Since their debut in 2001, dating-based reality shows have begged one question — and it’s not “Who’s going to win?” To most of us, what transpires between the Bachelor, Bachelorette, Flavor Flav, Bret Michaels -- whoever -- and competing suitors is inconceivable. Viewers want to know: Is it possible to love more than one person at the same time?
Like real life, these reality romance shows started out innocently enough, following society’s recipe for love. From birth, we’re all given the formula. We’re all expected to:
Meet a member of the opposite sex (most families aren’t down yet with the possibility of a same-sex attraction). Fall in love. Marry. Live happily ever after.
But somewhere along the line, reality TV took an interesting turn in dishing out polyamorous programming.
Stars started going against convention, following their true instinct when it comes to love and desire. Hardly a season has gone by that we haven’t heard the star struggle with the matter of loving at least two potential partners. And viewers have been buying it, with 48 percent of 20- to 29-year-olds telling an AOL Personals Survey that they believe you can be in love with more than one person at the same time.
If you’re not familiar with it, polyamory (which means “many loves”) is the practice of having more than one open sexual, romantic relationship. Typically characterized as loving, poly-relationships don’t just involve sex, but emotions as well.
This practice of maintaining multiple significant, intimate relationships simultaneously encompasses love, intimacy, commitment, friendship, affection, flirting, desire, sex, romance, eroticism ...
Some couples who practice this may have an open marriage. Married or not, this arrangement may involve one or both partners having another exclusive relationship, in addition to their own primary relationship. Or it may be a matter of either partner having free range to have sexual relationships with others.
In “Why We Love,” Dr. Helen Fisher touches upon a human’s ability to love and desire more than one person. She points out that we have three mating drives — lust, romantic love, and attachment.
The three brain circuits behind these drives do not always cooperate with each other. They are firing interactively, but independently. They may not all focus on the same person at times, even when we’re monogamous and feeling good about our primary relationship. As Fisher writes, it seems humans are “neurologically able to love more than one person at a time.”
People who support the claim that humans have the potential to simultaneously love more than one person tend to highlight other matters. In another book, “Open,” Jenny Block, herself in an open marriage, criticizes Americans for being limited in their thoughts around love. She has a particular issue with society’s view that the only relationship that counts is the heterosexual, monogamous marriage.
Block argues that humans are capable of loving as much as they allow themselves. This is particularly important given no relationship is static. Lovers have different needs at different times, including those in the realm of amour and sexual expression.
While I certainly understand many of Block’s points, as somebody who doesn’t like to share when it comes to sexual partners, I wasn’t convinced that she had a case until it came to the matter of defining love. Whether trying to sort through the latest season of the “Bachelor” or attempting to comprehend another couple’s structure, the fact that there are different types of love needs to be considered in understanding polyamory.
While our society has set one standard for love and relationships, other societies have recognized that multiple types of each exist. The Greeks had several words for different types of love, including:
Eros –- erotic love involving physical attraction and emotional intensity;
Agape –- sacrificial love involving placing a loved one’s welfare above your own;
Storge –- love as friendship and companionship;
Pragma –- love as a “shopping list” of desired attributes, such as being a good parent;
Ludus –- love as a game;
Mania –- jealous, obsessive, dependent love.
While the human capacity to love in many different ways is awing, it’s still hard to overlook the fact that a great deal of biological research alone supports the structure society has in place for monogamous love. One could argue that, when you’re truly falling in love with somebody, there can be only one.
Researchers like Fisher herself have, for example, shown how dopamine in the brain increases greatly when we fall in love with somebody. This neurotransmitter is what makes for a person having extremely focused attention, incredible motivation, and goal-directed behaviors when it comes to winning over a crush. Lovers consumed with feelings of romance are known to focus exclusively on a beloved and no one else.
Everyone is going to have their own take on whether it’s possible or not –- whether it’s right or not –- to love more than one person at the same time. Perhaps of greatest concern, however, should be how the one juggling multiple partners is treating the suitors involved. In being sexually promiscuous, is this person using others for his or her own gratification?
Better known as “players,” these individuals are generally chalked up by psychologists as having relationships that are immature, incomplete, and sexually focused. Reality TV or not, that’s polyamory at its worst.
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Dr. Yvonne Kristín Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc. She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."