Torn Between Two Lovers?

If you’re pulled between two relationships, it’s time to look deeper.

Posted Apr 27, 2019

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Cate and Sam have been a couple for forever. They’ve talked about engagement; all their friends assume they will eventually marry once school and careers settle. But on a vacation with her family, Cate meets Jake, and she’s swept off her feet. There’s instant chemistry; he’s funny, more sociable than Sam. By the end of the vacation, Jake is saying that he’d like to continue what they started when they both are back home, and Cate is torn. She’s tempted to explore the relationship further, but then thinks of Sam. 

Torn between two lovers—or in Cate’s case, potential lovers? It can be the expected meeting on a vacation or at a wedding that throws you off-balance; it can be from an ongoing affair. You’re drawn in by all the positive attention, you’re intrigued, but also pulled and confused.

Some suggestions to help you look at what might be going on and how to sort this out:

New person, new start

It’s hard for an older relationship to compete with a newer one, because it’s . . . older. There’s an excitement to any new relationship when there’s chemistry. You get to start over, there’s the vibrant discovery of learning about someone new. Because you’re not yet locked into patterns, there’s also a sense of freedom, an opportunity to revive parts of your personality that may have gone underground. You have the gratifying experience of telling your story to someone who is hearing it for the first time and is the perfect audience: interested, intrigued.

New person, new oxytocin

Oxytocin ramps up the rush of excitement and fuels that bonding, the wanting to be with that person. But while oxytocin is important for building a relationship, it also naturally starts to fade within 9-18 months. Why? The thinking is that this is part of our evolutionary inheritance. After a couple is emotionally bonded, they need to stop myopically focusing on themselves 24/7 and instead get busy nesting and making a family. And so the relationship starts to settle, sex often begins to drop off.

If you’re in a new relationship, you get that oxytocin hit. Again, tough competition for the older relationship.

New person, distorted perspective

Like what happens with any rebound relationship, Cate’s view of Jake is automatically distorted—in part because she only has an impression of him, but more importantly, the impression she has of Jake is shaped by her relationship with Sam. Essentially, she is bouncing off of Sam, and what she most likely sees in Jake is an "unSam"—aware of the differences between them, what Jake seems to have that Sam does not. This, along with the new start and new oxytocin, skews her perception of Jake until she gets to know him, until the excitement naturally begins to fade. 

New person, old problems

What Cate finds most attractive about Jake also may bring into bold relief what she doesn't like about Sam. The contrasts between them may highlight the problems in her relationship with Sam, which they both may have been emotionally sweeping under the rug. Resentments that may have been accumulating over the years which she has been suppressing may now come to the surface. 

What to Do

Obviously, Cate is free to do whatever she wants, but she may want to slow down and consider some of the following:

Realize the relationship with Jake will change

The rush she is feeling about Jake will fade, the newness will at some point wear off. Cate needs to be ready to revise her initial fantasies and expectations. That doesn’t mean that Jake may not eventually prove to be a better match for her, but she needs to be careful and go into the relationship with eyes wide open, with her rational, not oxytocin, brain online.

Do something about her problems with Sam

Rather than using Jake as her antidote to her problems with Sam, she can use her new awareness of the problems in her relationship with Sam to talk with him about them and/or try to fix them together. The ability to talk about problems honestly and tackle them together is a cornerstone for judging compatibility and guaranteeing long-term couple success. If she dismisses this opportunity and only uses Jake as her fix for her problems with Sam, she is also losing the opportunity to see what her relationship with Sam can ultimately become. 

Don't use indecisiveness as an antidote to fears of abandonment or loneliness

Here we’re talking about folks who stay stuck on the fence, because they fear being alone. They don’t fully commit to either relationship for fear of having none. So, Cate tries to explore her relationship with Jake, but also tries not to alienate Sam, tries to not to be too assertive and rock the boat with Jake in case Sam doesn't step up. She is hedging, because she emotionally needs a back-up, wants to have a B-team ready on the bench should Jake or her problems with Sam not work out. This is not about Jake or Sam but about her—her anxiety, her fears of being alone that she needs to realize and be honest about. 

Look at motivation

Cate may want to ask herself why, besides or because of all the excitement, she'd be interested in pursuing her relationship with Jake at all right now. It may be driven by problems with Sam, or an acting out of some anger or resentment and a feeling that she deserves to do what she wants. Or it may signal that her overall life is boring and stale, and she is ready for some bigger changes.  

The question to ask herself is: Why now, what does this all say about what I most need?

Look at values

Values are also part of this equation, and these too may come into bolder relief as she considers a relationship with Jake. Before the oxytocin and newness emotionally sweep her up even more, she may want to slow down, step back, and focus on her values: not the shoulds in her head, not the rationalizations that may arise, but her gut beliefs about what it means to be in a relationship, what it means to be committed, what she needs and values most in a long-term relationship. Her values can serve as ballast to the emotional turmoil she feels.

Ultimately, Cate’s challenge, and the key to her getting off the fence, is to see Sam as Sam, Jake as Jake, as two separate individuals rather than melding them together, viewing them as the yin and yang of each other, rather than focusing on the black and white contrast. Jake may be the one, or he may be a seeming solution to a number of underlying individual and relationship issues that Cate needs to look at and address. 

Obviously, this is something that only Cate can decide, but she can only fully and fairly decide by looking deeper—and then acting bolder.

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