Jim and John, New Yorkers in their mid-thirties, recently celebrated their 10-year anniversary. They met in 2005 an AOL chatroom — Queens M4M — and quickly hit it off. To celebrate a decade of commitment, the two exchanged rings last year. During the private exchange, Jim and John also gave a ring to their partner, Thomas, whom the couple began dating two years ago after meeting on Scruff, a popular app for gay men to connect. “We didn’t want him to feel left out,” John explained.
Decades ago, such a ceremony might have seemed unthinkable. However, the practice of polyamory — among both queer and heterosexual populations — has become more visible in recent years. In 1997, Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt penned The Ethical Slut, a landmark manual for those trying to navigate non-monogamy. Seventeen years later, estimates from Psychology Today suggested that between 1.2 million and 2.4 million Americans are engaged in poly arrangements, meaning that they have more than one romantic or sexual partner at a time.
But aside from books like The Ethical Slut or Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert’s More Than Two, the resources for people in relationships like John, Jim, and Thomas’s remain few and far between. BuzzFeed talked to poly folks about what makes their relationships work — and what they would recommend for others willing to give triads a shot.
Jim, John, and Thomas live in the Rockaways, the peninsula located at the southern tip of Queens. Jim and John’s two-story house looks more like somewhere my grandmother might call home — dressed in decorative pillows and tchotchkes for the impending Christmas celebration. The trio have built a life together that can appropriately be described as “wholesome.” John, 33, is a librarian, while Jim, 39, is employed at a local Duane Reade, and they ride the train together to work each morning.
In 2014, they met Thomas, 21, a Brooklyn native who is working as a cook while he gets his degree, and in the time since, they’ve spent almost every day — or every other day — with him. Thomas lives in Bergen Beach but spends time in between his apartment and the home Jim and John share (which is an hour commute via public transit). John mentioned that negotiating that imbalance, where two partners live together and the other does not, has made it important to make Thomas feel welcome from day one. “I never want him to feel like it’s two against one,” John said.
All three of them grew up in the city, enough to know that life, like the city’s ever-shifting neighborhoods, changes. Restaurants come and go, your favorite independent café becomes a high-rise, and friends move to other cities. But bringing Thomas into their relationship has provided unexpected stability, giving them an equilibrium that they otherwise lacked. “Thomas really balances both of us,” John said.
Each of them fills a different role in the relationship: John is the most outgoing one, the person the group relies on when they need to call to order a pizza. Thomas is more inclined to go with the flow, someone comfortable with staying on the couch and doing nothing. Jim is the decider, the one most likely to be a definitive vote when opinion is split.
If communication is an essential part of any healthy relationship, that’s especially true in triads, when you have to navigate three different sets of desires, needs, and expectations.
According to Anna, 32, poly folks are forced practice conflict resolution in a way that many couples do not. “[Communication] is not something you’re born with,” she said. “It’s a skill— like riding a bike. They’re forced to develop it, because they’re forced to talk about all these problems that you wouldn’t even think about in other relationship configurations. You don’t take anything for granted.”
When I asked how John, Jim, and Thomas ensure honest and open communication among the three of them, they all were quick to respond — at the exact same time: “group texts!” They also agreed that having a third person around to hash out issues can actually be a boon to communication. “When you’re in a one-on-one relationship, you always think you’re right,” John said. “In a group, there’s always someone to be the voice of reason.” According to John, the issue in many dyads (two-person relationships) is that it’s “me against them, them against me.”
“You sometimes need the mediator,” he continued. “‘Traditional’ couples might end up in therapy because they don’t have that other person coming in.”
But whether or not you’re in a poly arrangement, Anna believes that communication is the “number-one key to any relationship.” She said, “Ninety percent of questions in a relationship are answered by talking to your partner. If you can’t talk about what’s upsetting you or making you happy, it’s hard to connect in ways that make relationships work.”
For Billy, Danny, and Dominic, the biggest issue wasn’t communication but scheduling, including negotiating their varying schedules. Billy, 21, met Dominic, 28, last summer, shortly before reconnecting with Danny, 23, an old love interest with whom he had lost contact. After scheduling a date with Danny, Billy called it off — confessing that he and Dominic were in a relationship. Danny proposed a solution: What about polyamory?
But the reality of that arrangement proved even more complicated in the early weeks of the relationship. “At that time I was working two jobs and was really busy and lived 40 minutes from Dom,” Billy said. “Danny lived even further away. I would get jealous because they would get to spend most of a weekend together, whereas I might only get to see them for one evening.”
To ease the burden of their differing schedules, Danny, Dom, and Billy recently decided to move in together, signing the lease for a two-bedroom last December. That extra room ended up coming in handy, simply because fitting three people in the same bed can be surprisingly difficult. “When we first moved in together we all shared one bed,” Billy said. “Dom is very broad because he’s always in the gym, so after a while we spread out over two rooms.” According to Billy, they try to trade off nights in the third bedroom to be equitable.
Billy explained that making time together has remained a challenge for their relationship. “We do have to plan things quite far in advance to make sure we can all get the time off,” he said.
According to Kari David, 28, the issue is that triads aren’t just a matter of coordinating three peoples’ calendars. You have to worry about three partners with potentially very different schedules.
“There’s more logistical concerns: It really is a balancing of four relationships, not just one,” he said. “All four need time (although not necessarily equal time) and care, and that’s a lot to schedule and keep track of. When it’s going well, it can work really nicely, but it’s definitely a bigger commitment.”
If relationships in general can be time-consuming, poly arrangements have the potential to be even more so. That’s why Kari David, who identifies as nonbinary and uses male pronouns, strongly advocates the use of Google Calendar to keep track of appointments. “It’s necessary to be aware that you are going to want one-on-one time with each partner (and them with each other), in addition to the time all three of you spend together,” he said.
In addition to communication and scheduling, a common problem in poly relationships is negotiating jealousy. “Triads can definitely amplify relationship problems,” Kari David said. In one of his relationships — the less successful one — each of his partners would come to him to vent about the other’s perceived faults, instead of addressing the complaint directly. That might have eased tension in the short term, but it rarely solved anything.
“It was really hard for all of us to figure out how to have boundaries when we were all so intimate with each other, but not equally suited to one another or all equally involved in every conflict,” he said.
But in good triads, forcing each partner to be more mindful about how they interact with each other can strengthen the relationship. According to Kari David, the “biggest lesson” he has learned from engaging in polyamory is “not to make assumptions and to negotiate things explicitly”: “Even if two people luck out and are on the same page, the third is likely to want something different,” he said.
Amanda, 34, agreed — arguing that it all comes down to consent. As she explained, it’s important to “[make] sure that you don’t take your partner’s consent … for granted.” She continued, “Understand that your relationship is a living thing, and that it will change, and have a degree of understanding and flexibility when confronted with that reality.”
Polyamory often involves a lot of trial and error — trying things that don’t work and being open to to the fact that you might be afraid of life outside monogamy. “Sometimes we have reactions that are more societal than personal and it’s worth giving yourself a minute to parse through that,” Amanda said. “Some of my first encounters with polyamory involved cheating, and it took me a while to figure out that I hated lying much more than I hated my partner sleeping with someone else.”
As Amanda explained, it can be difficult to deal with the pervasive stigma around poly relationships. But what’s so great about them is that you get to reflect on those societal pressures and define the terms of your relationships for yourself. How you love and whom you love is up to you. “You learn that you can change the rules and do things in a way that feels good to you, even if it’s not the way you grew up being taught relationships work,” Amanda said.
While John explained that he’s “learned a lot more patience” through dating Jim and Thomas, he felt that what has made their triad work is that it’s a democracy. “It’s majority rules — what works best for the most amount of people,” John said. “This wouldn’t work if we were all extremely stubborn. Because you know that, in the long run, you need to think about someone other than yourself.”
When you’re dealing with three partners, John explained that it’s incredibly important “to make sure everyone is equally heard and equally valued.”
But if poly relationships have their advantages and their unique challenges, being in a triad is just like any other relationship. “They’re pretty much the same,” Billy said. “We still can’t decide where we want to eat out, or what movie to watch; we’re worried our mothers-in-law won’t like us; and we get annoyed at each other for not tidying up after ourselves. It really isn’t that different.”