Part 7. Humans are (Blank) -ogamous: Is It Possible to Love More than One Person? (Poll)


A love triangle is better than a hate rhombus.” – paraphrase of comedian Demetri Martin

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I wanted to continue the “Humans are (Blank)-ogamous” series by writing about polyamory, but think this will take some work before its ready. In the mean-time, I wonder what the consensus is out there on whether people feel that it is possible to love more than one person simultaneously (romantically, rather than parent-child or platonic love).

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If you’ve followed this series (see the intro here), you may recall that there is a good deal of biological evidence for our species being able to love our partners deeply, but also having multiple sexual partners across the lifespan, if not simultaneously. I wonder if it’s possible to combine the two, and to be able to have deep affection for more than one person at the same time, how this might work in a biological sense, and the role of culture here. I have some thoughts on this, but don’t want to bias opinions ahead of time. Instead, I’ll leave things open-ended.

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Please feel free to comment below.

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Part 8: Evolution, Love, and Suffering (Feb 2013)

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24 thoughts on “Part 7. Humans are (Blank) -ogamous: Is It Possible to Love More than One Person? (Poll)

  1. I think you’ve introduced a bit of a flaw in the set up: “love more than one person at a time” is one thing “love one person and have sexual relationships with others” is another.

  2. I agree with Barbara completely. Also, don’t discount the folks (such as my wife and myself) who are considering one, if not both, who really don’t know yet how they feel 100%. I hope we’re not the only couple discussing and navigating this idea.

  3. The second question seems problematic because you don’t present degrees of desirability…and that’s an important point as per Barbara’s comment. I mean, for me personally, it’s sexually desirable, but emotionally complicated (i.e.not as much, which implies a certain lack of desirability).

    • Hi Erin, that’s a valid point. I could have asked the question in a different way, but just kept it simple here, hoping folks would expand their ideas in the comments section. Your point on emotion is really what I was thinking of when I conceived this short poll. I was thinking about love/ deep affection more than sex. Perhaps I could have done a better job of framing the questions.

  4. You need a third question that says, “Even though you think it is possible and desirable, are you comfortable with the possibility in your life?”. That would be interesting.

    • That would be interesting – the theoretical vs. in practice. I imagine this would come down to a number of factors, a person’s current relationship, how acceptable it would be to their partner, and how it would fit with wider social norms.

  5. I find the number of people finding it ‘desirable’ to multi-love (in the normally accepted emotional sense, without going into religious guru stuff) points to a totally promiscuous society — that doesn’t exist so far. It could also point to the day-dreaming nature of the internet. Certainly, however they are worded or qualified, it calls into question the utility of internet polls.

    • I think multi-love exists (with or without the element of promiscuity), Robert. But I just don’t think it’s by any means easy to quantify – via internet polls or otherwise (which doesn’t necessarily discount the validity of data gathered from these polls, per se).

  6. Considering the propensity of polygyny around the world, is the fact that people would feel they could love multiple partners at once really that surprising?

  7. Erin. I also ticked that multi-love exists — because the poll structure in this case gives a choice of yes or no. Some people live following a yes-no code, but many do not. The yes-no life gives the world presidents like George Bush followed by Obama. Bad-Good. Toss of a coin. I do not conduct surveys this way because I know they are not just qualified and limited but are really part of a coin-toss world. Let’s try to get beyond yes and no. (Fortunately I live in a land which has no coins to toss.)

  8. To bronironi:

    Actually, I do find the numbers somewhat surprising, though as others have pointed out the way I asked the questions was constricting and likely altered the way people responded. I also know the limits of an open internet poll.

    The first response was more expected since the idea of being able to love more than one person romantically is part of common culture – there are lots of examples out there in movies and literature, for example (and possibly in the personal experiences of the respondents).

    However, I do wonder what variety of love people have in mind as they answer this question and how that colors their perception of things. This is perhaps the biggest limitation to the way I asked the questions. I tried to specify that I was more interested in the emotional rather than physical side of things, but based on the comments that seemed to not get across for some people, which I’m guessing affected results. If one has the idea of being infatuated/ obsessed (sometimes called ‘limerence’), I wonder if they can conceive of feeling that toward more than one person. Is there even room for that in the human brain? If they are thinking of a calmer type of love (‘attachment’), then that might be easier to imagine feeling that for different partners. Or perhaps they thought of feeling different types of love toward different partners. A better questionnaire might have teased these things out.

    For the second question, I would have thought the numbers would not be so lopsided, just based on societal perceptions of normative behavior. To be clear, that’s not a judgment of whether multiple loves are desirable (human variation is fascinating); I just imagine a more random sample would produce different numbers.

    Still, interesting results nonetheless. Thanks to all for participating.

  9. Not sure if you were specifically going for opinion/anecdote here, but this reminded me of something I read a while ago:

    “…This then is one of love’s most defining properties: the capacity for individuals to form a pair bond anchored in emotional exclusivity. It is difficult, perhaps nearly impossible, to love more than one person at any one time.

    “American psychological studies that investigated this phenomenon reported that around 25 percent of the undergraduates surveyed acknowledged that, at one time or another, they had been “in love” with more than one person. Most of those that admitted loving more than one person at the same time, also admitted not enjoying the experience and were relieved when it ended. In an unpublished study Helen Gerth and I (N.d.) found that some individuals who acknowledged being emotionally intertwined with two partners often preferred one over the other. For instance, the closer love was the last and not the first one called to say “good night,” was chosen to accompany the individual to a much anticipated event, or to be dreamt about more often. Other individuals, however, were adamant in their insistence that they could love two people at the same time. Our in depth interviews reveal everyone made an immediate and clear distinction between two different types of love: Comfort and passionate love. Significantly, no one in our sample admitted to being in a state of excited or passionate love with two or more individuals nor did anyone acknowledge that they were involved in a comfort love relationship with two different individuals. Everyone admitted being involved in a comfort love relationship with one partner and a passionate love entanglement with a different partner. When we queried if they could imagine themselves in love with three or more people at the same time, there was surprise and negative exasperation at what that arrangement would involve. In fact, no one interviewed thought the experience of being simultaneously in love with two people was a pleasant satisfying experience. Everyone we interviewed (n=27) was in strong agreement that being in a concurrent love is, in the words of a 36-year-old woman, “a terrible, exasperating experience.”

    “Further support for the inability to passionately love more than one person at a time comes from studies of polygynous societies where the impulse to form an exclusive or passionate love bond is a powerful and, at times, an overwhelming desire (Jankowiak et al 2005; Jankowiak 2006; Tiwari chapter 5). This research strongly suggests that although humans are not sexually monogamous, they are emotionally monogamous.”

    — William Jankowiak, “Desiring Sex, Longing for Love: A Tripartite Conundrum”

  10. Quinn! Welcome back. Yes, that’s what I was going for. I’ve read Jankowiak too, and find his arguments compelling. The companion/passionate love distinction seems real, and I wonder whether people considered that when they took the questionnaire. I’m still hesitant to accept Jankowiak’s article completely because the sample is so limited, and the pain that the people in his study describe occurs within a specific cultural context. But, passionate love is a real thing, with its most intense stage lasting perhaps 2-3 years. It’s also been compared to obsessive-compulsive disorder, and if that’s true, I have difficulty believing that one could be equally obsessed with two or more partners. Companion love/ multiple relationships might be possible with more than one partner, but passionate love appears to favor exclusivity.

    • Patrick. Any reason for thinking intense passionate love can last for 2-3 years? Doesn’t intensity suggest a short-term relationship? Or perhaps a relationship that comes and goes as life with the partner-companion becomes more or less mundane. We have to remember that three sets of emotions are involved and each will be dynamic to some degree. An intense passionate love alongside companion-love, with two different partners but with or without a break, suggests (to me) some sort of obsession with both partners, even if one obsession is obsession with ‘duty’ re the companion-partner and the other obsession is sexual jealousy with the passion-partner. A case of obsession-possession, to put it far too glibly.

      To go way out. I understand that when the Bible (Old Testament) was first edition the Garden of Eden myth gave Adam two ‘wives’, one the faithful Eve, and one the promiscuous Lilith. Adam bounced back and forth for a time, went off with Lilith but finally settled for Eve — although Lilith was obviously much more fun, short-term. For some reason the Judaic-Christian origin myth seems far more believable with Lilith in it. No idea where Lilith went. Certainly didn’t disappear into Islam. Maybe she’s still around…

  11. Hi Robert, I didn’t know about Lilith. That is interesting. I wonder at what point she was written out and for what motive. I also wonder why Eve wasn’t allowed a male version of Lilith. (Actually, I have a pretty good idea why she wasn’t).

    The 2-3 year figure is not set in stone, but comes from a couple of studies. I’m going to quote myself from Part 5:

    Emanuele et al (2006) found that peripheral levels of nerve growth factor, a neurotrophin that assists in neuron survival and maturation, was moderately correlated with one’s ‘passionate love score,’ ascertained by questionnaire (r = 0.34; p = 0.007). NGF has also been associated with increased levels of vasopressin, the neuropeptide described above in prairie voles. Levels of NGF were significantly higher in subjects who had fallen in love in the last 6 months than two control groups: single people and people who had been in a longer-term relationship for an average of 4 years. At follow-up, after the ‘in love’ group had been in their relationship for another 12 to 24 months, both passionate love scores and NGF levels decreased significantly (from 227 to 125 pg/ml; p = 0.001) and became indistinguishable from the control groups. The authors summarized their findings as suggesting that: “in humans the neurochemical bases of early-stage romantic love may be substantially different from those of longer term romantic relationships,” with the most intense stages likely lasting somewhere between 18 to 36 months (p. 293). Similarly, Marazziti et al (1999) found that the most intense effects of romantic love last about 12 to 18 months. This is consistent with the notion that intense early romantic love would at least give a pair-bonded couple enough time to conceive, but it would certainly be insufficient by itself to raise a child to reproductive maturity, or even through infancy.

    It looks like the 2-3 year cap is not about the entire relationship, but is a rough guide for how long someone can remain utterly obsessed with a passionate love. Like everything in biology, there are probably exceptions, with some being able to sustain this longer. i’m also not certain how this would play out if there were breaks inserted into the relationship. Would that intensity go on hiatus and then return? It doesn’t mean the end of the relationship, just the most intense part of it. You’re making me rethink here, though, that ‘duty’ could also be a form of obsession. Lots to think about.

    • Don’t think too hard. Remember that anthropologists can participate as well as observe. As for intensity, I think it would increase after a break. Peaks and breaks. Although during any break Lilith might appear and change the triangle into a hexagon.

  12. @Patrick:

    Thanks, it is good to be back. Your points about the limits of Jankowiak’s research are well taken. I don’t fully endorse it myself, but it is a coherent theory with some empirical support. I look forward to reading what else you discover on this topic. With so much focus on “true” monogamy, I’ve hardly seen anything on “true” polyamory.

    @Robert Cooper:

    How could Lilith be promiscuous if Adam was the only man around?

    Also, Lilith does not appear in the original Genesis.

    • Quinn. A very reasonable question. But it isn’t always appropriate to question origin myths with reason.

      Such myths exist in all societies and just about all of them are self-contradictory. Pointing this out to ‘believers’ doesn’t serve any purpose, as those who take a myth as reality follow their own path of reason, as supported by other parts of other myths. This is (perhaps) why Levi-Strauss, having spent a significant period re-analysing the endless volumes of myths of North American Indians recorded over years by Franz Boas, concluded that ‘One myth leads only to another myth’ (my summary of what L-S said, which was anyway in French).

      You certainly won’t find the name Lilith in Genesis in any modern version of the Bible (i.e. within 4,000 years). There is a brief mention of her later on in the book but I can’t be bothered to find it.

      Let’s just point out that Genesis, in spite of the name, was not the first version of the myth. And having trouble reconciling apparent contradictions, it doesn’t bother — just puts things down, contradictions and all. And why not? After all Mankind had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge, so s/he sure would have no trouble with a few contradictions.

      In the (modern) book of Genesis there appear to be two different versions of the story depicting the creation of man and woman.

      In chapter 1, verse 27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

      There you have man and woman created at the same time and both looking like God. Okay so far. But then…

      In chapter 2, verse 21: “So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs … and made a woman … and brought her to the man.”

      Chapter 1 tells us God made mankind from the “dust of the earth” story while chapter 2 has Him creating Adam first and Eve from Adam. Undoubtedly we can see this as an example of two different myths being woven into one story. And not too skilled a weaving at that.

      So much for Genesis. But the Hebrew Talmuds (of course) already had alternative versions of the same myth.

      Those myths are equally contradictory but contradictions are at least in separate myths. In one, Eve was Adam’s second wife. Eve is the woman of Genesis Mach 2 and was created from Adam’s rib. She accepted her role as being subservient. After all, her husband had come first and had given up a part of himself so that she could live.

      But another Hebrew myth has Lilith created equally to Adam from dust or mud. As Adam’s equal, the Talmudic Lilith (“storm goddess” or “she of the night”) was fully into equal rights. So when Adam “desired to lay on top of her,” she refused. So she flew off to the desert.

      At that point Adam had not yet been kicked out of the Garden of Eden and condemned to mortality — even if it lifespans are stated as varying between 300-999 years. Lilith was not so condemned and retained her eternal life. She’s still out there. She gets her way (on top) with any demon passing and has generated lots and lots of ‘Lilim’. God was not too happy about this behaviour outside of his control and consent and sent his secret police to bring Lilith back. But good old Lilith seduced them. Go back to the boring Garden? Much more fun seducing sleeping men — who wet-dream just at the thought of her.

      So next time the unexpected happens in your bed, you know who’s been visiting your dreams.

      Just make sure you never let the wife get on top. Thus the origin of the term ‘The Missionary Position’.

  13. As a follow-up, I found an AARP poll conducted in 2009 of two thousand Americans. Forty-nine% said they had experienced being in love with one person while having a crush on (or fantasizing about) another. An additional 30% thought it was possible though they had not personally experienced this. Only 21% thought it was not possible.

    A ‘crush’ or fantasy is not exactly the same as having simultaneous loves, but it was interesting just to see the data. Also, while the study broke other questions down by age, they didn’t do it for this one. I’d like to see that, and specifically what the older people had to say.

    see Table 8 here: http://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/il/love_09.pdf

    • Simultaneous loves, yes I could. Of the four women I have loved in my life, Number Four was the Really Big One. Yet at the same time and all the way through I kept my enormously strong emotional bond with my small daughter.

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