Can Uniqueness Replace Exclusivity in Romantic Love?

Uniqueness is of greater significance in love than exclusiveness

Posted Jul 19, 2008

I gonna make you see, there's nobody else here, no one like me, I'm special so special. (Pretenders)
Till I waltz again with you, let no other hold your charms. (Teresa Brewer)
My heart is too big for just one guy. (Edith Piaf)

A major requirement in Romantic Ideology is that love should be exclusive. Romantic love must be exclusive and limited in scope, as it requires much of our resources. The depth of love can be achieved because of its more discriminative nature. The validity of the exclusiveness requirement can be doubted when compared to that of uniqueness.

Exclusiveness is characterized in negative terms that establish rigid boundaries, whereas uniqueness is characterized in positive terms that celebrate an ideal. Exclusive entails "not permitting," "restricting," "not dividing or sharing with others," "excluding some or most, as from membership or participation." Unique is characterized in positive terms that establish distinctiveness: "being one of a kind," "different from others in a way that makes somebody or something special and worthy of note."

The difference between uniqueness and exclusiveness is expressed in the attitude articulated by Iris, who, after her divorce, had another long-term relationship with a man to whom she was highly attracted. Although she knew that this man had several affairs while he was her lover, she never thought of having such an affair herself. Iris was ready to allow this behavior as long as she felt that she was still special to him. In this manner she maintained some kind of exclusivity, which eased her pain:
I always maintained the belief that we each have something special with one another-in that, it is unique. When I held this belief I did not need to control others in order to sustain this place of inner security. And based on this, we can be sure that we also have a unique relationship with everyone. That would mean that I could still feel special even if my lover had other lovers. It still is not what I want-but I can see the potential in me to be able to live with it... and still feel special to him. But in this case, I felt that I was replicable, that I was not indispensable; I saw how this contradicted my belief that I was special to him (all citations are from In the Name of Love).

What bothered Iris was not that her lover was having sex with other women, but that she no longer felt that she was special to him. The essence of romantic relationships for her is being positively unique to the beloved. At the basis of her loving attitude is not the need to forbid the beloved from acting in a certain manner (though this need may also be present in a mild form), but the wish to be valued differently than others. If my beloved considers me unique, it is plausible that certain activities, but not all, remain exclusive to us. It is also possible that I am unique to my beloved in the sense that there is no other person with whom he is involved in so many intimate activities, but this does not mean that there are activities that are restricted to me alone.

The greater emphasis upon uniqueness, rather than exclusivity, is supported by the fact that more and more people are ready to accept a type of flexible exclusivity. Thus, a woman who was divorced for a long time told a reporter: "For six years, I had an affair with a married person. I loved him very much and we had wonderful sex. Once I found out that he had affairs with other women, I terminated our relationship." In a similar vein, Rosa says about her online married partner: "Yes, he has a wife, to whom he is faithful. I accept this. But I could feel the place in me that didn't want him to have other online affairs." It is clear that these women did not have an exclusive relationship with their married partner, but they did expect some kind of limited exclusivity. Once this limited exclusivity was abrogated as well, they could not continue the relationship. Even the presence of a limited exclusivity enables Andrea, who has been having an affair with a married man for the last three years, to say "The thing I like most about him is his loyalty to me-he will never cheat on me." Violating the (more flexible) boundaries will result in negative emotions.

People can cope with flexible love as long as the terms of flexibility are clear and respected. Thus, Rosa says: "I am surprised, but I get a very warm and loving feeling inside of me thinking about him with his wife. I believe this is because I have framed my relationship with him in a particular way... and his being with someone who nurtures him and loves him is thrilling to me and touches me in a loving way." Rosa is not merely able to live with this framework but can also see various advantages to it. People can cope with flexible love as long as the terms of flexibility are clear and kept. Similarly, before her marriage, Sandra, a woman in her thirties, had on two separate occasions a lover in addition to her stable relationship with a boyfriend. She said that in both cases she loved the boyfriend and the lover and felt good about it. Asked to respond to the possibility that her boyfriend, rather than she, would have secondary affair, Sandra claimed that she might accept this as long as everything would be out in the open and she would participate in choosing this woman, who might become an important part of her life as well.

The preference for uniqueness over exclusivity is clear in Internet dating sites where people are asked to give a detailed description of their own uniqueness as well as what sort of people they like to date. Moreover, the technology enables choice in a way that was previously unknown. This requires a deep look inward at the uniqueness of one's self. On the other hand, in online love affairs, the methods of finding a partner and the lack of some types of information show how human beings can be treated as standardized merchandise and sex partners as public commodities (Love Online).

The need for uniqueness is indeed a basic emotional need; we need to consider ourselves as very special (which is different from being superior). No wonder we want to see our beloved, who in a sense is part of our enlarged self, as unique as well. Being unique is being different and it expresses a kind of change that, like other changes, excites our emotional system. Consequently, emphasizing our uniqueness, which is an essential element in the Nurturing Approach (In the Name of Love), is compatible with greater emotional satisfaction. Although each of us should remember that everyone else is also unique, just as we are, the feeling that we ourselves are unique is of great value for our happiness.

The shift in emphasis from exclusivity to uniqueness expresses the shift from basing love upon the negative requirement of controlling and limiting the beloved behavior to the positive feature of seeing the special value of the beloved. It seems that the longevity of a romantic relationship can profit more from the latter attitude. While romantic love involves both features, uniqueness is of much greater significance.