In Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife, a book of poems about a marriage in which an ex who passed away figures large in a relationship, the speaker describes making love with her husband for the first time and discovering that his late wife sewed the covers, and of living with daily reminders of her in the house that they live in together. Even though the two are in a monogamous marriage, the third person is clearly present, emotionally if not physically.
In life, we have all sorts of attachments that are not real relationships but which have emotional significance in our lives. These attachments include crushes and exes, and they can occupy as much emotional space in our lives as “real” relationships. Sometimes these attachments are so strong they are perceived as threatening the exclusivity of the established relationship. Whether they pose problems or not, we need to acknowledge that these attachments have real presence in our psyche. The problem is, our society doesn’t even have the words to talk about these attachments, so I’d like to introduce some terms that can be used to talk about these “relationships” that are typically unacknowledged but which can be quite important in our lives.
Real lover – You love them and they love you, and you both know it. This is the type of relationship in which you have mutually acknowledged romantic feelings and you both consent to engage in an emotional/physical/sexual relationship. Our conventional understanding of a girlfriend, boyfriend, husband, wife, or significant other would fall in this category. I would also include in this category friends with benefits, one night stands, platonic lovers, and other relationships in which there is mutual engagement. Monogamy refers to having one real lover, and polyamory refers to having more than one real lover with each other’s knowledge and consent.
Ex lover – An ex is someone you used to be in a relationship with, but are no longer. An ex may have no emotional impact in your life, someone you still have friendly relations with, or someone towards whom you have strong feelings of attachment or contempt. People in monogamous relationships sometimes like to pretend that exes don’t exist, but for some partners, that ex can be as present as their real lover. For example, if your partner is divorced from someone he was married to for more than a decade, that ex is likely to have a lot of presence in your partner’s psyche. Or, if your partner had a recent traumatic breakup with an ex, it can reverberate in your relationship. In some relationships, the ex’s persistence in a partner’s emotional life never goes away. Exes are sometimes the cause of a lot of jealousy and unhappiness in relationships. Acknowledging your partner’s relationship with your ex and finding ways to peacefully coexist with their energetic presence can go a long way towards having a successful relationship with that partner.
Non-Lover – A non-lover is someone who knows that you have strong feelings for them, but they are not willing or able to love you. I had a non-lover for years who I had an off and on relationship with. During the times when we were together, we were real lovers and had a great time. But we had long periods in our relationship (the longest lasting three years) where I loved him passionately but he did not want to be in a relationship with me. I visited his image inside me every day and gave him love in my heart, but I did not express them to him because I respected his decision to pull back from the relationship. During that time I had other relationships but he was as present to me as the real lovers in my life.
Reluctant lover – This lover can be quite frustrating because like the non-lover, they know that you love them, but unlike the non-lover, they give you mixed signals as to whether or not they are interested in you. I once had such a lover who initially exhibited mutual attraction, but once our relationship progressed beyond flirtation, he declared that he didn’t want to be in a relationship with me. But he continued to show interest in being in my company, and once in my company, would fall into my arms and passionately make out with me. The next day he would express his regrets and I wouldn’t see him for weeks, until he came around again and the scenario was repeated. This torturous relationship was put to an end when I moved to another city and we stopped corresponding.
Unrequited lover – When the other person loves you, but you are not sure if you love them or you can’t love them, then you have an unrequited lover. I have such a “friend” who expresses his undying devotion to me every time we talk on the phone, yet I have no interest in being in a romantic relationship with him. He respects my boundaries but my understanding is that he would like more if I was willing and able.
Virtual lover – Usually long distance, a virtual lover is someone you have a romantic relationship with only through phone, internet, or mail. You don’t have a physical relationship with this person but your feelings are mutually acknowledged. Sometimes the virtual lover is virtual because they are not able to have a physical relationship with you. For example if he’s married and his partner does not want him to have other sexual relationships, but you are able to have a emotional, even passionate, relationship with each other through virtual communication.
Fantasy lover – In this scenario, you love this individual but they don’t know that you love them. Sometimes we develop romantic feelings for people that we cannot be in a relationship with and we have to hide our feelings from them. This might be a professional colleague with whom it would be inappropriate to get involved with, a monogamously married person, or even a celebrity or someone who has no idea of your existence. Yet you are powerfully attract to them and you may engage in fantasies of being in a real relationship with them. These lovers can take on a mythical quality as they embody all the ideals that you project onto them and the attachment can last a long time.
Despite the convention that we can and should only romantically love one person at a time, the reality is that we often do love more than one at a time, and those attachments which are not “real” or consummated can be just as important in our lives as attachments that are “real” and mutual. It’s often the case that people who are defined as single have an ex, a non-lover, a reluctant lover, or fantasy lover that are a significant romantic presence in their lives. It is also sometimes the case that a monogamous couple have an ex, a virtual lover, or some other figure other than a real lover who occupies an important place in the relationship. If we acknowledge that all these types of lovers occupy legitimate space in our emotional lives, then polyamory would be less controversial than it is.
Are there other types of lovers who are not real lovers?