Loving Three People at the Same Time

Loving three people is much harder than loving two.

Posted Jul 10, 2009 | Reviewed by Davia Sills

"A little bit of Monica in my life. A little bit of Erica by my side. A little bit of Rita is all I need. A little bit of Tina is what I see." —Lou Bega

In a previous posting, I discussed the phenomenon of loving two people at the same time (see "Can You Love Two People at the Same Time?"). I noted that most of the people I interviewed for my book In the Name of Love said that they were able to love two people at the same time romantically and that they actually had done so. When asked whether they would agree to their partner also having another romantic partner, they were less enthusiastic about this. For some reason, those who gladly have an affair are less enthusiastic about their lover enjoying a similar such affair.

When asked about the possibility of loving three people at the same time, a great deal more doubts were expressed. A married woman who has a married lover may accept the fact that her lover is having an intimate relationship with his spouse, but will usually be much more opposed to him conducting a third relationship.

Why is opposition to a third party so vehement? After all, three is larger than two by just one. Does the addition of only one lover turn a virtuous person into a promiscuous one? I believe there are two major variables of emotional intensity that enhance the opposition to the (seemingly modest) increase from two to three lovers: the variable of controllability and that of deservingness.

The more that we control a certain event, the greater will be our emotional intensity concerning this event. People feel more entitled to (or frustrated by) an outcome if they have helped to bring it about than if it results from a whim of fate or another powerful agent. Thus, frustration intensifies if the failure is attributed to us.

The perceived deservingness of our situation or that of others is of great importance in determining the nature and intensity of our emotions. None of us wants to be unjustly treated or to receive what is contrary to our wishes. Accordingly, the feeling of injustice is hard to bear—sometimes even more so than the actual hardship caused.

One obstacle to adding an additional lover to the two existing ones is that such a relationship may be difficult from a pragmatic viewpoint, as many resources are needed to sustain such circumstances. A more profound obstacle is that such a deed would not be fair to the existing two partners and especially to the lover. A person might excuse her partner for conducting another romantic relationship if the present one is dull or beset by other difficulties. But if that additional excitement has already been supplied by a second relationship, what justification could there be in having a third one?

The emergence of a third romantic relationship may be particularly problematic for the second lover. Although a woman in a polygamous marriage may not be jealous of any of the other women married to her husband, she might be jealous of women outside the marriage. Similarly, 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."

It was clear that this woman did not have an exclusive relationship with her married lover, but she expected some limited exclusivity. Once this limited exclusivity was breached as well, she was jealous and could not continue the relationship. In such cases, sexual jealousy still demands some exclusivity, though a more flexible variety.

A woman who has an affair with a married man can explain the fact that her lover is living with his wife and not with her by regarding his wife in a sense as part of the package with he brought with him when she met him and by believing that there are now external circumstances, beyond his control, which prevent him from leaving his wife. This woman, however, can still believe that he profoundly loves her alone and can hope that this love will prevail in the future. But if her lover is having a third love affair, such lenient excuses no longer apply and cannot be used to ease the pain, as the circumstances are clearly not beyond his control. It is easier to believe that love has not been violated when the other relationship is limited to an old one than when it also involves a recent one.

It should be noted that the move from one romantic partner to two partners is more difficult than the move from two partners to three. Thus, a married woman, who after 25 years of marriage began her first affair, said that she does not expect to have three romantic partners simultaneously—but if she ever does, it would take her much less than 25 years to do so.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following declaration that a lover might express: "Darling, I know that at the moment you cannot end your romantic relationship with your spouse, and I accept this. But it would be extremely difficult for me to accept you having another lover besides me."

Adapted from In the Name of Love.