What people still don't understand about three-way relationships
Nope, it's not a sex thing.
Almost two years ago, my partner of nine years and I were browsing Feeld, a dating app aimed at people looking for threesomes, when we got chatting to a woman we both really liked. We went on our first date to a cocktail bar in Stoke Newington, north London, hoping that this might turn into a casual and fun relationship -- at that time, we were pretty much just looking for a like-minded sex-positive friend, a 'friend with benefits' I guess most people would call it. Now, we're in what's known as a throuple -- a committed three-person relationship. We've been on several holidays together, attended a wedding as a three, and started to meet each other's parents. Next year, we're planning to move in together.
To us, the relationship is normal. No different to being in a couple -- except instead of two people, we're three. We do everything couples do: we go on dinner dates and out to the movies, lounge around hungover on Saturdays watching Friends, take turns cooking and then disagree on whose turn it is to load the dishwasher.
Our family and friends have all been very open and accepting. But, even some of our most open-minded friends had a lot of questions. That's fair enough; a relationship like ours is far from commonplace, and we're happy to help people understand. But we started to notice patterns in these questions that showed how polyamory is still badly misunderstood. People sometimes ask me if I'm worried that Paul will run off with our new partner, Andrea, having realised he "likes her better". People ask Andrea who her favourite is between myself and Paul. Complete strangers lean in and ask, without thinking for a second that the question might be inappropriate: "So how do you have sex?" These questions either reduce our relationship to a purely sexual one or come back to the idea that two-person monogamy is the only valid choice. People also often assume the relationship has no future, that we're just experimenting or having a fling.
“People sometimes ask me if I'm worried that Paul will run off with our new partner, Andrea, having realised he ‘likes her better’. People ask Andrea who her favourite is between myself and Paul.”
Polyamorous relationships are often thought of as a weird phase or as an extreme lifestyle choice, but for people actually in them, this isn't the case at all. In San Diego, three men in a throuple, Ian, Jeremy, and Alan, recently set a legal precedent by all being named on their children's birth certificates — essentially becoming America's first legal three-father family. Chatting over Zoom, Ian explained that they didn't do it to make a point about polyamory but rather because it was simply the best thing for their family. "We wanted to make sure our children were protected," he says. "For example, if one of us is struck by lightning, we needed to know our inheritance would be protected. When you have kids, you just don't mess around when it comes to this stuff."
Having their relationship legally recognised also makes life easier day to day. Ian explained that on a recent holiday to Mexico, a concerned security person stopped them at the airport. "Of course, it looked odd, three men travelling with two small children. But when I showed the birth certificate and explained, she apologised and said she hoped we weren't offended. Which, of course, we weren't. She was just trying to protect children, as she should."
Although Ian and his family have now made it easier for other polyamorous families to gain full legal recognition (in California at least), speaking to him, it's clear they're not trying to be crusaders for poly visibility and poly rights. They're just three people who are in love and in a committed relationship, doing what they need to do for their family.
Polyamory is partly about working out what you need in a relationship, as Kenneth Play, a sex educator and self-proclaimed sex-hacker, explains from his home in Brooklyn. And because there are fewer social expectations around polyamorous relationships, people in them are free to create their relationship however they want, kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure. "Within polyamory, you can create a relationship that works for you all, where everyone has their individual needs met, while at the same time letting your partner(s) do the same."
“People often struggle to understand the validity and longevity of polyamorous relationships because they break away from the standard of a monogamous couple.”
Kenneth is in what's sometimes called an 'open-ended triad', which means he and someone else are both in a relationship with the same person, but not in a relationship with one another. In fact, in Kenneth's case, he and another man are both engaged to the same woman, having surprised her with a joint proposal at a party. One of the reasons their relationship works is because they created this dynamic looking to the future and thinking carefully about what they each want. Kenneth, for example, explained that he enjoys having his own space and doesn't want to cohabit with a partner, whereas his fiancé and her other partner are happy living together.
"It's partly about personality," Kenneth says, referring to research into open relationships conducted by his fiancé Dr Zhana Vrangalova. "People with different personality traits might need different things from relationships." It's analogous to other areas of life, says Kenneth, like jobs. "Put an extrovert in a basement and make him code all day long, or stick an introvert in a sales job, they're both going to hate it. Likewise with relationships. A very jealous person might find polyamory more difficult, or a person like myself with a high desire for novelty might be able to use polyamory to meet that need."
People often struggle to understand the validity and longevity of polyamorous relationships because they break away from the standard of a monogamous couple. And coupledom is everywhere, in TV shows and movies and magazines and music. Couples have a lot to guide them in their relationships, and monogamy has familiar markers -- things we use to understand whether the relationship is 'going somewhere' -- moving in together, buying a dog, getting married, having kids. Because some of these things aren't available to polyamorous people (although cases like Ian, Jeremy and Alan's are prompting change), people jump to the assumption that our relationships are less real.
But people who question polyamorous relationships sometimes don't consider how monogamy has itself changed. Marriage has been declining steadily since the early 70s, and couples choosing not to have kids is steadily increasing. People in all kinds of relationships are freer now to choose what works for them, and this is what polyamorous people are doing too. When most people think about polyamory, they don't think of it in these terms; they don't picture the boring everyday stuff, the stuff of 'real' relationships; they picture sexy dates in cocktail bars and threesomes that are flatteringly-lit like porn. Either that or a 1970s swingers vibe, perhaps with Louis Theroux in the background looking uncomfortable. But really, poly relationships just aren't that exciting. We squabble about the overfilled bins and what to watch on Netflix too.