Broken cookie heart: Can you be in love with two people at once?

Can You Be in Love with Two People at Once?

Over the past few weeks, we've had a number of people ask us essentially the same question:

Can you be in love with two people at once?

And, my friends, I think anyone who has truly lived will tell you that, yes, it's possible, and it is deeply human. We do have a heart, after all! We can romantically love more than one person at once.

So today, let's dive a little deeper to see why we might fall in love with more than one person and what we can do in such a situation.

Two Loves at Once: Julia Torn between Two Lovers

Julia has been with Barry for two years.  Things are going pretty well.  Or at least, somewhat well.  A month ago, Julia would have said things were going great. Barry is thoughtful, caring, and a ready communicator. For Barry, Julia is like a princess.

The relationship is no longer as romantic as it was a couple of years ago, but Julia knew that the passion would wear off after a while.  She fully expected that.  What she did not expect was, well, Douglas. Douglas is almost the anti-Barry. 

Barry is cautious; Douglas is a risk-taker to a fault—he even races cars, which Julia thinks is crazy. 

Barry is an intellectual; Douglas is, Julia has to admit it, something of an airhead.  He’s probably never had a deep thought in his life. 

Barry has a steady 9-5 job and makes good money; Douglas switches between jobs so quickly that he seems never to settle into a desk for very long. 

Barry is there for Julia when she needs him; Douglas is there, when he’s there—the rest of the time, she’s not sure where he is or whom he’s with. 

Barry is steady and predictable; Douglas is a mystery and lacks predictability.  

Everything considered, Julia feels she is lucky to be with Barry and would never even consider marrying Douglas.  She therefore does not understand why she has been carrying on a secret affair with Douglas for almost a month.  She knows he is wrong for her but finds herself drawn irresistibly to him.  Part of her wants to end the affair and part of her would feel totally bummed out if she ended it.

Extramarital affairs (and other kinds of affairs) are common.  Mary McGregor even recorded a song, “Torn between Two Lovers,” about a woman, well, torn between two lovers. Julia feels like she loves two people at once and, at some level, she is correct.  How is it possible to have a romantic love relationship with more than one person at once?  

Why Do People become Torn between Two Lovers?

There are at least six factors that can lead to being in Julia’s kind of situation.

Different Love Profiles (or Triangles of Love)

Different people have different profiles of what they ideally want in a loving relationship.  There are three main elements to this profile: intimacy, passion, and commitment.  If one partner in a relationship, say, seeks intimacy above all else and the other partner is into passion but does not care about intimacy, there will be a mismatch in love profiles, no matter how much each partner believes they love the other.  Such a mismatch in love profiles is a recipe for a toxic brew.  Julia obviously craves passion, and she is no longer getting it from Barry; Barry is seeking intimacy and is providing it in hope of receiving it in return.  Julia also may want the intimacy, but in the absence of passion, it just is not enough for her to commit to monogamy.

Different Love Stories

Different people have different stories of love. For example, one partner might view love as a fairy tale—he or she is looking for a prince or a princess; the other might be seeking a mystery figure—someone who is mysterious, unpredictable, unfathomable.  That appears to be a problem for Barry and Julia.  Barry wants a princess, but Julia wants an enigma.  Barry and Julia can have a relationship that, on a day-to-day basis, appears to work; but they always are likely to be plagued by the difference in what they seek, at least at the present time.  For the relationship to work, either Barry would have to add a dose of mystery or Julia would have to feel like the princess in search of her prince.  But people’s stories are not so easily modifiable: It’s not clear that it ever quite will work for Barry and Julia.

Collector Story

There is one particular story that is likely to lead to the kind of outcome Barry and Julia are facing.  That is a collector story.  Collectors are never satisfied with just one partner, and often are not satisfied with just one of anything!  They collect.  Some people collect coins or stamps or posters.  People with a collector story collect people.  They are no more satisfied with a single partner than a coin collector is satisfied with just one coin.  And just as coin or stamp collectors usually want a diversity of items in their collection, so do people collectors. There never will be a “right” one for a collector because the whole point is to collect multiple partners.  

Beliefs about Polyamory

Another predisposing factor toward having an affair, even when one is reasonably happy, is a belief in polyamory—loving more than one person at a time.   For someone who is monogamous, having a second (or third, or fourth) simultaneous partner is a source of guilt.  The monogamous individual finding themselves in multiple simultaneous relationships has cognitive dissonance to resolve—“How can I be doing this?  What is the matter with me?”  For a polyamorous individual, though, there is little or no guilt but rather the pleasure and satisfaction of having achieved a fit with the individual’s beliefs about what is right.  If there is even a drop of guilt, it is because the individual has not quite let go of his or her upbringing, which likely taught the individual to have one partner at a time.

Retaliation--Establishing Equity

A common, if unfortunate reason that people get involved in affairs is for retaliation. They are getting back at their main partner for a real or perceived slight.  Perhaps the lover had an affair and the partner is trying to even the score.  Or perhaps the lover is perceived as having too much power in the relationship, and the partner is trying to acquire power by taking on another partner, showing he or she is in charge, at least to some extent.  Until equity is re-established, the relationship will be at risk for repetition of the same or similar behavior.

Generalized Thrill-seeking

Some people just are high thrill-seekers.  We just look for thrills where we can find them.  Having a secret relationship on the side can be one way of satisfying—but only temporarily—the urge for a new thrill.

What Can You Do?

So what can you actually to if you are enthralled with someone else, or if you think your partner might be torn between you and another person?

If the problem is mismatch in love profiles or love stories, the underlying cause may—or may not—be remediable.  If your partner needs more intimacy—or passion or commitment—can you provide it?  If so, you may be able to make your relationship work.  Or if your partner can come closer to your love profile, then again, there may be hope.  But if you both are stuck where you are, the prospects are not the best.  

Similarly, if you have different stories, you need to know both your stories and figure out whether you can find any middle ground—maybe some of one and some of the other. Shortly, we will be offering a quiz that measures love stories, which may be helpful in diagnosing where you stand and where you don’t.

If your partner has (or you have) a collector story, the chances of things changing are not great.  Such a story is really hard to change.  Sometimes, people grow out of collector stories.  More likely, the story goes into “remission,” ready to come out again at some unpredictable time.  If you have a partner with a collector story, you probably either learn to live with it, or you move on and find someone else.

If the problem in your relationship is retaliation, you need to find out what the cause of the retaliation is.  This is not easy.  Sometimes, the person does not know, him or herself.  Yet, you can’t solve a problem unless you get to the bottom of it. Then you need to work to fix the perceived imbalance.

If you are with a thrill-seeker, maybe you can introduce your partner to sky-diving or mountain-climbing.  Or maybe you need the introduction.  You or your partner need to find some thrilling endeavor that will not take down your relationship.  If it is sky-diving or mountain-climbing, also make sure you don’t take yourself down! 

Whatever the cause of multiple partners, good luck!  We have your back!

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