Torn Between Two Lovers

"I've got two lovers, and I ain't ashamed."

Posted Feb 19, 2012

"Only you and you alone / Can thrill me like you do / And fill my heart with love for only you."The Platters

"Well, I've got two lovers, and I ain't ashamed / Two lovers, and I love them both the same." —Mary Wells

"Millions of people go by / But they all disappear from view / 'Cause I only have eyes for you." —Frank Sinatra

"Torn between two lovers feeling like a fool / Lovin' both of you is breaking all the rules." —Mary MacGregor

Exclusivity is at the heart of romantic love. Like other emotions, love is discriminatory and partial—one cannot love everyone. How is it, then, that many people claim that they have loved two people at the same time? And how do they deal with this situation?

There are many movies, novels, poems, and popular songs depicting a person who is romantically in love with two people. Empirical evidence clearly suggests that humans are capable of loving (and, needless to say, of having sex with) more than one person. Indeed, most people with whom I discussed this issue said that they actually had loved two people at the same time.

Consider the following true story. Hazel and Ralph met when they were in their 30s when Hazel was engaged to Dylan; Ralph wanted them to be together, but despite her affection for him, she decided to proceed with her plans to marry Dylan. A few years later, Ralph married another woman.

Hazel and Ralph worked together and continued to love each other very much. Ralph asked Hazel to divorce her husband and to marry him, but she refused. Only 30 years later, when Hazel was 70 years old, and both their spouses died, they began to live together and finally got married. Hazel said that although Ralph was the love of her life, she also loved Dylan very much. Her love for each was different, as they were different people.

At age 85, she still does not see any difficulty in loving two men, but she said that she suffered greatly from this situation, since she could not be with Ralph in the way she so wanted to be. In any case, she says, "I never compromised my great love for him; I have only compromised some of its behavioral manifestations."

Romantic exclusivity has a few important practical roles; for example, it safeguards paternity to a large extent, and it engenders mutual commitment. Furthermore, since romantic love requires many resources, such as time and attention, its objects must be limited. One does not have enough time and attention to love many people simultaneously.

However, various important features of romantic love, such as caring, friendship, and attraction, are not exclusive and can be directed at several people at the same time. Exclusivity is of no relevance to our intellectual needs—underlying our intellectual needs is the desire to enlarge what we know and experience. Also, in the social realm, exclusivity is of limited value. Having close social relationships with several people should not preclude having a more profound relationship with one person.

The fact that romantic love demands the use of a substantial amount of a person's resources has been translated into the normative requirement that one should have only one romantic partner at any given time. Romantic exclusivity may refer to various aspects: attention (for example, not fantasizing about other people and not looking at pornography), verbal activity (such as flirting), activities that often have romantic connotations (like going to a movie or a restaurant together), and sexual activity. Although in our society, attention constitutes the least violation of romantic exclusivity and sexual activity the gravest, various societies ascribe different weights to such violations.

From a psychological point of view, the gravest violation concerns a profound emotional involvement with another person. Sexual activities are frequently perceived to entail such involvement, and this might be one reason why such activities are usually considered the greatest violation of romantic exclusivity. However, this does not have to be the case—sex with a sex worker may generate less emotional involvement than an enduring romance in which physical, sexual activity is absent or infrequent.

The issue of sexual and emotional exclusivity is of particular significance in committed relationships. Nevertheless, the practice of proclaimed monogamy with clandestine adultery is prevalent. In the graphic words of Laura Kipnis, "Taking an occasional walk on the wild side while still wholeheartedly pledged to a monogamous relationship isn't an earthshaking contradiction."

Polyamory—that is, loving a few people at the same time—involves stable intimate personal relationships rather than mere casual sex; people involved in polyamory are different from swingers, whose main concern is casual sex. Polyamorists are typically sexually exclusive and do not engage in sexual relations outside the group.

One version of polyamory is that in which a group of three or more lovers consider themselves married to each other and allow romantic relationships within the group. In another version of polyamory, there is no group; rather, only one person carries on an intimate relationship with more than one partner. Polyamorists sometimes differentiate their relationships as "primary," "secondary," or "tertiary" in describing the varying levels of commitment involved.

Monogamy and exclusivity do not have sole claim over committed relationships: When polyamorists love each other, they experience and exhibit wholehearted devotion. This could be described as a localized yet total devotion, a devotion that is exercised within a restricted environment. Thus, a person having two lovers can be honestly committed and devoted to both of them, even though such commitment and devotion may take place within a separate, specific environment.

The above examples of attempts to maintain a romantic relationship that includes localized exclusivity, despite the relationship's polygamous nature, indicate the significance we give to exclusivity—albeit in its redefined formulation. Indeed, Barash and Lipton claim that "what makes human beings unusual among other mammals is not our penchant for polygamy, but the fact that most people practice at least some form of monogamy."

Robert Green suggests that Don Juan may have made so many romantic conquests, because the moment he crossed a woman's path, he made her think that she was his whole world. Of the hundreds of women that Picasso seduced over the years, most had the feeling that they were the only one he truly loved. Casanova and Madame de Pompadour did not merely seduce their partners into sexual affairs; they made each one fall in love with them.

An ideal love gives a sense of total devotion. There are some people who are capable of loving a series of different partners intensely, while others do not actually love all their partners but merely lead them to feel as if they do; however, the fact that this behavior is rewarded and reciprocated illustrates the need for and feasibility of localized yet total devotion.

It is easier to have two lovers when they are different in character and hence fulfill different needs, or when the relationship with each is at different stages and hence has a different level of intensity. It is even easier still when one of the lovers is single or lonely, or if the relationship is not consummated sexually.

Modern technology offers a more comfortable way to pursue the human capacity to love two people at the same time. In cyberspace, where human resources are enhanced, and social limitations are fewer, we can, within the virtual environment, more realistically overcome some of our limitations.

Loving two people at the same time may fill the lover's heart with joy, but it can often lead to heartbreak for her two lovers. If each lover believes that he is the one she loves the most, they may be more able to bear the situation, even if she leaves one lover because of external circumstances, such as family or convenience. In any case, such a situation is extremely difficult for everyone who is involved. Often it involves the risk of losing the love you have.

We should remember that love consists not merely of the heart's tendencies, but also of the head's short- and long-term considerations. Love is not merely a crush, but also the wish to be together with the beloved for many years. When someone hesitates between the two lovers, she is not hesitating between nonromantic material benefits and romantic benefits, but between issues that are part of the romantic realm, such as between great sex and profound care; not between the one who has the money and the other who has the honey, but between the one who has the honey and the one who may provide a more nourishing meal. Feeling that someone is fun to be with and feeling that your relationship helps you to flourish are both essential aspects of romantic love.

To sum up, loving two people at the same time does not involve a logical contradiction, but rather an emotional dissonance, which can be managed by using various coping strategies. It is easier to cope with your partner having an additional romantic relationship when it is based on stimulating intellectual conversations or on caring.

Emotionally, it is extremely painful to imagine your lover naked in the arms of another person. Indeed, most people who are happily in love with two people also admitted that they would not like to be at the receiving end—that is, to share their beloved with someone else.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, although I think of you day and night, part of the time I think of someone else as well. But even when I do so, I love you too. Unlike a railroad man, who loves you every now and then, I love you, honey, all the time."