December 28, 2014
From a Couple to a Thrupple
Q: My husband and I have been together for eleven years. We were monogamous for three years, and then we transitioned to an open relationship, which has worked well for us. Now we’re trying something new. We’ve been dating a third guy for the last six months, and we’re all deeply in love with each other. My husband and I are seriously considering inviting him to move into our home and form a “thrupple” with us. We’re both a little scared about taking this step. We’re comfortable with an open relationship, but polyamory is unexplored territory for us. Some of my friends have given me dire warnings that this will destroy our marriage. Do you think this kind of arrangement can work in the long run?
A: The short answer is that every conceivable kind of relationship works for someone. While openly polyamorous relationships are relatively rare in our culture, some research suggests that private polyamorous arrangements within relationships are not all that uncommon. By some estimates, there are now roughly a half million polyamorous relationships in the U.S. Some sex researchers put the number even higher, at 4 to 5 percent of all adults, or 10 to 12 million people. In one survey of 3,574 married couples, for instance, 15-28% had an understanding that allows nonmonogamy under some circumstances. The percentages were higher among cohabitating couples (28%), lesbian couples (29%) and gay male couples (65%). As usual, it is the lesbian and gay couples who were found to be the most open to exploring non-traditional arrangements.
There is some research on who can make sexual non-exclusivity work in relationships. In one study, the kind of person most able to thrive in nonmonogamy was described as “individualistic, an academic achiever, creative, nonconforming, stimulated by complexity and chaos, inventive, relatively unconventional and indifferent to what others said, concerned about his/her own personal values and ethical systems, and willing to take risks to explore possibilities." Another important character trait that advocates of polyamory often mention is the capacity for compersion, the ability to delight in the sexual/romantic joy that your partner experiences with another. Compersion is, in a sense, the opposite of jealousy, which is the dread that your partner’s happiness with another entails loss for you.
But can your specific arrangement work for you? I’m acquainted with several thrupples who seem to be able to make it work, including one trio who have been together for over sixteen years. But I should add that I’ve also known four gay male thrupples in the past few years which ended disastrously for all involved. My impression, based on my admittedly limited experience, is that one reason was that the parties involved weren’t prepared for the many challenges that such a relationship presents. They formed their relationships naively expecting boundless sexual and romantic pleasure, only to find that maintaining the relationship was constant work. “It was polyagony,” one man told me. “We spent all our time processing.”
Maintaining any intimate relationship requires empathy and skill in communicating, and the more parties there are in the relationship, the more interpersonal challenges there are likely to be, which means that maintaining it will demand rigorous honesty and interpersonal sensitivity; skill in expressing feelings; a commitment to listen attentively; an aptitude for negotiating agreements among conflicting parties; and a high capacity to tolerate differences in your partners’ character and temperaments. My impression is that people who are successful in thrupples don’t think of the experience of communication in their relationships as some kind of unpleasant but necessary chore, but rather find it inherently enjoyable, and derive personal satisfaction from working through difficulties and misunderstandings.
On another note: one difficulty you may face if you go forward and become a trio is that there is still a lot of stigma about polyamory. Even among your friends, you may find that, when difficulties arise in your relationship, some may assume that the thrupple itself is the cause, rather than the inevitable issues that arise in any relationship. For that reason, it might be helpful to seek out support from others in the polyamory community by doing a search for polyamory support groups in your area. One place to begin might be the polyamory.com forum. Good luck!
© Tom Moon, 2015