Is Being "Half a Partner" to Somebody Enough?

Are you in a "shadow relationship"?

Posted Dec 23, 2011

In TV and the movies, we often see a person torn between two romantic possibilities, neither of which is everything he or she needs, but each of which has something the other doesn't. For instance, a woman may lust after one man physically but can't share with him her deepest feelings, while the man she can share these feelings doesn't have the same physical appeal. Or, a man may value the intellectual discussions he has with one woman while craving the whimsy and fun he finds in another. If only these people could combine their partners—or better yet, find someone who embodies all of these qualities.

That is the romantic ideal, of course—to find that perfect someone who is everything we dream of. And it's simply wonderful when you find that someone, but many don't, at least not right away. Often, we go through a series of relationships—a process of experimentation, if you will—through which we discover that some of the things we thought we wanted are essential and others are actually less important.

Inevitably, some of us will tire of searching, and commit to a person who perhaps doesn't satisfy all of our needs and desires. A few of us may even find that "perfect someone," but then several things may happen. Your partner's flaws may begin to show, or you realize that the flaws you dismissed are more important to you than you realized (or cared to admit to yourself). Your partner may change—he or she may lose some of the qualities you valued and gain some that you dislike—or you may change, and the things you appreciated in your partner may not be the things you need anymore.

Naturally, this is the type of situation that breeds thoughts of ending the relationship and/or finding other people to meet the neglected, forgotten, or newly discovered needs. Our culture of monogamy frowns of this—as we said above, the expectation is that your partner should meet all your needs, physical, emotional, and intellectual. Even though it may seem that, initially, your partner can do this, circumstances change, feelings change, and people change—and the person who was everything to you at the beginning may not be everything to you after some time. The prescribed solution is to talk about this, be open with your partner and try to work things out, and if you can't, then split.

But things are rarely this simple. Some problems can be solved with discussion, which is fantastic; some clearly can't be solved, and then a split is the obvious solution. But there are many cases in the middle in which problems exist but don't seem serious enough to merit ending the relationship (which has value of its own). So the partners persevere, leaving one or both of them dissatisfied yet unwilling to break up. And in such cases, understandably if not justifiably, the possibility of adultery (of some sort) rears its ugly head.

Is it OK for a dissatisfied but still committed partner to seek out what he or she needs from someone outside of the relationship? Our impulse to say no, but if the other partner is aware of it and consents to it, there may be no problem (even if the activity consented to goes against societal norms). Ideally the other partner would be aware of the situation, but certainly people in relationships are entitled to have some aspects of their lives private. The question is: how much? Where do the bounds of privacy, fidelity, and exclusivity overlap?

There are clear-cut cases here. Each partner is due his or her privacy, but cannot use that as an excuse to engage in behavior to which the other partner would obviously object, such as (in most cases) sexual infidelity. But what of other activities, ones that cross no such "bright lines," activities such as seeking out emotional support and closeness? Partners are presumed to provide this to each other, and the decline of emotional connection is no less problematic than a decline in physical attention. And partners are certainly allowed to have friends outside the relationship, even friends as close and important to a person as his or her partner is, but problems can arise if the nature of that friendship approaches that of the primary relationship. Without knowing it, a person's "special friend" may become "the other man" or "the other woman," even if there is no physical component to this "shadow relationship," and even if the other partner is completely aware and accepting of it.

For simplicity's sake, let's call the partner in both relationships Susan, her "real" partner Gary, and her "shadow" partner Philip. Furthermore, we'll assume that Susan and Gary still have a good (if not great) day-to-day relationship with satisfying physical activity, but Susan sought out Philip for emotional intimacy (and possibly romance). Susan and Philip are physically attracted to each other, but Susan does not want to hurt Gary or feel that she has crossed a sexual line with Philip, so their relationship remains platonic. Finally, Susan has no plans to leave Gary, and has told this to Philip. We're presuming everything is out in the open and all three people endorse the situation (even if reluctantly or begrudgingly) to rule out any deception (and lessen, if not eliminate, any moral concerns about adultery).

Let's look at each person in turn. From all appearances, Susan is getting everything she wants: regular companionship and physical intimacy from Gary and emotional intimacy and closeness from Philip. She has two men who together fulfill all of her needs, though ideally she would prefer to get everything from one man. But given that she does not want to leave Gary, this seems like a reasonable compromise for her, especially if Gary knows and accepts the situation with Philip, and if Philip is satisfied with the arrangement as well.

Gary may not be interested in emotional intimacy; it may not be in his nature, or it may be the way he raised, but for some reason he does not like to talk about his feelings and has a difficult time empathizing with Susan's. He knows about Philip, but trusts Susan when she says there is nothing physical between them. In some sense, he may be happy that Philip is there, since he makes Susan happy in a way that Gary cannot, and it leaves Susan free to enjoy the things Gary can offer.

While Susan's and Gary's situations and mindsets are very interesting, Philip is my main concern here: why does he accept this relationship? The cynic may see his time spent being the sensitive caring friend as an investment that will pay off when, despite her assurances, Susan does leave Gary for him. Certainly, this may be true and even common, but we can also give Philip some benefit of the doubt, and consider why he might sustain this unique relationship even with no chance of total exclusivity with Susan.

One interesting issue with Philip is whether he considers himself exclusive to Susan despite the unique and limited nature of their relationship. One possibility is that he considers her a close friend, similar to other close friends he may have, and he may even see other women romantically. But if his relationship with Susan is of a romantic nature itself (for him and possibly for Susan), he may not be similarly involved with other women; she would then be his girlfriend or partner in spirit if not in name.

This is not what most people would consider a "complete" relationship for Philip: he enjoys a tight emotional bond with Susan, but not the regular companionship and physical intimacy that Gary has with her. Of course, if Gary is fine with this arrangement, why can't Philip be as well? Perhaps emotional intimacy is what Philip values the most, and he has found that with Susan. It could even be that he appreciates Gary's contribution as much as Gary appreciates his. If Philip feels that emotional intimacy is the best thing (or the only thing) he has to offer, then finding a relationship of this sort may satisfy him in a way that a "complete" relationship could not, in which he might experience feelings of inadequacy and failure.

Such an arrangement is akin to a loose and incomplete polyamory, but I would imagine it's more common than explicitly polyamorous relationships. It is certainly not unusual for a partner in a relationship to have a close best friend—usually of the same gender, but not always—but Susan and Philip's bond is of a different nature, especially if it includes romantic elements. It is the coexistence of this meaningful relationship with Susan's "official" relationship with Gary that makes this situation unique (and fascinating to explore).

I have a question for you, dear readers, and it doesn't deal with judging this situation or any of the people in it. Acknowledging that all three freely accept and endorse their relationships, can we say any of them is shortchanged by it? In particular, by "settling" for an incomplete relationship, does Philip fail to respect himself fully, or is it sufficient that he feels fulfilled by what he has with Susan? Or is this feeling merely illusory: is there something inside us that needs the "whole thing," even if it isn't available to us (or, for Susan's point of view, isn't available in one person)?


For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on adultery (and other topics), see here.

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