- Polyamory is not necessarily spreading love too thin, but it raises difficulties in forcing people to accept restrictions and compromises.
- There are basic psychological capacities that enable expanding the loving heart.
- The loving heart is like a muscle: Exercise can make it stronger, but, in engaging in too many activities, the muscle loses its strength.
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
Polyamory, best described as having simultaneous romantic relationships with several people, is often criticized for spreading love too thin. Is this indeed the case, or is love similar to happiness, which is not reduced when shared?
Spreading Love too Thin?
Polyamory is worse than open sexual relations. It is a pure greed—a permission to look for a better spouse. —A married woman having an affair with a married man
Since a lover has limited resources, spreading them across several lovers may reduce the resources given to each lover, consequently making them insufficient for each loving relationship. In response, we may 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 limited, or can it expand, like happiness? The first option assumes a resources-competition, or a contrast model, which essentially involves a zero-sum game. The second option presupposes an expanding, additive resources model. It seems that both options have a valid point. Love is not an entity with a fixed energy, but an emotional capacity that, when used, generates increasingly positive energy. This does not mean that love is not limited; hence, the danger of spreading our love too thin is a real one (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).
Capacities That May Expand the Loving Heart
The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love. — Samantha, from the movie “Her”
A few basic psychological capacities might be involved in expanding the loving 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).
The broadening capacity of positive emotions and the expanding nature of the self are both highly relevant for understanding how polyamory provides a context in which one’s heart can expand by participating in more than one loving relation. Polyamory is a form of romantic life that is significantly self-expansive since an intimate relationship expands the self, and having a few such relationships expand the sense in a greater degree. One can further claim that the expanded nature of love may be due to the inclusive manner of certain romantic activities. Indeed, not all meaningful romantic activities must be done in the intimacy of merely two people. Thus, activities such as shared talking and walking can be done with more than one person, thereby expanding the impact of such activities.
An additional capacity that expands our heart is generosity. 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 an essential positive framework for prosperous marital relationships (Dew and Wilcox, 2013). Extending romantic generosity from one person to two people can, in principle, further enhance one’s good feelings while expanding the heart. In this regard, Berit Brogaard argues that since sexual and emotional satisfaction is a good (possibly intrinsically valuable), “denying one’s partner this value outside of the narrow context of a monogamous relationship is inconsistent with the core feature of romantic love, which is a genuine concern for one’s partner’s agency, autonomy and well-being” (Brogaard, 2017: 56).
The Limits of Romantic Energy
My fantasy is to have five lovers. However, I do not think that my husband will agree, and anyway, I will not have time for having them all. I believe that three is the limit.” —A polyamorous married woman
Even if we assume, as we should, that romantic energy can expand, it is still limited. A relevant metaphor here is comparing love to a muscle: As exercise can make muscles stronger, “exercising” love with various people can make capacities for love stronger. However, in engaging in too many activities, the muscle may become tired, and, with too little activity, the muscle loses its strength. Mildly tired athletes can indeed manage to summon their strength for a major exertion, but after a certain point, fatigue becomes insurmountable. Athletes begin to conserve their remaining strength when their muscles begin to tire (Baumeister, Vohs, and Tice, 2007). I believe that in this sense, lovers, including polyamorous ones, are similar to athletes.
Numerous difficulties still face polyamory. One is the presence of limiting factors—the most obvious one being time. Another difficulty is how the assumed expansion of love is divided. The primary partner may receive less than was given before, and less than the secondary partner gets. Nevertheless, it might be possible that both the primary and secondary partner come to gain more than before (Jenkins, 2017).
Polyamory and Relationship Quality
I reserve the right to love many different people at once, and to change my prince often. —Anaïs Nin
Polyamory increases overall romantic intensity, which is highly dependent on change and novelty. The sexual aspect is dominant in polyamorous relations—at least toward the secondary partner (Conley et al., 2018). The relationship between polyamory and romantic profundity is multifaceted, mainly because profound love requires a strong investment in quality time. Hence, it is natural to assume that having several romantic partners reduces the quality time available for each.
Nonetheless, polyamory increases complexity, which underlies romantic profundity (Brunning, 2022). Living in complex circumstances requires a profound understanding of the other partners. Accordingly, it would be a mistake to think of polyamory and emotional profundity as mutually exclusive. Polyamorous relationships can provide ongoing opportunities for self-expansion through romantic engagement with more than one person. However, on occasion, such quantitative expansion runs the risk of reducing the quality of the present relationship (Balzarini et al., 2019; Ben-Ze’ev, 2022).
Ten men waiting for me at the door? Send one of them home, I'm tired. —Mae West
It seems that polyamory does not necessarily spread love too thin. However, it certainly generates various problems concerning having two parallel romantic relationships. In any case, keeping all your romantic options open can indeed spread your investment too thin. But closing romantic doors doesn’t sit so well with our natural curiosity, nor does it jibe with the change and improvement that are so essential to self-development. People rarely say that after meeting their spouse, they ceased to feel passion toward other people. More commonly, romantic curiosity remains, but it is not translated into actual deeds.
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Jenkins, C. (2017). What love is: And what it could be. Basic Books.