What Relationship Experts Really Want You To Know About Being in Love With Multiple People at Once
While Bachelor fans will be quick to point out that other factors stirred controversy around Echard—including his outburst upon hearing of one contestant's sex-related dealbreaker and his decision to conduct a group breakup rather than keep things respectfully individualized—the emphasis on his multiple proclamations of love begs the question: Is being in love with multiple people at once really feasible in real life?
From the outset, it's worth noting that many folks do take part in non-monogamous relationship structures built on the foundation of people having the capacity to be intimate, romantic, or sexual with multiple partners in the same time frame. In turn, there's no doubt that it's possible to romantically love multiple people at once—but how does this apply to those who are staunchly monogamous?
“Monogamy dictates the need to fall out of love with one person before falling in love with someone else, but the feeling of love is far more complex.” —Satori Madrone, sexologist and relationship coach
“While monogamy dictates the need to fall out of love with one person before falling in love with someone else, in reality, the feeling of love is far more complex, and can exist in or out of that dynamic,” says sexologist and relationship coach Satori Madrone. In other words? Even if you strongly identify with a monogamous relationship framework, the possibility of you falling or being in love with multiple people at once still remains. And it’s perhaps all the more likely if you're actively dating more than one person at a time, too—whether you're the lead of a Bachelor franchise or simply playing the field.
How can you be in love with more than one person at the same time?
The setup of The Bachelor puts the concept of falling for multiple people on the clearest possible display. In the series, the lead is encouraged to have multiple romantic relationships at once, and to be as vulnerable as possible in each—making it not entirely surprising should he develop feelings of love for multiple women, says Madrone. The same goes for IRL dating, on a smaller scale: While you may not be dating 30 people at once, you might be dating two or three, making it just as possible that you could catch feelings for both or all of them at the same time.
As a caveat, those feelings for multiple people could certainly just be rooted in attraction or lust—and not necessarily full-fledged love. That’s common with new relationship energy (NRE), “where a new lover feels more important or special than an existing or previous commitment,” says sex expert and psychotherapist Tammy Nelson, PhD, author of Open Monogamy. You might confuse the spark or instant chemistry with this new partner as a better or stronger kind of love, when in reality, that new relationship energy can fizzle just as quickly as it arrived—and give way to something similar or different from your previous or existing relationship.
To understand how you might actually be in love (not lust) with more than one person at once, then, is to note the key role of timing. Consider having met a current significant other with whom you’re in love at the same time as you met a previous one, whom you also loved. Would that mean it would only be possible for you to fall in love with one of them?
If you purposefully restricted your emotions with one of them, maybe. But, according to Madrone, if you approached each relationship openly, there’s no reason you couldn’t love both people in tandem, just as you did back-to-back. “In this case, if you were looking for a monogamous relationship, you’d have to simply choose which partner was the most attractive, likable, or had other characteristics that stood out to you over the other(s),” she says.
Can you love multiple people simultaneously, while loving one of them more or most?
This is where things get dicey. Perhaps you accept the premise of being in love with multiple people at once. But, that also begs the question: Are these loves comparable or measurable against each other? In other words, can you love two people, while loving one of them more than the other? According to the experts, no—but the expression of love doesn't always present exactly equally, either.
“Think of it like the unlimited potential of a parent, giving love to multiple children, dividing love evenly but differently.” —Tammy Nelson, PhD, sex expert and psychotherapist
“It’s hard to quantify the experience of love,” says Madrone. “Some researchers categorize love as a basic human emotion, while others look at romantic love separately, as a drive like sex, or as part of a social construct and cultural phenomenon.” Because of the complexities therein, it’d be fairer to say that you can love different people differently—not more or less than one another. “Think of it like the unlimited potential of a parent, giving love to multiple children, dividing love evenly but differently, without setting the children against each other in a contest to see who wins the most love or deserves more,” says Dr. Nelson.
In expressing your love differently with different people, you might utilize a unique mix of what Dr. Nelson calls the four resources in a relationship: time, attention, affection, and sex.
Let’s say, you’re in love with two people, but want to spend more time with one of them, or have more sex with another. That could mean you feel more attraction or sexual desire toward one partner, while feeling more emotionally attached to the other, says Madrone. But again, that still doesn’t imply that you love one of these people more or less than the other.
Why it’s a problem to conflate love with marriage
Perhaps the strongest reason why the concept of being in love with multiple people doesn’t seem to square with The Bachelor is the love-to-monogamous-marriage pipeline of the show. The idea is that, after exploring all the components of love with 30 women, the bachelor will ultimately pick one to marry. If he falls in love with multiple, he's in a tricky situation: Because no version of non-monogamy is typically on the table (nor would that be relevant when the women on the show aren’t into each other), he’s seemingly left to designate one of his loves as superior than another, and therefore worthier of marriage. Cue: Echard's ultimate downfall.
But, in reality, whether or how "much" you love someone simply isn't the only indicator of marriage-level compatibility—and drawing a straight line from love to marriage ignores all the other relevant factors. “Friendship, compatibility, attraction, security, attachment style, personality, and other traits can play a role in selecting a marital partner, as can subconscious beliefs, feelings, and experiences,” says Madrone.
It also follows that, if you fall in love with multiple people but consider just one of them to be your best fit for marriage (if that's what you seek), that choice doesn't negate the love you felt for the other person or people. “The idea of conflating love with marriage says that wherever love goes, marriage must follow,” says Madrone. For some folks, that's certainly the case; equally valid, however, is love for love’s sake—with one person or multiple.
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