Can you love two people at the same time?
I regularly see people coming to marital therapy because they say they are in love with two different people.
Not the people who are interested in polyamory - that’s a whole different newsletter - but the ones who feel trapped and so “in love” with two people that they cannot choose between them.
These have included (names and identifying details changed):
Tessa: an under-appreciated and overworked mother of two young children who started an affair with a colleague.
Lauren: a woman in a newish relationship. She lived with her partner but regularly texted and met up for coffee with her ex. She couldn’t shake doubts over whether the ex was “the one who got away”.
Tom: he left his wife to live with his affair partner, but found himself missing his wife and children terribly and struck with terror that he may have made the biggest mistake of his life.
Kate: who got married at 19 and had three children. She had a passionate fling with a man at work after too much to drink on a sales training week. The affair persisted and she found herself unable to choose.
Listening to these stories of desire, passion and guilt, I’m never quite certain if they want to be pitied for having too many choices or envied for being so desirable. Whatever their justifications, there is one common theme:
‘I’ve so much love in my heart that there’s room for two people.’
It sounds admirable - to have all this love to give, and to be so ‘in touch’ with your feelings that you’re prepared to act on them, but isn’t this behaviour actually deeply selfish and destructive?
On the other hand, the pain of being torn between two courses of action is genuine enough. Most of us, if we’re honest, have wondered whether life might not be better in some second, parallel relationship.
And many offices and workplaces positively thrive on intrigue and flirting. So instead of condemning these people for wanting to have their cake and eat it, perhaps we should try to understand the concept of loving two people –because hidden inside it is a lesson for all of us about what it means to be in love.
Kate had a passionate fling with a colleague - they both agreed to end it when they returned home, because they both loved their partners.
However, they continued to have lunch together and her colleague finally confessed that he loved her but wouldn’t do anything about it because he just wanted her to be happy.
Kate realised she loved him too, so told her husband about the fling and how it had turned serious. She had started the conversation in two minds – uncertain whether to stay or go - but her husband's distraught reaction made her think again.
Up to that point, he had been so self-contained and undemonstrative that she genuinely thought he wouldn't care. However, after a long conversation, they decided to work with me on their relationship.
Unfortunately, Kate couldn’t stop thinking about the other man - whom she saw almost daily and believed herself in love with - and her husband was anxious that she was going to leave, frustrated that his own love for her wasn’t enough, and completely humiliated.
Why all the love triangles?
Kate is not alone in her dilemma. Over the past five years, I’ve seen an increasing number of people who claim to be unable to choose between two lovers.
They tend to be in their late thirties and early forties, intelligent, sensitive and only too aware that they’re hurting both themselves and the people they love. So what’s going on?
The workplace friendship
No matter how self-aware we are, sometimes it will always be hard to see the line between friendship and something more. Many of us are extremely invested in our professional lives: the workmates with whom we share successes and face challenges can come to feel closer to us than our partner at home.
As colleagues become good friends, they begin to feel that “surely, it’s OK to tell each other your problems?” And there’s nothing wrong with “friends supporting each other”.
However, if the friendship becomes too intimate, all the emotional energy ends up here, rather than at home.
When chat turns to something more
The boundary between an innocent friendship and cheating on your partner has been further blurred by the internet and online messaging, where we venture into territory we’d never dare to go in person.
I see a steady stream of clients where swapping intimacies online has turned into virtual sex and falling in love.
Friendships with exes
Another problem is our desire to remain on good terms with our exes. There’s nothing wrong with salvaging a friendship out of a break-up - particularly if you’ve shared a lot together - but many people find it hard to distinguish between craving for their ex and grieving for the end of the relationship.
Part of the recovery process after a break-up is looking back, wondering ‘what if’ and working out what went wrong. However, if you confuse this with imagining you’re still in love with your ex, it’s a short step to calling for a chat after a couple of glasses of wine and reigniting the relationship - even though by now you’re officially involved with someone else.
Trusting our gut isn’t always the right path
In general, we’re more interested in our own emotions than ever before and place a far greater emphasis on ‘going with our instincts’ or ‘trusting our feelings’.
Unfortunately these are not necessarily a reliable guide to what’s best for us. Studies by the psychologist Arthur Aron of the Stony Brook University in NewYork suggest that stress hormones distort our romantic perceptions, and that when people embark on an affair they mistake the physical cues of fear and excitement for the sensations of falling in love.
We often pump up these feelings and ‘over-analyse’ them until the boundary between lust and love collapses.
But I might have found “The One”
Those of you in their thirties and forties may have lived through your parents’ divorces. If you’re younger, you may have lived with highly involved parents who schooled you to expect an awful lot out of life.
Whatever the reason, more of us than ever before believe that out there lies our soulmate. A person who understands us completely, always unpacks the dishwasher without being asked, and who serves up perfect happiness on a tastefully chosen plate.
All of this means that we are hyper-attuned to the idea that someone better might come along, and also to the idea that we may have made a mistake and that an ex might really have been the soulmate we deserve.
Worse still, such high expectations are always going to be crushed by the everyday reality of marriage. For someone believing in soulmates, disagreements are not a natural part of growing and changing together, but proof of fundamental flaws in the relationship.
In the meantime, it is easy to fantasise that someone they know only a little about (from fun outings where people show their best side) is really an ideal match and their true love.
What next if you think you’re in love with two people?
When a client tells me they’re in love with two people, I always ask them to explain what they mean by “love”.
When I asked Kate, she looked at me blankly, which is strange considering how often she’d used the word. She finally came up with ‘a warm feeling inside, caring, wanting the best for the other person’. Unfortunately that could describe our feelings for our mother, our children or our cat.
In my opinion, love for a partner has three essential ingredients: intimacy, passion and commitment. With this definition, it is actually impossible to love two people at the same time.
So Kate had to look deeper and question whether she was using the label ‘love’ to put a romantic gloss on her cheating and lessen her guilt about having sex with a colleague.
With clients who ricochet between a new lover and an ex, unable properly to commit to either, they normally discover that they are frightened of intimacy (even if their parents didn't separate, they have, for whatever reason, developed a profound fear of failure).
The truth is that they love neither partner, and I help them make a proper ending and learn to live alone before starting a new relationship.
Ultimately Kate decided that she did love her husband, deep down, but they both needed to learn to share all their feelings (including the angry ones) before they could be truly intimate together.
What can we learn from people who think they have enough love for two partners?
We use the word ‘love’ too lightly, without really understanding what it means. We frequently expect too much from our relationships: love alone is not a magic cure-all.
And we should remember that love needs to be nurtured and strengthened with good communication, because while we assume the relationship is trotting along quite happily, our partner could be feeling alone, neglected - and vulnerable to crossing a dangerous line that often isn’t clear until it’s too late.
In other news, my podcast interview with Dr Cheryl Fraser, author of Buddha’s Bedroom, has been a big hit. If you’d like to hear us talking about mindfulness, sex and keeping the flame of passion alive over time, you can find the interview here.
And as always, if it feels like the right time to start marital therapy, send an email to Tricia (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a virtual or in-person appointment with one of my team of therapists in London, or with me here in Berlin.