The Elusive Three-Way Relationship: How to Avoid F*cking It Up

Two mojitos into a night out, a friend turned to me, eyes shining. “What if I’m falling in love with two people at the same time?” she asked, her fingers digging into my arm. “Does that make me polyamorous? I don’t know how to do that.”

In confessing to me, the only person she knew that has first-hand experience with the scarcely talked-about world of polyamory, she was searching for reassurance. It broke my heart – because at the time, I couldn’t give it to her.

Back then, I was part of a throuple (a three-way relationship) and it failed. We f*cked it up spectacularly, all three of us left hurt and reeling in the aftermath of our own foolish mistakes. I endured a long, painful grieving period, and then began the process of determining what went wrong. I saw each conversation we had, each hurtful action, each buried feeling; I started to realise how, if I could go back, I would be able to steer us clear of the worst rocks we hit head-on.

Perhaps if I’d known then what I know now, after years of reflection and experience, I could still call my past poly lovers my friends. Instead, I will share my follies with the readers of Autostraddle, along with all that they taught me, and provide a cohesive guide to the three-way relationship, and how not to fuck it up.

Clarify What You Want

Before prowling the dating sites, or calling up two of your closest, open-minded pals, take a breath to consider what exactly it is you want from a poly relationship. If you’re just looking for a bit of fun, it might be better to find some strangers for a one-time fling. That way, feelings are pretty much out of the mix, so nobody gets hurt.

If, however, you are interested in a long-term relationship with two or more other people, you’ll need to pick and choose with more care. The most frequent transitions into polyamory are when a couple decide to experiment with a third partner. Perhaps you and your boyfriend or girlfriend have discussed this, and you’re ready to start looking for this person. Or perhaps you are single, and are waiting for a couple to find you. In the world of polyamory, there is a word for this:

A Unicorn.

The Myth of the Unicorn

The unicorn is a rare and mystical creature that gallops solo through the plains of dating apps or discreet nightclubs. The unicorn is open-minded and sexually liberated enough that when an established couple extend a hook-up offer, their response is a resounding ‘yes’. The unicorn is fun, breezy, independent, and eager to please; they are the perfect third to introduce to a party of two, even if it’s just for one night.

From the perspective of the couple, the unicorn is the ideal solution to any lingering desires for experimentation outside of one another. The unicorn is a beautiful, unattached, inherently sexual being, whose only desire is to please their partners before being released back into the wild, possibly to be called back again at a later date for another round of uncomplicated fun.

Here is the problem: unicorns do not actually exist. At least, not as this two-dimensional fantasy. Certainly, there are those women who identify themselves as such, that search for one-off trysts with couples and thrive on being the elusive, unobtainable other. But this is as far as the concept goes; sex can be exciting and impulsive if it is just sex, but open it up to more than that, and the unicorn becomes a human being, with emotions and wants just like you.

Once upon a time, I was a unicorn myself – freshly single and thusly open to new experiences, and openly bisexual to boot, which made me irresistible to a couple on the brink of collapse. I ignored my own wants in order to indulge theirs, because at first it was exciting to be idealised, to be chased and wanted. Inevitably, I wound up unfulfilled, neglected, and heartbroken.

The couple I joined were a man and a woman – he keen to see some girl-on-girl action and fool around with someone new, she longing for her first lesbian experience. Living in the same apartment, slowly inching our way from ‘blowbacks’ to full-on kisses, we developed our close triad of friendship into throuple-dom. And for a few months, everything was perfect.

You Won’t Love Both People The Same Way

Here’s the thing: I loved them both. But my love for one was nothing like my love for the other. My bond with the man was based on mutual interests, a clicking sense of humour, a shared love of Film Noir. With her, it was about intense physical attraction, feminine softness, the intoxicating sensation of showing her what it was like to be with the same sex.

In their eyes, my affections seemed imbalanced. The way I behaved with each of them was entirely different, and therefore they assumed I was demonstrating a preference for the other. They competed for my time and affection, and began to argue about it constantly.

If I could do it over, I would explain myself to them both. I would tell them the parts that attracted me to them as individuals, and make sure they understood that although my attractions were different, they were equal.

Honesty & Communication

In any romantic partnership, the core fundamentals should be open communication, and total honesty. This is the only way to establish trust amongst all participants; it is particularly important to be open and communicative when there are more than two people involved.

How do I know this? You guessed it. Because I was not open, I was not communicative, and it was terrible.

For them, I was an island to escape to when their frustrations with their long-term partner swelled to unbearable levels. Because there were no rules in place, trips taken to my island were secretive, hidden from the other, lied about when we were all together. Looking back at us now, sneaking around one another to avoid hurt feelings, I despair over our naivety. I want to shake our former selves by the shoulders and ask us what on earth we were thinking would happen, and how omitting the truth could ever create a steady foundation for a relationship to balance on.

Since my experience, I have spoken with other throuples, and read helpful accounts from people in successful three-way-relationships. All of them stress that the most vital thing is to make sure everyone is always on the same page, that all of you are happy with the inter-workings of the relationship, and that everyone feels they can share whatever they are feeling.

‘All the books I read said jealousy was wrong, the emotion of the monogamous unenlightened. Something we poly people should transcend. And yet I wasn’t transcending jealousy. I wasn’t enlightened at all.’Jeff Leavell, HuffPost

It’s all very well to say that jealousy is ‘ugly’ and you should avoid it, but you’re only human, and so are your partners. Jealousy is a natural emotion, and often arises without you wanting it to. So bare your honest thoughts, share how you truly feel with your partners, and find a way through it together.

If I could paint a perfect picture of how it should have looked for us, it would be this: all three of us, sat as we so loved to do, around our kitchen table when we should have been sleeping, our windows flung open and swathed in blankets, drinking wine and telling each other, right from the start, what we each wanted from this journey we were about to undertake. I would have loved to know, before it was too late to change my mind, how unstable they were as a couple, how without my sudden appearance in their lives, they might have broken things off long before. I wish I had summoned the confidence to express my confusion over the vastly different types of love I had for both of them. I wish we had all been cleverer, had encouraged open communication, so none of us felt we had to hide, or were ever feeling we were doing something wrong.

Know When It’s Not Working

My final speck of advice before you gallivant off on your polyamorous adventure is to keep watch for signs of collapse, so that you can avoid total destruction. Nobody embarks on a new relationship thinking about the end, but I still advise caution, only so you can protect yourself from an enormous mountain of pain.

A wonderful part of the poly lifestyle is connecting with multiple people at once, sexually and emotionally. In non-monogamous relationships, you are able to build several intimate bonds around yourself that act as a fortress of safety and love. Unfortunately, however, this often means that a poly break-up can be a lonely and isolating experience. When three or more partners break up, at least double the ties are severed as there would be in a typical two-person split. This is often worsened by the non-understanding of your other support systems, such as parents or friends. If they don’t ‘get’ your poly relationship in the first place, they lack the ability to properly help you through the pain of it ending. So be wise to the warning signs – the jealousy, the secrecy, the lack of effort from one or more people.

Above all else, however, go in with an open, loving, generous heart. Be clear about what you want, and find out what the other parties expect from you. Be respectful, be kind, and take care of the precious, unique bond that brought you all together.

You can follow Raid on Twitter to read more about her explorations of modern romance as a wlw. Raid also runs a feminist horror review blog, where you can read her unflinching critical commentary of the often misogynistic genre.

Raid has written 2 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. Good stuff! However, there’s some unnecessary gendered language in here – “you and your girlfriend or boyfriend”, unicorns referred to as women – and I think a second look and a few edits would make it more accessible and less jarring those who are non-binary or in a relationship with a lovely non-binary person. Thanks for the great tips!

  2. I had this same experience but as a gay throuple. I was with the same person for almost a decade before he mentioned bringing in another guy that we had recently met. I jumped on the idea quickly, not because I identified as poly or even liked the other guy, but because I was already tired of my relationship and just didn’t have the balls to end it. I was happy to enter a throuple if it meant less time with my original lover. Problem was, the other guy seemed to prefer me over my boyfriend and my boyfriend took notice. He started a time log of how much time I spent with the third person and demanded that at the end of each week he had equal time with the third person, not even caring if he had time with me LOL. It got toxic really fast and I ended the relationship and the third person left also, no one came out a winner. Nice article. I can relate to your experience.

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