This is the most common question from people unfamiliar with open relationships. Oftentimes people believe that to be in love with someone means that you don’t have room for anyone else in your heart. Let’s examine this a bit more closely.
First of all, our society teaches us that love is built on the scarcity model. This model has been well explained by others, but essentially it assumes that the human capacity for love is limited to one person at a time. If you love one person, it thereby prevents you from loving another.
Is this true?
Well, let’s think about the human capacity for love. We have two parents, does that mean we inherently love one parent less than the other?
What about children? If we have multiple children does that mean we love the newest more and the oldest less when new children come along?
Of course not.
Let’s think about friends. If we incorporate a new friend into our circle, do we care about our old friends any less?
So why are romantic partners viewed differently?
To answer this question, we need to understand romantic love. To put it simply, psychologists have determined that there are 4 stages of romantic love (note: agape love, or the love you have for your children are excluded in this analysis). Different people call these phases different things, but essentially there is a love at first sight stage, the infatuation stage, the romantic love stage, and the stable love stage. These stages mark the natural evolution of relationships (although love at first sight is not a necessary component of a successful relationship). I will explore these stages more in depth at a later time but I want to introduce the concept to address the question.
The love at first sight stage is marked by an immediate pull to another person due to physical characteristics only. It is that feeling of falling without even having a conversation with them. You see them across the room and just know within your heart of hearts that they are “the one”. This is a very unstable stage because you don’t really know the person of interest. In fact, only a subset of people seem to experience this stage.
Infatuation stage (or limerence) is marked by an intense attraction to someone else that is almost obsessive. Infatuation can cloud a person’s judgment because they can be consumed by the feelings of “falling in love”. This is because the love chemicals saturate the brain. On average, it is the stage that most people feel early in a relationship, for about the first six months. However, this stage can be prolonged if you are in a long-distance relationship or don’t have very much access to the person of interest.
For someone feeling this, they might be checking their phones constantly looking for a text or email from the person of interest. If they see a message, they might be elated whereas if they don’t, they might feel devastation. Someone in this stage will be thinking of their lover constantly and wanting to spend as much time possible with them. It is common that people in this stage project unrealistic views of the person they are with. They see them as infallible, perfect, and soul-mate material. As their partner opens up to them, there is a feeling of excitement with emotional intimacy. As the person opens up more and more, they are faced with either incorporating the new reality into their ideal, or rejecting the person because they don’t fit their ideal. If there is mutual acceptance the relationship moves to the next phase and the feelings of love start to develop.
Romantic love is the transition out of infatuation and into “realistic love”. It is where you are still passionately involved with your person of interest but you have begun to incorporate their faults into your perception of them. You may realize they have annoying habits like leaving socks on the floor, but you still love them in any case. A successful transition to this phase means a reduction in anxiety of insecurity. If they don’t text you back immediately, you might accept that they are in a meeting and not necessarily rejecting you. The love chemicals are less strong in your brain, so you are less obsessive and able to think about other things other than your loved one.
Stable love is the love you feel after many years of a romantic love. Depending on a person’s psychology and history, they may move into this stage as early as 3 years whereas others may take longer. This love is characterized by an increase in stability and a decrease in passion. You may not feel the overwhelming urge to rip off your loved one’s clothes as soon as you get home from work, but you do feel very deeply and warmly attached to them. At this point your relationship has stabilized into routines and patterns. Assuming these routines and patterns are healthy, you feel a great deal of security from your relationship.
I will discuss these stages more in depth and the factors which cause us to evolve in relationships, but for the sake of argument, let’s accept that there are different types of love. With this new understanding, it makes much more sense that people can be in multiple stages infatuation or love at the same time because they are not mutually exclusive.
Some even have the ability to be in the same stage with multiple partners (multiple infatuations and romantic loves). However, for myself and my husband, we find it more difficult to be in the infatuation stage with more than one person. Similarly, truly monogamous people might have the capacity to experience different stages of love at one time, but truly do not want to. They should never be forced to as individual preferences must be respected for a healthy relationship.
Unfortunately, some people believe that successful love should be contained in the early-stage romantic love where they are falling madly and passionately into another person. In reality, our bodies and brains cannot sustain the intensity from an early relationship. In fact, a successful relationship naturally transforms into a more loving and stable connection.
- My husband and I reject the scarcity model of love.
- Early romantic love and infatuation cannot be sustained due to limitations of brain chemicals and energy demands. A successful relationship over a long duration of time will eventually move towards stability.
- My husband and I are in stable love and believe that it is possible to go through different stages with others because they are wholly different experiences for us.
- Truly monogamous people do not want to experience multiple stages of love at the same time even though they might have the capacity. Their choices should be respected.
- Other people have the capacity to be in the same stage of love with multiple partners. Knowing which type of person you are will help guide your open relationship choices.