Lately I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about triads. How they work, what happens when they don’t, what the possible pitfalls are, how to avoid them (the pitfalls, not the triads).
It seems as though the triad is one of the most talked-about and desired forms of poly, and yet there’s very little written specifically about triad dynamics. Cultural fantasies about threesomes abound, but that’s by no means the same thing; and what little non-fiction I’ve found on the topic is generally a) all about the sex (natch – because the cultural fantasies are about threesomes, not triads – why bother relating to people when you can just use them as real live sex toys?) and b) based on a heterosexual, heteronormative, heterosexist and remarkably homophobic model. Having just read Vicki Vantoch’s The Threesome Handbook: A Practical Guide to Sleeping with Three, which explicitly discusses the specific forms of threesome sex that are best suited to helping you to not have to deal with your homophobia – ! – I’m feeling particularly grouchy on this point.
I realize that much of what I might have to say about triads probably applies to all sorts of other non-monogamous relationships, but I’m choosing to frame this as a triad post anyway. So there.
I’ll also state a couple points up front. First, I don’t see polyamory as needing different types of approaches based on your gender or sexual orientation. So I’m not gonna spend a lot of time on the various ways you can organize the gender balance of a triad relationship in order to best work around whatever your sexual orientation might be, nor do I make any assumptions about people’s desires based on their genital arrangements or gender identity. I do not assume the gender or orientation of any participant. Second, when I say “triad,” I’m talking about an equilateral three-person relationship formation – not a vee, not a vee with occasional threesome sex, but a relationship in which three people all want to be with one another.
With that all in mind, here are a few of the tidbits I’ve picked up within my own triad relationships. I’d love to hear what yours might be! Feel free to comment at the end.
A triad is a four-in-one relationship.
Triads can be born in any number of ways. Sometimes three singles come together. Sometimes a couple takes up with a third for some steamy sex and they all realize they want more than just the Saturday-night kind of fun. Sometimes one member of a couple gets involved with someone, and the vee eventually morphs into three-way love. Sometimes a larger poly formation is whittled down by break-ups and what’s left is three people who are all into each other. Regardless of how a triad forms, but especially if it’s not a spontaneous collision of three solo people, it’s important to keep in mind that each new person you add to the mix changes the terms of the entire equation.
This is most relevant in the “couple plus one” version of triad formation – a common angle into triad, but one that often creates the illusion that somehow the original couple remains unchanged and enduring but with an extra added bonus. But that’s rarely how things actually work. You haven’t just added a third person to a pair; you’ve created three new relationships on top of the one pair dynamic you already had. You’ve got person A’s relationship with the new person, person B’s relationship with the new person, and the relationship that happens with the three of you all together.
This whole process cannot help but change who person A and person B are to each other. If it doesn’t, what’s the point? I’d be quite baffled to see anyone engage in a serious love relationship with a new person and not allow that relationship to change them even a little bit – I’d wonder what they were resisting, or why they were being so rigid. Relationships change us. That’s just what they do. So the original pair, if there is one, should expect that and communicate about it accordingly.
Invest in every pair.
To jump off this point, I’d add that each dyad within the triad needs care, or imbalance shall follow. If this imbalance is voluntary – if the type of triad relationship that works for you is not equilateral – that’s cool, but you better put it on the table so everyone’s got matching expectations. Care, in this context, means that you don’t get so wrapped up in your triad that you forget to spend quality time nurturing the relationships you have with each individual person. Triads can be intoxicating – the classic “new relationship energy” is exponentially multiplied, and that multiplication can last way past what we traditionally understand to be the NRE period (or “honeymoon phase” for the layperson). If you can’t remember the last time you had a one-on-one date, chances are you’re coasting on the triad energy but neglecting two dyads.
A key piece of this is to make sure that each dyad is actually communicating. Don’t assume that if you mention something to one person, it gets magically conveyed to the third. Even if that happens and works well at first, it means you’re placing a double burden of communication on one person, a strategy which is bound to occasionally fail (hey, communicating well in just one relationship is challenging enough!), and it means you’re essentially relegating the third person to the last on the priority chain of information-sharing. Even if you end up repeating yourself on occasion, better to err in that direction than make someone feel like they’re always finding things out after the first two, or like you couldn’t be bothered to tell them something directly. Create strategies that work for you. (Hint: Everyone has a different relationship to communication methods like Facebook, text messages, Twitter, cell phones, Skype, e-mail, handwritten notes, and – gasp! – real live in-person talking. Come up with a mix that works with everyone’s individualized relationship to technology, time and location.)
And don’t forget about yourself in the process.
With all this relationship-nurturing time, it’s all the more essential to keep your wits about you and remember that sometimes you need some solitude, too. Spending time on your own, whether that means alone or with friends or colleagues who are not your lovers, is an opportunity to breathe, integrate, let everything settle, and remember who you are when you’re not in the company of one or more people who want to get in your pants. Hey, those two hotties like you for a reason: because you’re you. So make sure you keep on being you. This means that, despite the time demands of triad relationship, it’s crucial that you refrain from dropping all your hobbies and friends and travel plans. Don’t let your entire existence get wrapped into your relationship. Do the “you” things you’ve always done, just do them with a bigger grin on your face.
Inclusion is a good thing.
Especially if you started out with a couple-plus-one situation, or any other situation in which two members of the triad know each other better or have been in each other’s lives longer than the third member, it’s a good idea to bear in mind the discrepancies in relationship history between each dyad and make communication choices accordingly. So, for example, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to reminisce about that awesome vacation the original couple had three years ago, but if you’re gonna do that, you might want to bring out the photos and make an evening of showing them to the newer member of the triad in a way that creates connection rather than making them feel excluded.
While you’re at it, let that be a good way to start the conversation about the fabulous things you’d like to do à trois. Likewise, use your existing in-jokes and habits become pathways for new intimacies with a new person, rather than turning them into shorthand for territoriality over a shared past. This isn’t about denying or downplaying history; it’s about making sure that history is not used for the purposes of exclusion or one-upmanship – especially since that can happen unintentionally.
Communicate about sex.
In addition to your in-depth safer-sex discussion, you’ll also want to figure out how to have sex in ways that work best for you. Threesome sex is totally hot, but it also presents a unique set of challenges, and I’m not just talking about where to put all the arms and legs. The way that you connect sexually with one person might look really different from the way you connect sexually with another. Maybe one of them calls out your toppy side whereas the other makes you yearn to bottom. Maybe the energy with one of them is all about soulful, sweet, eye-gazing sex, and with the other it’s about playful, silly fun, or intense down-and-dirty fucking. Put these two lovers in the same room, and then what? It can be awesome but it can be really confusing, too. Worse, the sexual energy is often so high that you all expect it to go swimmingly – you can’t wait to tear each other’s clothes off, so clearly all is right with the world, right?
That sexual high can carry you through a few moments where the discrepancies begin to show, but it’s wise to put ‘em on the table when you start to notice them, and talk about what you can do to make sure things stay hot and that sex doesn’t become a highly charged site of conflict. Keep in mind that your sex doesn’t have to look the same every time, either; it’s the overall balance that needs to be maintained. So if person A loves person B for their hot sexy aggressive toppishness, but person B melts into a puddle of kittenish submission every time person C is in the room, negotiate how person A can engage with person B when he or she is in bottom space, or how person C can encourage or support person A’s top energy, so that everyone has their favourite kind of fun at least some of the time, along with plenty of opportunities to stretch into new places too.
Hell, communicate about everything.
Sex is one place where this kind of communication is essential, but it’s a good plan to put things on the table in a really up-front way elsewhere too. Lay out your jealousies, insecurities, triggers and fears in as matter-of-fact a way as you know how, and don’t be shy about it. Are you worried that your partner’s going to leave you for your hot new lover? Say so. Often, just naming it makes it a lot less scary, and gives your partners an opportunity to reassure you and figure out how they can send messages that will counteract the scary ones in your head. This extends to other places too – if you hate the way the new partner acts as though they’re a guest in your home when you really want them to behave like family, if you aren’t sure whether asking them about meeting their parents is okay, if you secretly wonder if maybe they’re just using you to get to your honey – seriously, just open your mouth and say it. All the better if you can preface it with something like “I know this is just my fear talking, but…” or “It’s not that I actually think you would do this to me, but…” so they know you are acknowledging that you’re just trying to air out the bad stuff that might otherwise fester in your head, and that you don’t necessarily believe your mind’s scary stories.
And on top of that, communicate about how you communicate.
Yeah, I know, are we seeing a theme here? You bet. I’m not saying you should spend your whole life processing shit, but especially at the beginning, it’s often wise to expect a fair bit of calibration work as you figure out what your triad is going to look like. One of the biggest challenges in any relationship is figuring out how to mesh communication styles. This is exponentially harder in a triad situation, given the whole four-in-one relationship thing. Differing approaches to communication can cause major complications. It helps to lay out the nature of those differences so you can figure out how to predict your snarls and strategize about how best to deal with them. There’s nothing like a third viewpoint to shine a bright light on the spots where an existing couple was already having trouble – and there’s nothing like having two people point out the same problem to make it real clear that something needs to be addressed!
Communication styles can vary based on a variety of factors. Think about things like how the time of day, day of the week, the type and degree of stress you’re each facing, illness or pain levels, presence or absence of kids, menstrual cycle, time of the year, weather, how much sleep you’ve had, and any number of other factors influence your moods, feelings and how you interpret what’s going on in the world around you. Then think about your typical communication approach, and how it intersects with all those factors. Match that up with the same set of considerations for your partners, and see how best to deal with the discrepancies or take advantage of places of confluence.
For example, if person A and person C are both morning people, perhaps they might like to hash out the plans for the week at 9 a.m., and present a synopsis to person B when he wakes up at 11 – rather than impatiently waiting, or dragging person B out of a deep sleep to look at the calendar. If B and C both get really grouchy if they’re hungry, then save the deep relationship processing conversation for the tea-and-dessert portion of the evening rather than trying to hash anything out while you’re cooking dinner together.
On top of situational factors, make allowances for each other’s baseline styles and preferences – if person B likes to spend a couple of days thinking things through before a big conversation, you might want to give them more warning than you would person C, who might just spend those two days fretting and feeling more and more upset. If you can each learn each other’s styles and are each willing to adapt your own to the greatest extent possible, you’ll stretch your own skills and make the most of your points in common.
Make sure you’re all having the same triad together.
Don’t assume that because you’re in a triad, you somehow magically all come to it with an identical understanding of what that triad is all about, or what non-monogamy is about in general. What are your individual approaches to relationships? What are your experience levels in poly, and what forms have your past non-monogamous relationships taken? What assumptions are you bringing into the triad about what “treating someone well” or “respect” or “love” or even “sex” mean? How do you each feel about the big issues – money, time, family, domestic arrangements and so forth? How do you each feel about extra-triadic relationships? To be sure, a triad can be time-consuming, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never have opportunities for some nooky on the side – so what’s okay and what’s not? Is there room for any of you to have other significant relationships outside the triad, or just for fun? (Note that this may not be about your emotional or philosophical preference, but simply about how many hours you have in a day.) What about long-distance relationships, or travel flings, or SM-based relationships, or fucking each other’s exes? Of course, these are conversations that may come up as time goes on, rather than in the first couple of months of your triad’s existence, but they’re worth thinking about along the way. Sometimes jealousy and a sense of fear or threat can come from surprising places, but reassurance and repair can also come from unexpected angles.
Do good PR.
It is an unfortunate reality that many people, when faced with a triad, will immediately start trying to figure out who the “real couple” is and who the “extra” is. Or they’ll sniff for signs that the “extra” is actually simply in line to be the next monogamous partner to the person from the original couple (if such a thing exists) to whom they are “clearly” more attracted. Or any number of other rotten assumptions. Add ‘em all together, and it sometimes seems like the world is jealous of all the fun you’re having and really just wants to dig into the chinks in your armour so they can precipitate your inevitable downfall into the land of the single/monogamous/miserable.
The world’s unfortunate tendency to tear down non-monogamous happiness can be exacerbated by any element of your situation that might seem unusual or lend itself easily to that sort of misinterpretation. If there’s an imbalance in longevity (a long-term couple with a new addition), distance (one person lives out of town or further away or even simply not in the same dwelling as the other two), age, financial situation, perceived attractiveness, amount of time spent together, and so forth, people will often seize on that as a sure sign that things are going to go down the tubes.
So it’s a great idea to talk about what words you want to use for each other, and a succinct but clear way to describe what you are to others who might not be in the loop. “We’re trying out this crazy triad thing, who knows if it’ll last but we’re all committing to be kind to each other if we ever break up!” “Person A is my partner, Person B is my lover, and they are husband and wife to each other.” “We’re a polyfidelitous triad and we’re planning a three-way Wiccan handfasting ceremony for next year.” And so on, and so forth.
And with all the world’s crap in mind, it’s worth figuring out a good PR message to give to people who get nosy and rude so they’ll shuddup and leave you alone. “Person A and I are still very much in love, and we both feel incredibly lucky that Person C finds us both as attractive as we find one another!” “I know I’m the new one in this situation, but I feel like their stability as a couple is an amazing place from which to start a triad relationship, and we’re building this together.” And so forth. Of course you need to personalize to your situation, but it’s worth talking about how to best do that in ways that suit everyone. It can be awfully awkward to realize you’re giving conflicting messages to the same friends about what’s going on, for instance.
And last but not least, those dang wedding invitations.
You know the ones. The ones that say “and guest” rather than “and guests.” Or the show your parents take you to every summer, with the two pairs of seats they reserve weeks in advance. Or any number of other social situations that are built, to greater or lesser degrees of deliberateness, around the social institution of The Couple. But not The Single or The Solo or The Triad.
Somewhere along the line, awkward conversations must happen. It’s up to you to decide how important it is that Aunt Mavis invite Person C to her annual bridge tournament brunch along with you and Person A. But unless you’re a hermit, eventually, something will come up where you’ll have to say the equivalent of, “And I/we’d really like to bring Person B as well. Is that okay with you?” Figure out how far you want to go in accommodating the rest of the world’s unhealthy obsession with matched pairs versus making the rest of the world accommodate your awesome but unusual relationship formation. You might want to offer to kick in the cost of that extra theatre ticket, and split the bill between the three of you, rather than asking Mom and Dad to buy three. Or you might want to say to your cousin and her fiancee, with confidence and firmth, “I assume that if you love me and want me to share in your special day, that you will welcome my two partners with open arms just like you do me. Am I wrong about that?”
Really, you can tailor your approach to the situation. The truly progressive friend or family member will discreetly ask your brother for your new partner’s full name and send the bloody wedding invitation to all three of you by name, no “and guest” at all, but such wonderful demonstrations of courtesy are as yet few and far between if you’re interacting with mainstream society. Expect a similar level of weirdness when dealing with things like couple discounts at the gym, consent forms, wills and so forth. Figure out how to roll with it.
Over to you.
Gimme more. What are your triad tips? I wanna know!