My Lover Has Another Lover

Uniqueness is of greater romantic value than exclusivity

Posted Jun 05, 2011

"I've got your picture that you gave to me
And it's signed "with love," just like it used to be
The only thing different, the only thing new
I've got your picture, she's got you." Patsy Cline.

"A woman in love can't be reasonable - or she probably wouldn't be in love." Mae West

"How many husbands have I had? You mean apart from my own?" Zsa Zsa Gabor

If a married woman is having an affair, how should she react upon finding that her lover is having another affair? Should she continue the relationship with her lover and in so in what conditions? The true story of Yael may clarify the romantic complexity of this situation.

Yael is an attractive married woman in her early fifties who has three children. She has been married for about 30 years and was fully loyal to her husband until she met David who is a married man in his late sixties. They have been meeting a few times a year. Yael says that she loves both her husband and David and does not intend to leave her husband. She feels that being with David gives her the energy to cope with her problematic relationship with her husband. At one point, she was quite worn down by her husband, but David has rebuilt her confidence and enables her to better cope with the whims of her husband.

Things became even more complex when David got divorced and then began dating another woman. Yael was perplexed about her feelings and future behavior. Should this new relationship affect hers? Should she demand exclusivity from David?

It is often the case that a lover like Yael can tolerate the relationship between her beloved (David) and his wife, as those are given and were present before she met him, but it is harder to tolerate David's new lover. Yael considered breaking off the relationship with David, but she was fairly certain that he would not accept it, because she knew how happy he was with her.  

Yael may indeed be the best sexual partner David has had, and she may be of great value as a lover, but it seems that David needs some stable, non-secret partner and Yael does not intend to be such a partner , given her commitment to her family. There are certain things that a stable non-secret partner can offer which a lover cannot, such as being there all the time -- and Yael just cannot do so. Even if David does not consider his new lover to be a permanent partner, her presence still has value to him.

Upon hearing from David about his new lover, Yael experienced a range of emotions: relief (she wanted honesty and got it), envy of the woman who is with David whenever she wants to be (it was not jealousy, as she never demanded exclusivity), insecurity (for a very short while). But most of all she wanted to know that she had a special place in his heart no matter what happens.  She wanted to be his gem, the special thing he hides in his jewelry box and uses at very special occasions; she wanted to be precious and unique.

Although Yael cannot be unique in all aspects, as she is married and does not intend to leave her husband, she still wants some measure of uniqueness in this basically nonexclusive relationship with David -- and the other woman may get uniqueness in yet another respect.

Yael does not want to leave David, as she feels important to him. She intends to continue to enjoy the benefits of their relationship as long as she can feel good about it. She believes that her position is superior, as expressed in the fact that David genuinely doesn't love other women the way he loves her,  and he thinks that their chemistry is unique and intense.

Ultimately, David and Yael agree that they will not be the primary relationship in each other's lives but that their relationship can still be special and rewarding.

Romantic uniqueness is a basic emotional need; people want to be considered for their own individuality and not for being one among many others. If people are indeed unique they are less replicable. In light of the high intimacy involved in sexual relationships, their uniqueness is often expressed in sexual exclusivity as well.

I have argued, however, elsewhere (see here) that whereas exclusiveness is characterized in negative terms that establish rigid boundaries, uniqueness is characterized in positive terms that celebrate an ideal. Exclusive means "not allowing," "restricting," and "not dividing or sharing with others." Unique is characterized in positive terms that establish distinctiveness: "being one of a kind," or "being different from others in a way that makes somebody or something special and worthy of note." In light of this distinction, uniqueness is of greater romantic value than exclusivity.

The shift in emphasis from exclusivity to uniqueness expresses the shift from basing love upon the negative requirement of controlling and limiting the lover to the positive perspective of seeing the special value of the partner. While romantic love involves both features, uniqueness seems to be of greater significance, especially for the long term.

Being unique to a lover implies 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. Uniqueness and exclusivity are not all-or-nothing experiences. There are various types of flexible uniqueness (or exclusivity) and more and more people are ready to accept them.

The kind of uniqueness that Yael and David are having is that of profound love which does not ruin their primary formal relationship. They both had greater loves in their lives, but this situation is good enough and extremely exciting. Their intimacy is intense and unique and Yael does not want more. Needless to say that not all people can live like this, but those who can may be happier than those who are monogamous.

To sum up, uniqueness is something all people seek and rightly so. This uniqueness should be distinguished from exclusiveness. One can be unique even without being exclusive (see here). And you do not have to be unique in all aspects-it is up to you and your partner to determine this.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, I know you have other people on your mind and heart, but let us do our very best to enjoy what we have, and we have a lot that is special."