Can You Really Be in Love With Two People at the Same Time?

in love with two people at once
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

It’s the age-old excuse people have used to justify longtime affairs (at least in the movies I've seen): I'm in love with my wife, but I'm in love with my mistress, too. One heart, equally divided between two people.

A love affair is different than a liaison rooted solely in sex. Surely those encounters can be fully designated to the realm of physical lust. What makes an affair entrenched in love so different is the emotional aspect of relationship -- the tightening of the chest, the can't-live-without-you kind of love that ruins lives.

Here is what I want to know: Is it really possible to be in love with two people at the same time? Or is it a convenient lie that we tell ourselves so that we may have our cake and eat it too?

Is it normal to have feelings for someone else when you're in a healthy relationship?

I think I would be remiss to claim that any sexual attraction to a person other than your partner instantly evaporates for all time when you enter into a monogamous relationship.

That is just not how the human mind works.

"Most people in long-term relationships will develop some feelings for people other than their partner at some point," says relationships educator Kate McCombs. "These feelings won't necessarily be 'in love with' feelings -- they might be lust or intimacy."

Having fantasies about someone other than the person you've been dating for several years is not always an indicator that there is trouble in your relationship. Human beings just like to think about sex and they enjoy thinking about it with different people. The brain is a real complicated organ and we are often subject to its whims.

Can you stop yourself from having these feelings?

Can you stop yourself from painfully lusting over your boss or that drop-dead sexy barista at Starbucks? Can you just make it STOP ALREADY??!

McCombs tells us that there is really no way of controlling your feelings. You can, however, control your reactions to these feelings. "If someone is having a work flirtation with a colleague on their team, they probably don't have a lot of control about developing an attraction to that person," she says. "But they do have choice about how many funny, flirty emails they send them."

Having sexy feelings about someone is one thing. If you don't act on those feelings, you're not harming anyone. It's when you give in to impulse that you've ventured into a land with no return ticket.

"One piece of advice I give people when this happens to them is to not judge yourself for feeling attracted to someone who isn't your partner," McCombs explains. "When you get into an internal judgment cycle about it, it can make it a bigger deal than it is. Most of the time, you can have a few fantasies and faps about that person and it will naturally diffuse over time."

But what if it doesn't?

Where does lust cross over to love?

So, you can't stop the feelings, you've started sending too many flirty emails, you just don't know how or don't want to stop. You are in a relationship but are actively falling for someone else.

Lorrae Bradbury, open-relationship pioneer, sexpert, and founder of Slutty Girl Problems, says love progresses in stages. "There's the new, lusty, infatuated feeling when you're first getting to know someone; the caring, tender feelings of wanting to commit, and the deep respect and dedication of long-term love."

When you are dating two people at the same time, your feelings still follow the same natural progression.

So, if you're having two separate relationships with two different people, where do those feelings cross from passion into love? "Love and lust can feel so similar at the beginning stages of an attraction, it can be difficult for some people to distinguish them," McCombs says. "If we practice some mindfulness, it can be easier to suss out what it is we're really feeling. If you are struggling to tell if it's love or lust (or both), take some time to sit with your feels."

Are your thoughts purely sexual, or are they something more? How do you feel when this person isn't around? Would pursuing this be worth giving up your current relationship?

Where do open relationships come into all of this?

Our society is slowly growing more accepting of people in open or polyamorous relationships. Does the existence of these types of relationships prove that you can love two (or more) people at once? Or do they simply acknowledge the predisposition of certain people to gravitate away from monogamy?

"If you've been monogamous and you are finding yourself in love with someone else too, you may have to make some tough life choices and rethink your relationship style," McCombs offers.

Meaning, you may be a person better suited for a poly or open lifestyle. "If that's the situation you find yourself in, I'd recommend reading some books like Opening Up, More Than Two, and The Ethical Slut. You may also want to find your local polyamory community and a poly-friendly therapist for support."

So, is it really possible to love two people at the same time?

While I am skeptical of the heart's ability to be divided into two equal loves, McCombs and Bradbury both agree that, yes, it really is possible to love two people at once.

"My partners and I believe in a non-hierarchical relationship structure, where neither partner is inherently considered more important than the other, regardless of how long we've been together," Bradbury says. "Falling in love with someone new is challenging, because it tests the strength, boundaries, and commitment of your existing relationship."

I guess the best explanation turns the question on its head: Love is subjective and exclusive to the person who is feeling it. Different people have different ideas about what it means to be in love, and the criteria under which happy relationships can flourish.

Is being in love with two people at the same time possible? I'd say it's a definite maybe.

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Gigi Engle is Thrillist's Sex and Dating staff writer and a skeptic to all of this, at best. Follow her lovable crazy on Twitter, iTunesFacebook, and Instagram @GigiEngle.