Chapter 15 Learning Objectives
Upon reading this chapter, the student should be able to:
- Compare and contrast the ways loving more than one person at the same time is possible and it what ways it is not.
Watch this video or scan the QR code to see learn more about loving more than one person at a time.
Can a person love more than one person at the same time? “At the same time” seems to be the important qualifier, since there is little question that many people can love more than one person romantically at different times. We accept without question generally that one can go from a past love to a future love in case the past love relationship ends (divorce, death of a spouse, breaking up of a dating relationship or a youthful romance). Some widows or widowers never seek or find another love because of some sense of devotion to their departed mate, some sense of already achieved completeness that should not be tampered with and possibly tarnished in some way by a relationship that turns out not to be as good, some sense of pointlessness of beginning again with a new partner, or some fear of it. Such people may be incapable of loving more than one person, but most people seem able at different times in their lives to become involved in a new loving relationship when a former one has ended.
Sometimes also one is formed that ends another. The question might be raised whether forming a second romantic love relationship necessarily will cause the first to end; or whether maintaining the first will cause the second to end. Can a person love, romantically, more than one person at a time.
I say romantically (meaning the general sense of romance, whether it is accompanied by excited passion or not) because people obviously can love more than one person at a time in ways other than romantic. People can love both their parents simultaneously; parents can love all their children; people can simultaneously love their parents, their children, and their spouse; one can love one’s brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Of course children often feel they are not loved by their parents as much as their siblings are — and in some cases they are correct — but usually that feeling is erroneous. And people can be fond of, and have concern for, many special friends at the same time.
According to my analysis of relationships and love, I think it is easy to be clear in what sense one can romantically love more than one person at a time, and in what senses one cannot. In terms of the feelings of attraction, one can love more than one person at a time — that is one can be romantically attracted, emotionally attracted, sexually attracted, intellectually attracted and/or whatever to more than one person at the same time. [At least many people can be. Perhaps all could be if they allowed themselves to be; it is not clear to me whether people who are so loyal or so absorbed in their love or feelings for one person are actually incapable of having feelings for someone else or whether they simply do not allow themselves to have such feelings (or ignore or repress them) or whether they just accidentally do not get attracted to others.] Sometimes loving someone very strongly even allows you to have loving feelings toward other people because you feel so good about yourself, everything, and everyone and because you want others to share your joy with you. And sometimes being in love causes you to joyfully focus so much attention on your loved one that you are unable to think about anyone else, let alone romantically.
However, loving more than one person at a time in terms of participating in a fully loving — including a fully and mutually benevolent, and fully and mutually satisfying — relationship is most difficult, if not impossible. Apart from particular unusual circumstances, one’s time and energy are generally too limited to be able to devote that way to more than one person at the same time. Unless you have boundless energy, unless you don’t have to work some 40 hours a week, unless you can have your loving relationship with one of the people while you are at work, or unless you can share your relationship with both (or more) lovers at the same time in a threesome (or more), it is practically impossible to have a romantic loving relationship with more than one person at a time. In ordinary daily life there is just not the time to be able to adequately spend in separate full loving relationships (going to movies, having meals together, talking, sharing your thoughts, the day’s joys and problems, going to concerts you would like to attend, making love, etc., etc., etc. — all the things that two loving people might want to do together). Even in regard to something as simple as enjoying a movie together, you would often probably want to share the same movie with each lover, and going to the same movies twice (if that is the way you had to do it) would get old and exhausting very quickly.
Feelings, emotions, attractions are not necessarily “subtractive” — that is, having some for one person does not take away from some finite amount of them so that you have less available for others. (In fact, in some cases, the more you have for one person, the more you may also have for another; good feelings sometimes generate more good feelings). But time and energy are subtractive; unless you are spending time with both loved ones simultaneously, the more time and energy you spend with one person, the less you will have to spend with the other. This is unless for some reason one’s energy is somehow doubled or multiplied by loving more than one person or enjoying more than one person’s company, so that one can give up time sleeping or doing other things in order to spend more time with each love. This is generally not long enduring, even if possible for a while.
If one of one’s love’s is where one works, then, of course, one might spend sufficient time with them without taking away from time one would have had with another partner anyway.
Or if one is wealthy enough not to have to work (much), one might have sufficient time and energy for two fully loving relationships. Two loved ones do not need, and generally do not want, to spend all their time together, but I suspect that if you work eight hours a day and sleep six to eight hours a day, that normally does not leave time for two or more separate fully loving relationships. Before we had children I musingly thought my wife and I each would have time for each other and about one half a relationship with someone else, since part of the time we spent at home at the same time did not involve doing things together. Children take up that extra time easily enough now.
Notice I have not even discussed problems of time, energy, guilt, deception, or sexual capacity involved in having multiple secret relationships. I have only been dwelling on how difficult or impossible it would be in terms of limited time and energy to have more than one even open fully loving relationship at a time.
I think there is some indication of this too in the nature of sibling rivalries and jealousy in families. Children often get jealous or feel unloved and left out because they feel their parents give too much attention and time to siblings and not enough to them, even when they may actually have as much or more time than their brothers and sisters. They may feel that their parents’ enjoyment and satisfying or good behavior with their siblings is more than they receive. They may feel it shows their parents have more affection for the other children. There may be jealousy and hurt feelings. Yet here is an example of open and normal “multiple” loving relationships where the members can even often do things together as a group, so that joys and benefits can be shared at the same time, requiring no repetition of action and energy and no loss of time in going from one loved one to another. Parents can play a game or go on a picnic or to a movie with their children and spend time with them all together. Yet as any parent can testify, having full relationships just with two children can take up an inordinate amount of time and energy, even when it is exciting and fun, and even when you are not having to do different things with each child at different times. Trying to actively and fully participate in two or more romantic relationships would be equally, or even more, demanding and draining.
Trying to combine marriage (or any relationship) with extra- marital (or “extra-relationship”) types of affairs in general perhaps does not work out — not so much because of alienation of affection, though that sometimes occurs, but — because of alienation of enjoyments together, alienation of time spent together or in regard to each loved one (such as in not having time to think about each or time to do and plan things for each), or in alienation of the energy needed to spend time rewardingly with each. Less benefit and less satisfaction, due to lack of time or energy, may lead to less attraction; but even when they do not, their diminishment alone simply makes the relationship less of a good or satisfactory one than it could be. This is also true when the cause that robs time and energy from a relationship is not another person, but something such as a job, perhaps particularly when energy and time are devoted to the job voluntarily, such as by a workaholic. Family members or loved ones often need to have time and energy devoted to them, and a workaholic or unfaithful mate may not have it to devote.
Further, if an extra-relationship affair is a secret one, there can be additional problems that effect time, energy, satisfaction, quality, and feelings. One generally has to exercise caution and deceit, conjure up and remember one’s lies, mask one’s feelings, and continually worry about one’s actions and the consequences of being caught. There is a potential for tremendously draining worry, fear, and guilt in addition to the normal strains of trying to spend time and energy with different people you love. And there may be important times or events to share together that people involved in a secret affair cannot share — hospitalization of one, milestones of one’s children, etc.
But the fact that one probably cannot have a fully loving, fully active relationship with more than one person at the same time, except under some of the kinds of conditions mentioned before, should not prohibit you from having as full and good a relationship as you can with others as time and circumstances permit and warrant. Loving one person should not prevent you from being attracted to or appreciating others or from satisfying and enjoying them in ways that are right. (More about this in the sections on commitment, ethics, and jealousy.) Attraction is a nice feeling, and justified appreciation is a good thing. Because as a child you love your parents and learn from them does not mean you cannot love your teacher and learn at school. Likewise from a neighbor or relative or anyone with whom you might come into contact. Similarly, as an adult, though your marriage or some other kind of committed, primary relationship should and does come first, this does not mean one should not have friends or others one cares about, as long as those relationships do not interfere in ways they should not. One can learn and grow from more than one person, and generally, that is necessary for development and growth. The point is to try to properly balance the time and behavior you owe your mate with what you owe to yourself and others as a socially interacting, learning, growing, teaching, and helping person. And the point is also to recognize and feel comfortable with your feelings for other people, and not need either to act inappropriately on every feeling of attraction for someone else, nor to repress or ignore them — but to act properly in response to them. The feelings themselves do not in any way diminish the feelings you have for, or the relationship you have with, your mate.
- Love, in the sense of attraction with a certain amount of value in the relationship is possible with more than one person at a time (for some people), but time and energy do not normally permit full loving relationships with more than one person at a time unless they can be combined in some way or unless there are special circumstances that allow one to divide his/her time in ways not open to most people.
- Romantically meaning the general sense of romance, whether it is accompanied by excited passion or not.
- Feelings, emotions, attractions are not necessarily “subtractive” — that is, having some for one person does not take away from some finite amount of them so that you have less available for others.
Chapter Review Questions
- Question: Can a person love more than one person at the same time? Why or why not?
- Question: Should Loving one person prevent you from being attracted to or appreciating others?