of presence (say, by corresponding with your secret someone by email at work). Nonetheless, there may be a intangible yet very important way in which you're neglecting your committed partner: you're not giving him or her all of your heart and devotion, which your partner expects. If your partner values exclusivity and monogamy, you are cheating him or her out of an aspect of your relationship that your partner holds dear, whether he or she is aware of the other relationship or not. (And if your partner is not aware of the other relationship, then you've brought deception into the mix, either through silence, hiding, and sneaking around, or by outright lying.)

Of course, your significant other may not value monogamy, in which case presumably you can be open about your other relationship. Another possibility is that your partner is no longer emotionally committed to the relationship, which is maintained for other reasons, such as children, finances, cultural or religious factors, and so forth. And understandably, it may be difficult for you to stay emotionally committed to this relationship also, which may leave a void within you that needs to be filled with a new love. In a nonideal relationship like this, it is more likely that you could become emotionally connected to another person, even fall in love, without neglecting your partner in any emotional sense, since by assumption, that ship has sailed. (One might even wonder if this would be considered emotional infidelity at all, since your committed partner "relinquished" any claim on your affections.)

And maybe you can maintain this other love without denying any time or money to your committed relationship (to the extent it needs it). But what about your other lover (who is, at this point, your only lover)—is this arrangement fair to him or her? Of course, he or she may agree with it (or have reconciled to it), and there is a sense in which you can accept this as justification. But nonetheless, you may start to wonder: is this the best thing for this person I love? Will this "sometime thing" truly make him or her happy? This is reminiscient of what I wrote in my post regarding inadequacy: it's one thing to respect the other person's choice, but it's another to hang too much weight on that when you feel it's not the best choice for him or her. Do you really want this person you love—more than your committed partner—to settle for second place, in your day-to-day life if not your heart?

This is tough—how often do we find true love in the first place? And how frustrating is it when we find it but it comes at such an inopportune time, such as when you're in another relationship? Of course it's ideal if you can leave the current relationship for a shot at a new one, but it's not always that easy. Sometimes you can't leave, or other times you don't want to leave, in which case you try to balance both relationships. But can you really do this and keep everyone happy?

I'm not sure... what do you think?

By the way, I'm testing the waters of Twitter; you can follow me here if you'd like.

Mark D. White is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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