There are certainly worse things than finding yourself caught in a love triangle, but try telling that to someone stuck in one. Case in point: A very tortured man has written to The Guardian asking for help in choosing between his girlfriend and his ex because he is “drawn to them both in different ways” and “they both have amazing qualities.” He is “so confused” about what to do and has no idea how he got himself into this situation, much less how to get out of it.
Even though the love triangle presents itself as an impossible, emotionally overwrought disaster, it’s easier to sort this out than you’d think.
But let’s back up: Psychologists unequivocally agree that you can, in fact, love two people at once, but with a very important distinction. Much like the advice-seeker at The Guardian, you usually love the two people in different ways.
Love anthropologist Helen Fisher explains it this way: There are three brain systems at work when we want someone. There’s attraction, there’s romantic love and there’s sex drive, and Fisher says they don’t always line up in one person. This means you can potentially feel all three things for three different people at the same time. You can be attracted to someone, sexually driven toward someone else (or just sleep with them), and also feel a deep romantic love for a partner.
Sex drive is, obviously, just wanting to hook up. Romantic love is the all-consuming desire to be with someone that Fisher describes in her famous TED Talk on how the brain responds to love: It’s a lot like being on cocaine. Compare this with the calm, even-keeled steadiness of partnered devotion, the sort you have after years with someone, after you’ve been through some stuff.
The Guardian advice seeker claims to not know how he ended up confused by his desire for two people, but anyone in the cheap seats knows what’s really going on. No judgment, but he deliberately followed and pursued both types of attraction, inching his way into misery. That’s by design, too. “Love,” Fisher says in her TED Talk, “isn’t always a happy experience…Almost nobody gets out of love alive.”
And she’s just talking about a relationship between two people. When it’s about trying to narrow down your choices to one, it’s torture. “It’s as if there’s a committee meeting going on inside your head as you try to decide what to do,” Fisher told Business Insider. Unless you’re poly, you’re screwed and will ultimately have to choose — not necessarily because someone makes you, but because the human brain can only endure the confusion and torture so long.
Back at The Guardian, advice-giver Annalisa Barbieri sympathizes with the advice-seeker’s dilemma, but comes down clear. When you’re struggling to decide between two people and you can’t choose, you should probably reframe the way you’re thinking about it.
The answer to your dilemma is that, very probably, neither of these women is right for you. When there is a choice between two people, it is not always a case that one of them must be right for you, if you could only work out which. It is more likely that you have two not-quite-right-for you people in front of you at the same time. I think the fact that you are feeling ready to “settle down” is making you look at your situation and evaluate — and that is good. Just don’t mistake availability for suitability.
If two choices are both equally great, then there is no choice because either will ultimately result in the same fate: greatness. Just throw a dart.
In a column at The New York Times about how to make a choice when your options are “on a par,” Rutgers philosophy professor Ruth Chang ponders a hypothetical choice someone might make over whether to move to a new city for a job offer. The job offers more money, a promotion, and a career opportunity you’ve long wanted. However, it requires moving across the country to a new city, dragging a partner and child along, and leaving a city you’ve lived in for 15 years.
Most people will, in the face of such a choice, try to “compute” the pros and cons, Chang argues, the idea being if you can just amass enough facts and weigh them out, you’ll arrive at the more “correct choice.” But life, and jobs and moving and even love aren’t like this. Goodness, she argues, doesn’t work this way.
Options can be “on a par” — different in value while being in the same overall neighborhood. If your alternatives are on a par, you can’t make a mistake of reason in choosing one instead of the other. Since one isn’t better than the other, you can’t choose wrongly. But nor are they equally good. When alternatives are on a par, when the world doesn’t determine a single right thing to do, that doesn’t mean that value writ large has been exhausted. Instead of looking outward to find the value that determines what you should do, you can look inward to what you can stand behind, commit to, resolve to throw yourself behind. By committing to an option, you can confer value on it.
Either way, you’ve freed yourself of the agony of indecision, if you can just commit to the choice once you’ve made it. Of course, if you were the sort of person who could easily do that, you probably wouldn’t have ended up in a love triangle. But if emotion got you into it, at least, for everyone’s sake, use logic to get out.