"I've Got Two Lovers, and I Ain't Ashamed”
On spreading around love, butter, and happiness.
Posted Aug 28, 2018
"I've got two lovers, and I ain't ashamed; two lovers, and I love them both the same." —Mary Wells
“Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness is never reduced by being shared.” —Buddha
“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” —Bilbo Baggins
Polyamory has been criticized for spreading love too thin and thus hurting the lovers. In reply, one might compare love to happiness, which, as Buddha said, “is never reduced by being shared.” In this sense, the heart can expand when you love more. Is spreading love around like spreading limited butter or like expanding happiness? The answer is not straightforward.
Polyamory and open marriages
“Some people ask the secret of our long marriage. We take time to go to a restaurant two times a week. A little candlelight, dinner, soft music and dancing. She goes Tuesdays, I go Fridays.” —Henny Youngman
Polyamory, like open marriage, is a form of consensual non-monogamy. In sexually open marriages, the underlying attitude is that marriage is essentially fine, and the major problem is that of declining sexual desire. Hence, the solution is to occasionally add a sexual partner.
While declining sexual desire is also seen as a problem in polyamory, it is assumed to be part of a larger problem: the idea that one person can fill all our romantic (and other significant) needs. Thus, “merely” adding a new sexual partner does not solve the problem; we need to add another lover who can also satisfy all our romantic needs. This is a more radical challenge to monogamous marriages.
If one person cannot meet all our romantic needs, it is reasonable to assume that one can fill the needs of more than one person — otherwise, we shall be short of people who are able to satisfy our romantic needs. With this reasoning, however, we run the risk of spreading love too thin.
Love and butter: Spreading love too thin
“Ten men waiting for me at the door? Send one of them home, I'm tired.” —Mae West
“I'm saving all my love for you.” —Whitney Houston
Does loving two (or more) people necessarily mean loving each of them “thinner”? This would be the case if love, like butter, is fixed in quantity — then, spreading your love among two lovers would inevitably reduce the amount each of them gets.
Love requires lots of investment of time, effort, financial resources, and emotional availability. All of these are limited, and some, such as time, are also fixed in quantity. In this sense, love is like butter; you cannot spread it too thin and expect to gain romantic profundity, which requires for its development time and other resources. Indeed, when thinking about loving two people at the same time, we typically assume shallowness: Spreading your love over two lovers should result in less love to each. In this situation, the difficulty is not that we have too little butter or too little love, but that we have too much bread or too many lovers.
Here’s where things get interesting. Love is not an entity with a fixed energy, but a capacity that, when used, generates increasingly positive energy — in the sense of “using it or losing it.” Hence, there is no point asking someone (as various love songs do) to save her love for someone by not using it.
In any case, we can ask: Are people who have hardly loved more likely to provide you with greater love than those who loved? Often, the opposite is true. Although we may speak about a certain “saturation” of sexual desire, in the sense that we just do not want to (and actually cannot) have sex now, we can hardly speak about a “saturation” of love, in the sense that we cannot love now.
Love and happiness: The heart can expand
“The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love.” —Samantha, from Her
The major way to deal with the idea of decreasing love is to argue that unlike butter, romantic energy is not fixed in quantity, but has the potential to grow. This is the case of shared happiness — a single candle can light thousands of wicks.
A few basic psychological capacities might be involved in expanding the heart: (1) the broadening capacity of positive emotions, (2) the expanding nature of the self, and (3) the ability to be generous.
In her influential broaden-and-build theory, Barbara Fredrickson (2001) claims that positive emotions, such as happiness and love, broaden people's momentary thought-action repertoire, which in turn serves to build their enduring personal resources, ranging from physical and intellectual strengths to social and psychological capabilities. Fredrickson further argues that positive emotions do not merely signal flourishing — they also produce flourishing. Positive emotions are valuable not just as end states in themselves, but also as a means to enhance psychological growth and improve our well-being over time.
Another capacity facilitating the growth of the heart is self-expansion. The “self-expansion model” holds that we are hardwired to expand ourselves through relationships with other people. This is because relationships enable us to incorporate the resources and perspectives of others within ourselves. Over time, and because of their interpersonal relationships, people can “expand” by internalizing perspectives and resources that were previously unavailable to them (Aron et al., 2013: 95–98).
Both the broadening capacity of positive emotions and the expanding nature of the self are highly relevant for understanding how polyamory provides a context in which one’s heart can expand by participating in a few loving relations. Polyamory is a form of romantic life that is maximally self-expansive. This idea is consistent with the nearly ubiquitous references to “personal growth” in descriptions of polyamory (Ben-Ze’ev & Brunning, 2018).
“For it is in giving that we receive.” —Francis of Assisi
Another capacity that expands our heart is that of generosity. Generosity is the virtue of giving to another without expecting anything in return. Many religions and moral traditions praise generosity. This praise is justified: Studies show that generosity is good for us, physically and mentally. Generosity can decrease blood pressure, reduce stress, help you live longer, boost your mood, promote social connections, and improve the quality of your marriage (Whillans, et al., 2016).
Loving two people can be described as a kind of romantic generosity, which, like other types of generosity, increases the flourishing of the person. Generosity is positively associated with marital satisfaction, while the lack of generosity is associated with marital conflict and perceived likelihood of divorce (Dew & Wilcox, 2013). Indeed, when people are asked to name three negative qualities that would make them shun a prospective partner, stinginess consistently shows up.
Generosity is an essential positive framework for prosperous marital relationships. Extending romantic generosity from one person to two people can in principle further enhance one’s good feelings while expanding the heart.
“What should the sleeping arrangements be in a ménage-à-trois? Is it polite to read while two people have sex beside you?” —Adam Thirlwell
We know, then, that sometimes love is like happiness in its ability to increase our resources and spread additional care and love to people around us. What we do not know yet is whether polyamory is typically beneficial in increasing the extent of love.
It is hard to measure the extent of romantic love as it is determined by various factors, such as romantic intensity (momentary peak of passionate, often sexual, desire), romantic profundity (enduring positive attitudes expressed, e.g., in intimacy and closeness), and length of relationship. We may call the combination of these factors “romantic robustness” (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019). Our question is whether polyamory enhances romantic robustness.
Loving two people at the same time clearly increases the overall romantic intensity, which is highly dependent on change. The change involved in having a new partner certainly increases one’s sexual desire. This is the “Coolidge Effect," in which people (males more so than females) enjoy greater sexual arousal when facing a new partner compared with facing their familiar one.
The greater intensity in polyamorous relationships, which is most evident when meeting a new partner, is described as the “New Relationship Energy” (NRE) stage. In this stage, which is a kind of infatuation with the new partner, everything seems wonderful, and people feel that the world is opening for them; they feel more creative and energized about their projects and personal relationships (Barker, 2018; Sheff, 2014).
However, such additional new energy is often divided unevenly: The new partner receives the lion’s share of the individual’s sexual energy in a way that would even decrease the amount the current partner has received so far. Here, although we have more butter, the current partner may well get less of it. Moreover, as in the case of infatuation, the duration of the stage of NRE is relatively brief, about a year or so, after which the issue of limited (though not fixed) romantic energy becomes even more acute.
The relationship between polyamory and romantic profundity is multifaceted, mainly because profound love requires investing a lot of quality time. Whereas time decreases emotional intensity, time enhances emotional profundity. Accordingly, it is natural to assume that having a few romantic partners considerably reduces the quality time available for each. Nonetheless, polyamory increases complexity, which underlies romantic profundity. There is no doubt that polyamorous relationships are more complex than monogamous ones. Living in such circumstances requires a profound understanding of the other partners.
“If I could save time in a bottle, The first thing that I'd like to do
Is to save every day . . . Just to spend them with you.” —Jim Croce
The impact of polyamory on the length of a romantic relationship is also complicated, as it is determined by various personal and contextual factors. Generally, the above-mentioned three capacities — namely, the broaden-and-build, the self-expanded, and generosity, which are dominant in polyamory — seem to increase the quality and length of romantic relationships.
However, polyamorous relationships also include various difficulties that are negatively associated with enduring relationships. Two such difficulties are having an existential dependency on someone you have not chosen and the increased possibility of feeling that you are second best. Other problems include managing “New Relationship Energy”; the potential pitfalls of “choice fatigue” when faced with many potential partners; the dangers of “compassion fatigue” in a life with competing demands; social stigma; complications in family life; and resisting the allure of unworkable polyamorous ideals (Brunning, 2018; Sheff, 2014).
The length of the relationship seems to be of lesser value in polyamory, which involve less commitment and expectations that a given relationship will endure for a long time. This is expressed in the attitudes of polyamorous people, such as lacking the expectation that the relationship will be lifelong, living for the moment, and taking breakups much easier. These attitudes are a sort of self-fulfilled prophecy. Accordingly, the above-cited moving song by Jim Croce cannot be part of the polyamorous ideology.
Although personal and contextual factors are decisive in determining the relationship length in polyamory, the above-noted difficulties seem to make polyamorous relationships briefer than monogamous ones.
“I reserve the right to love many different people at once, and to change my prince often.” —Anaïs Nin
I have focused on one central issue in the dispute concerning polyamory: the charge that it spreads love too thin. I have shown that, in many circumstances, this charge is unfounded. This does not imply that polyamory is unequivocally suitable for all. As indicated above, it has its own difficulties. Nevertheless, some people — currently about 5 percent of couples in the United States — deem polyamory the most optimal way of living and loving.
Aron, A., Lewandowski Jr, G. W., Mashek, D., & Aron, E. N. (2013). The self-expansion model of motivation and cognition in close relationships. The Oxford handbook of close relationships, 90-115.
Barker, M. J. (2018). Love and commitment self. In the blog, Rewriting the rules, 28 March, 2018
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time. University of Chicago Press.
Ben-Ze’ev, A., & Brunning, L. (2018). How complex is your love? The case of romantic compromises and polyamory. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 48, 98-116.
Brunning, L. (2018). The distinctiveness of polyamory. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 35, 513-531.
Dew, J., & Wilcox, W. (2013). Generosity and the maintenance of marital quality. Journal of Marriage and Family, 75, 1218-1228.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.
Sheff, E. (2014). The polyamorists next door. Rowman & Littlefield.
Whillans, A. V., Dunn, E. W., Sandstrom, G. M., Dickerson, S. S., & Madden, K. M. (2016). Is spending money on others good for your heart? Health Psychology, 35, 574-583.