How Do I Love Thee: On Comparing Relationships

Sepia historical photograph of a woman dressed as cupid next to a lion for Post How Do You Love Me by Malin James

Woman with Lion, courtesy of the Getty Museum

Every so often, my daughter asks me if I love her best.**

This is a tricky moment as a parent, because my impulse is to say, Yes! Of course, I love you best. It’s the answer she’s looking for and by far the simplest to give. But as much as my love for her is one of the most overwhelming things I’ve ever felt, to say that I love her best does something that I’m not quite comfortable with – it accidentally reinforces a way of thinking about love that can lead to insecurity later on.

I realize that I might be overthinking this. Is there really any harm in telling her that I love her best?  There are so many things I don’t bother worrying about, like Santa’s existence or whether or not she believes in god. But reinforcing emotional comparisons feels oddly dangerous to me. It implies that love is a zero-sum game and, as Exhibt A wrote, it isn’t. Survival is, but not love.

Love, like so many things, is contextually unique. For example, a person’s love for their child can be catastrophically powerful, but what if you have two or more children? Who do you love best then? That question is almost impossible to answer (without screwing up one of more of your kids), which is why “I love you all differently” is such a great response. It reinforces the love while avoiding the comparison.

Why is avoiding comparison important for all relationships (not just those involving multiple kids)? Because when you start to comparing the different loves you feel, you risk diminishing all of them. Love isn’t measurable or quantifiable, but comparing relationships with the intention of weighing who is loved best imposes finite limits on an emotion that is naturally infinite.

The real question is what underlies the comparison. Not to get all cold and pragmatic about it, but what it really comes down to is resource distribution. We’re a fundamentally competitive species because our survival depends on it. We commodify resources because resources, whether emotional or physical, have a value rooted in survival. That’s about as fundamental as it gets.

So where does love fit into that? Love is a resource too, or rather, the safety love signifies is. As a species, we evolved through dark nights full of predators that wanted to eat us. Abandonment = death. We are literally hardwired to fear being cast aside, and one of the best guarantors of that not happening is love.

When my daughter asks me if I love her best, she’s expressing a really basic concern: If a lion grabbed Daddy and me, would you save me, even if it meant not saving Daddy? (For what it’s worth, the answer is yes. Her dad’s okay with that). The anxiety that underlies the question is instinctively human – so much so that it shows up in all kinds of relationships, not just those between a parent and child, but friendships, business partnerships and romantic relationships.

I suspect that I’m hyper aware of all this because I’ve been poly for so long. While love is definitely not a zero-sum game, survival is, and at a very basic level, we have tied security to love and pain to exclusion. That’s why, in poly relationships, it’s important to be patient with a partner’s fears and insecurities. That sort of status anxiety is hardwired into us and, for most people, it takes a bit of effort to work through.

The impulse to compare is an instinctive attempt to see if our position in the relationship is safe. Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to torture yourself into fearing that it’s not. In the end, it’s about security. The surest way to avoid the trap of comparison is to address the underlying concern. If a person is secure in your love for them, they are less likely to be worried about your love for others.

In the end, it’s not about who is loved best, but how you are loved. Are you  loved well? Is your person’s love a revelation? A homecoming? A whetstone? Is it a soft blanket on a rainy night or a delicate porcelain vase? The how says so much more than any comparison could. The how is about the two of you. The how is solid ground.

**NB: Chunks of Browning’s Sonnet 43 are the answer I give my daughter when she asks me how I love her…that and “I love you bigger than the galaxy and 9 million stars”, which is really pretty big. 

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19 comments

  1. This is the kind of discussion I love to see on poly love. You hit on a lot of truths here (you could expand this into a book, easily) but the focus on how you are loved is huge. I think this is what so many people (mono or poly) are afraid to confront – often because the answer is painful – so they try to quantify their relationships to make themselves feel more secure.

    1. Thank you, Valerie. I really appreciate that. And I do think you’re right – the answer to “how do you love me” may very well not be the answer someone wants to hear, so the quantifiable option may seem easier or safer. It always seems to be the difficult emotions – insecurity, fear, jealousy etc. – that lead to the greater insights insofar as relationships go, but that certainly doesn’t make handling them a walk in the park (she said, thinking back on all the messes in her own history).

  2. This is so important to me. I can still remember exactly how I felt when my mother told me that she loved my Dad most because he was the person she chose where as I wasn’t chosen, I just came along. I think that has made me hyper aware of the answers to those questions. I will never enter into any competitive discussion about love which is why I hate the “Guess how much I love you,” book. My three have never asked how much, or who I love the best. They all know that I love each of them absolutely and completely. I think and I hope that they share my non-competitive understanding of love. I am very lucky with my three and writing this has clarified another aspect of them and me that I knew but rarely talk about.

    1. I have to admit that as I was sifting through how to address this with L, I thought about how you might handle it. You’re an amazing mom and the bond you have with your kids is proof of that. I’ve never met someone who had so much perspective on navigating the emotional waters of a parent-child relationship. In many ways, you inspired my response. Thank you. Xxx

  3. I see posts about parents loving their children more than anything and anyone in the world all the time on facebook. They make me uncomfortable. Because while my children hold a very special part of my heart that is exclusively for them, I do not love them more than anyone or anything in the world.

    Like you, I’d save them over their dad if a lion attacked. I had pre-eclampsia with both pregnancies. I had to decide and sign a paper stating whose life I’d save if it came down to that. With my first child, I said “save her.” When it was my second child, I said “save me–I have a child who needs her mother.” Do I love my first child more? No, but having her changed the calculus when I was facing another difficult end to a pregnancy. This is also part of why there will be no more pregnancies–I can’t bear the calculation that would end in an abortion to place my own survival as more important than carrying a pregnancy that could kill both of us.

    Do I love them more than my husband? My husband holds a different part of my heart. If I do my job properly, these inquisitive children will grow up and become remarkable young women, and then they will fly away from our nest. I want a stable relationship when they leave, so I prioritize my marriage.

    Do I love them more than myself. I’m going to buck the trend and say the unsayable–no. If I have learned an important life lesson in my 38 years, it’s this—put your own oxygen mask on before you put on someone else’s. When I prioritize my children, my husband, my work above my own needs, my mental health suffers–which is a serious issue for someone with bipolar disorder. My physical health suffers–I have chronic pain and I only have so many spoons per day–if I use all of them on other people, I suffer even more.

    Do I love my children fiercely? Yes. Are they among the people I love most in this world? Yes. Do I love them best? Between us–no.

    1. Thank you, Delilah – I especially appreciate your perspective from motherhood point of view. We’re constantly bombarded with what “good moms” are supposed to be and do. I half expected to get pushback on the notion of not telling your kid that you love her best. The reality is that love is not quantifiable because it’s a different experience with everyone you love. The variability and hugeness of love is what needs emphasizing, whether it’s with your kids or your romantic partners.

  4. I have, thankfully, not ever had the question from my children, who I love best. I love each of them to bits, but differently. The same with my two grandchildren… I love both of them so much, but also in a different manner. I don’t believe we should quantify love, as there are so many ways to love people.

    Great post!

    Rebel xox

  5. This is a wonderful piece, my head was nodding along and agreeing with it all but my heart still tries to break at the thought of sharing him. One day I will get my head to overrule until then it will be a long, slow and careful road.

    1. Thank you so much. I love that it resonated, even if the reality of sharing your partner is still quite painful. One lovely thing about all of it is that there is no one right way to do it. It can be however it needs to be and that’s a wonderful thing. And in the meantime, kindness and patience with yourself are important. For some people, non-monogamy is more painful than good, and that’s just as valid as anything else.

  6. ” If a person is secure in your love for them, they are less likely to be worried about your love for others.”

    Love this. To me it is the wonderful part of getting to know someone and falling in love. It’s that pesky insecurity that comes later when you start experiencing behavior or reactions to life experiences that change the relationship in some way.

    Parental love is so much different for me. Since having a non-traditional childhood I always wanted a better experience for my child. I wanted to be a parent all my life and in a certain way that makes parenting fun and I have enjoyed each stage of their life (ok, maybe high school wasn’t that fun). If you think about it, the love you share with a child lasts forever, thereby secure. It’s not something you question or wonder about. I have not experienced this secure, forgiving, long lasting love in my romantic life. Not to say it can’t happen, or won’t, but my guess is it is more difficult.

    The poly aspect would take all this into another realm I suspect; people who are understanding, secure in their own identity, and trusting.

    I would be interested in getting your opinion on whether women who are parents view romantic love different than women who don’t have children.

    Great writing and interesting subject.

  7. My apologies if my response is something for which you are not looking. You think too much. You analyze too much. You compare too much. You dissect too much.

    respectfully stan

    1. With respect, Stan, it may be too much thinking and analysis for you, but it works well for me. That’s the beautiful thing – we can all approach relationships in the way that suits us and our partners. There is no such thing as “too much”, only what is “too much” for you. If you find that our approaches don’t align, that is perfectly fine. Thanks for reading πŸ™‚

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