"Real life is, to most men, a long second-best, a perpetual compromise between the ideal and the possible." —Bertrand Russell
"Even though I'm second best, you're still first with me...
I love you even though I know I'm only second best." —Dolly Parton
"They tell me that there's someone else you really truly love
And even when we kiss that she's the one you're thinking of...
I'm a secondhand love, a secondhand love." —Connie Francis
In most circumstances, it is unpleasant to be considered second best; in a romantic relationship, it is even more devastating. Given that we all know it is often so hard to attain the ideal, why is it so difficult to be considered second best? Why are we so frustrated by a partner that we consider to be a second-best choice?
We should distinguish between being second best and choosing an alternative perceived to be a second best. Both situations are disagreeable.
An illuminating example of the difficulties in settling for being second best comes from a study that found that bronze medalists in the Olympic Games tend to be happier than silver medalists (see here).
The suggested explanation for this surprising result is that the most compelling alternative for the silver medalists is winning gold, whereas for the bronze medalists it is finishing without any medal at all. The silver medalists focus on having almost won gold because they perceive the gap between them and the first place to be quantitatively small as if the top prize were just one small step away.
However, the gap is huge quality-wise, since the winner takes all. That finishing second can be extremely painful is shown by the amazing example of Abel Kiviat, the 1,500-m silver medalist in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, who had the race until Arnold Jackson "came from nowhere" to beat him by a mere one-tenth of a second.
About 70 years later, at age 91, Kiviat admitted in an interview: "I wake up sometimes and say: ‘What the heck happened to me?' It's like a nightmare."
One may wonder what is so unpleasant in being second best; after all, being the second-best in the world is surely a tremendous achievement. However, the main problem in being the second-best is not connected to feeling inferior, since being in second place in any large group puts you well ahead of everyone else, apart from that one person who is ahead of you in first place.
The main problem is that of perceiving that the best (or the better) was very close and highly feasible. When something better is so close to you, it is difficult to settle for less. This is particularly so in our society, where, in many circumstances, the winner takes all.
The pain that comes from compromising and from choosing a second-best alternative is mainly due to the fact that there is a close and feasible alternative that we are relinquishing. In romantic relationships, the pain involves both the one who made the compromise and chose a second-best partner and the one who is considered to be a second-best partner. The pain of the chooser stems from voluntarily relinquishing a better alternative, and the pain of the one chosen as second best arises from the humility of being considered as inferior to another.
Romantic compromises involve both types of second-best: The agent who considers her partner to be a second-best choice and the one who is considered to be so. Both people are frustrated because of what seems to be a voluntary aspect in their situation.
The chooser often experiences frustration concerning the opportunities she has missed, seemingly by her own decision. The other person is hurt because someone very close to him considers him to be inferior to another person. When we hold ourselves in some way responsible for a bad event, we are more hurt by it.
In many areas of life, we have in mind an ideal: a kind of (almost) perfect person or circumstances that we try to imitate or achieve. As we know that ideals are seldom attainable in their entirety, we try to get as close as possible to them. This in itself might uphold the value of the second place, as it is the closest possible option, the nearest that we can get to that ideal.
When being the second-best is understood in that way, people can even grow to be happy with it. (In some cases, such as at work, being second can make one's life easier and burden one with less worry and pressure.)
In most cases, however, being or being considered to be second best is painful because of a combination of two major features: (a) being inferior, and (b) being close to a significantly better alternative. Being third-best involves merely (a) and not (b), and although it involves greater inferiority, it is less painful than being second best.
Those two features are personal and comparative in nature and can overlook objective features. Although being second best is inferior to being the best, it is objectively quite close to the ideal. However, being objectively closer makes it subjectively more painful.
Emotions are of a personal and comparative nature; indeed, a crucial element in emotions is the imagined condition of "it could have been otherwise." Accordingly, being and being perceived as second best both involve intense emotions.
The problematic nature of being second best is enhanced by the fact that in many circumstances, we live in a winner-take-all society. In so many circumstances, one person takes the bulk of or the entire "prize," while the rest are left with little if anything at all.
Romantic relationships are of such a nature. As it is expressed in the following song by Abba: "The winner takes it all, the loser has to fall, it's simple, and it's plain."
In romantic love, being second best is typically perceived not as being very close to the desired ideal, but as being the loser—the one who is a replacement or substitute for someone else in an actual or imaginary precious relationship. Accordingly, the second-best in love is perceived as a second-best or substitute love: love that is not at the center of the beloved's heart.
To sum up, being second best is frustrating, as one feels inferior to a position that appeared to be so close. Being perceived as second best in romantic relationships is even more painful, as someone so close to you considers you to be inferior to another possible or imaginary partner, and because "the winner takes it all."
The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, you are good, but not good enough. There is indeed someone whom I love more, but please look on the bright side: There are so many whom I love less."