“Only You” or “I've Two Lovers, and I Love Them Both"?

On flexible romantic partiality and moderate romantic diversity

Posted May 16, 2017

     “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

Emotional partiality and emotional diversity are both essential to emotions and in particular to romantic love. However, they appear to conflict with each other. Can the two coexist? Which one has a greater romantic value?

Emotional Partiality

     “No other love can warm my heart/Now that I've known the comfort of your arms.” —Jo Stafford

Source: Herrndorff/Shutterstock

Emotions are partial in two basic senses: They focus on a narrow target, as in one person or a very few people, and they express a personal and interested perspective. Emotions make us preoccupied with some things and oblivious to others. Emotions are not detached theoretical states; they address a practical concern from a personal perspective (Ben-Ze’ev, 2000).

The intensity of emotions is a result of their focus upon a limited group of objects. Emotions express our values and preferences; hence, they cannot be indiscriminate. Emotional partiality is like a laser beam that focuses upon a very narrow area and consequently achieves high intensity. However, over-focusing on something is likely to lead to obsession that impedes our functioning, as our thoughts repeatedly dwell on the same object, and there is no development in such repetition.

In light of the partial nature of emotions, we can reduce emotional intensity by broadening our scope, or increase it by limiting it. Counting to 10 before venting our anger enables us to adopt a broader perspective that can reduce anger. A broader perspective is typical of people who can calmly consider multiple, diverse aspects of a situation; it is obviously not typical of people who are undergoing an intense emotional experience. In contrast to the partial nature of emotions, intellectual reasoning is not partial; it focuses broadly, rather than narrowly, on the target, and it can avoid adopting a personal and interested perspective. Intellectual reasoning is a detached process, examining diverse implications and taking us far beyond the current situation.

Emotional Diversity

     “My whole mentality is that I eat what I want within moderation, and I have a little bit of everything. If you deprive yourself, you get moody and unhappy, and you have to enjoy life.” —Nina Dobrev

Emotional diversity is the variety and relative abundance of the emotions that humans experience. Quoidbach and colleagues (2014) argue that such emo-diversity is an independent predictor of mental and physical health, reducing, for example, depression and doctor visits. They further claim that experiencing many diverse and specific emotional states (e.g., anger, shame, and sadness) can have more adaptive value than experiencing fewer or more global states (e.g., feeling bad). Since the diversity of these specific emotions provides richer information about our environment, the agent experiencing such diversity is in a better position to cope with various environmental events.

In addition to emotional diversity, expressed in greater shades of emotions (though probably not 50 shades of gray), we can discern two other related diversities — sensory diversity and overall affective diversity. Sensory diversity refers to greater diversity in an awareness of sensory contents, such as smell, sight, or taste. Overall affective diversity refers to greater diversity of general affective experiences, such as listening to music, enjoying walking in nature, and enjoying reading or dancing. An increase (up to a point) in such diversity typically enhances our flourishing, as it is based upon a broader range of satisfaction and thus has a more solid foundation that is more likely to endure over time.

Partiality and Diversity in the Romantic Realm

     “My heart belongs to only you/I've never loved as I love you…./It's just for you I want to live/It's just to you my heart I give.” —Bobby Vinton

     “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

Partiality and diversity are present in the romantic realm as well; romantic partiality, emphasizing the unique place of a beloved, is more central. This is obvious in infatuation, in which the beloved is essentially the only person who is on the lover’s mind. The partiality aspect is evident also after infatuation, though in a weaker form.

We must be discriminative in love. We cannot love everyone; our romantic love can be directed at only one or very few people. For most of us, having one romantic partner is more than enough, as one partner exhausts our entire mental resources. More energetic people can have two, three, or even five romantic partners; but even they cannot have hundreds of romantic partners at the same time. Since romantic love, like other emotions, is bound by certain parameters, such as our time and attention, the number of its objects must be limited as well. This limitation in the number of possible objects enables us to focus upon those who are closest and most relevant to us.

Profound romantic love is also diverse, not necessarily in the sense of having more lovers but rather in considering the beloved to be complex, and having diverse characteristics. Such love involves a comprehensive attitude that takes cognizance of the rich and complex nature of the beloved (Ortega, 1941: 43, 76–7). The lover’s comprehensive attitude is diverse in the sense that it does not focus on a simple narrow aspect of the beloved, but a comprehensive perspective that includes all aspects of the beloved. Sexual desire is much more partial than romantic love. It focuses on the short-term details of a few external parts of the partner's body that are instantly revealed by sense perception. In romantic love, we see the forest and the trees, whereas in sexual desire we focus upon one or several trees.

This difference between romantic love and sexual desire reveals a difference between two senses of romantic diversity: (a) holistic diversity, as when love is directed at the beloved as a diverse, whole person; and (b) type diversity, as when love is directed at various individuals. The first form of diversity, which is highly praised, seems to underlie long-term profound love. The second form of diversity is more disputable. Polyamorous lovers practice the second type and maintain that it does not damage the intensity and depth of their love.

Flexible Partiality and Moderate Diversity

     “Too much honey is delicious, but it makes you sick to your stomach. Therefore, love each other in moderation. That is the key to long-lasting love. Too fast is as bad as too slow.” —William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

     “I never smoke to excess — that is, I smoke in moderation, only one cigar at a time.” —Mark Twain

It is apparent that both partiality and diversity are important in romantic love. It is also clear that extreme partiality or diversity cannot sustain long-term profound love. Extreme partiality involving very high intensity and instability, as in infatuation, typically cannot last long, as the system cannot remain unstable for a long period and still function normally; it might explode under the pressure of a continuous increase in emotional intensity. Similarly, extreme diversity would abolish the unique nature of the beloved. Love is not like a library book; you can’t replace it every week.

In light of these considerations, flexible (or limited) partiality and moderate (or limited) diversity can be useful in various circumstances. For some people — currently about 5 percent of couples in the U.S. — polyamory consisting of two partners is a good solution. This does not eliminate the value of the prevailing monogamy, which advocates strict partiality and hardly any romantic or sexual diversity. It merely indicates that monogamous relationships are not the only ones of value. The issues of limited partiality and diversity also do not deny that there are occasional situations in which strong romantic intensity prevails; they merely imply that such situations do not typically pertain.

Substituting "love" for "gold" in Plato's statement (in Phaedrus), one can say, “As for love, let me have as much as a moderate man could bear and carry with him.” 


Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2000). The subtlety of emotions. MIT Press.

Ortega y Gasset, J. (1941). On love ... Aspects of a single theme.Jonathan Cape, 1967.

Quoidbach, J., Gruber, J., Mikolajczak, M., Kogan, A., Kotsou, I., & Norton, M. I. (2014). Emodiversity and the emotional ecosystem. Journal of experimental psychology: General143, 2057-2066.