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July 2, 2009

Three’s Company

This is an article I wrote originally published in Frontiers Newsmagazine in 2001 for their Valentine’s Day issue. Since the article was published many years ago, I’ve changed the names of the people interviewed should they no longer want to be identified.

Every Valentine’s Day couples around the world celebrate their love for each other. Flowers and candy are exchanged. Intimate dinners are arranged. Romance is in the air. But some of the relationships that celebrate on the day of love don’t fit the usual image we have of such relationships. More and more often these days an amorous alliance might be comprised of three people rather than two.

Three-way relationships (often called “triads”) are a subset of the larger category of partnerings described by the term polyamory. Polyamory means “many loves” and a polyamorous person may have more than one person that he or she considers their romantic and/or life partner. The philosophy of polyamory sees love as defined only by the parameters we choose as individuals and not by the conventional dictates of society.

While it is certain that such relationships have existed throughout time, anecdotal evidence suggests that triads are becoming more common. Or perhaps the time has simply come for such partnerings to come out of the closet. One psychotherapist with a large gay practice believes triads are becoming more common. “I’m not sure why, but I’ve seen an increasing number of three-way relationships coming into my office over the last few years.” He had no explanation for this phenomenon, but he said the significant numbers of triads seeking his counsel did suggest, at least to him, that an actual trend was presenting itself.

At the same time that triads are proliferating, support and social organizations are popping up to meet their needs. Most of these organizations target men and women with a more heterosexual bent to their sexuality, but some groups are catering directly to the needs of gays and lesbians. One such organization is Polyamorous NYC. Polyamorous NYC is a New York-based organization for individuals, couples, and groups of all orientations and genders to come together socially to discuss their shared interest in long-term, romantically committed, multiple-partner relationships.

Apart from the growing number of organizations that hold gatherings where like-minded people can meet and talk, the Internet has proven to be a key factor in the growth of the polyamory movement. There are now approximately 250 web sites that, in one form or another, address these issues. Enter the keyword of “polyamory” in any Internet search engine and you’ll see a long list of sites dedicated to furthering the cause of polyamory.

Triad relationships present some unique challenges. The dynamics can be more complicated than those of a couple. Bob, who is partnered with Jack and Erik, highlights one of the reasons for the increased complexity. “Everything that is true about a one-on-one relationship is present in a triad, but it is represented by four distinct relationships instead of just one. In a couple there is you and the other person. In a triad there is you and one, you and the other, the other two, and the three together. Four completely different relationships inter-related and dependant on the others to function.”

Michael, a psychologist, agrees that triads can be more complex. “Triads are similar to couple relationships in that they do contain couple relationships, three in fact, and when the individuals interact on a dyad basis many of the same issues come up as do for couples. Triads are different in that the relationships are much more complicated due to the added person; there are more issues to work out.” Another psychotherapist echoes Michael’s sentiments. “They are more complicated for numerous reasons including that you are dealing with three individuals’ psyches rather than two, and the dynamics between each person and the two others, as well as the triad as a whole.”

In spite of the increased complexity, all of the men interviewed for this article agreed that there were definite benefits too. Interestingly, one of the benefits they point out is security. When one partner is not available emotionally or physically, there is always a third person to turn to for support. It is no longer necessary to rely entirely on one person for all of your needs. Bob points out, “Although there is the heightened opportunity for conflict, there is also another set of eyes and ears to help and understand what the basis of conflict truly is. So often in a traditional couple the partners become so overwhelmed by what they ‘think’ the problems are that they do not take the extra effort to really look deep inside and see what might be the true underlying problem.” He adds, “The feeling of security with two, amazing men lying on either side of you when you are feeling weak or vulnerable is unmatched by anything that I can think of. Wrapped in their warmth and love keeping the world away. I am not sure that I can ever be one-of-two again.”

While those in triads generally extol their virtues, they do offer some advice to anyone considering such a relationship. “Make sure that you are willing to look at your issues,” says Jack. “I think the third, just coming in and joining a couple that have been together for awhile, needs to make sure he can deal with the history, and the baggage, that a long term relationship has.” Jim, who is partnered with Phil and Carl, also has some advice. “Be very careful that you are already in a secure relationship. Don’t do it as a way to “fix” a failing relationship. If either of you [in the original couple relationship] have a tendency to jealousy or insecurity, or have a hard time communicating feelings, don’t do it.” A psychotherapist who has worked with polyamorous clients agrees. “If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of another. If the couple can’t take care of itself, they can’t take care of another. If any one among the three individuals (or more) can’t take care of themselves, the relationship can’t take care of them, nor can they take care of the relationship.” Bill, who is partnered with Larry and Neil, also advises, “Jealousy can be a big issue if someone is a jealous person, not a good choice for a relationship style. You have to be very open.”

Some triads seek out counseling to deal with the challenges of their relationship. But when doing so, triads have to be careful not to fall into a trap. Bob explains. “Communication, open and meaningful, between all involved is critical. Having a place of free communication, such as with a therapist, is the key to working through the difficulties. Keep in mind, however, that therapists have learned everything that society teaches as well, so their understanding of a triad may actually be less than yours because you have more experience with it. Use them [therapists] to listen and to create a safe place to communicate, but remember their perspective most likely is from a traditional standpoint.”

Internal issues are important, but there are other, practical issues to be dealt with. When one psychotherapist counsels triads, he has them consider other important decisions to be made. What about sex outside of the relationship, if any? How will you ensure legal protections for all involved? Will you all live together or not? If you are living together, will you all share a bedroom or have separate bedrooms? How can you be sure to strike the right balance of togetherness and autonomy? These are just some of the practical issues to be considered.

In most cases it appears that triads are formed by an existing couple expanding their relationship to include a third person. Jim and Phil were a couple when they met their partner Carl. Jim and Phil were each seeing men outside of the relationship when Jim met Carl and introduced him to Phil. Love bloomed amongst the three men and the trio has been together for more than five years. Larry and Neil were attending a gay charity event where they met Bill. Again love bloomed and they’ve been a triad for the past year. Jack and Bob were initially play buddies, but soon they found themselves spending more time together and they began to fall in love. They had not expected this outcome, but luckily when Erik, Jack’s partner, met Bob he began to fall in love too and they decided to take a shot at establishing a triad relationship. They’ve been together a year now.

So while couples are celebrating Valentine’s Day, may triads celebrate their own, unique relationships that are formed outside of society’s norms. But these folks wouldn’t change it for anything. As Phil, Jim and Carl put it, “It’s the most fun in the world!”

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