Carly, 32, has sex with her fiancé, and, sometimes, her fiancé has sex with her best friend. Other times, her fiancé and her best friend have sex while she’s in the room — but the two BFFs don’t have sex with each other. Occasionally, they’ll all participate in orgies or shoot porn together, but she still doesn’t have sexual contact with her best friend. Their relationship, while intimate, stays platonic.
“We’re just two pals, palling around!” Carly tells Bustle. “Taking casual pictures of each other’s buttholes.”
Carly, her boyfriend, and her best friend are in a triad relationship, which is sometimes referred to as a “throuple.” The most recent representation of this type of relationship was in Season 2 of Netflix's The Politician, which is basically a whole season about dramatic three-way relationships. The show’s producer, Ryan Murphy, is known for his over-the-top, campy dramatizations of everything from high school singing groups to the gay and transgender ballroom scene to (a very homoerotic but ostensibly “straight” team of) plastic surgeons. I love Murphy’s worlds precisely because they take real life and turn the volume up to 11.
But while daily life in real three-way relationships often includes more conversations about feelings — and, honestly, probably more sex — than the average couple has, it also includes a lot less drama than The Politician might lead you to believe. Melanie, 55, a performer and educator, credits that lack of drama to the fact that she and her partners — Cliff, 68, and Charity, 45, all of whom live together — have “more than 50 years combined experience in ethical non-monogamy.” And that means they know how to talk, talk, talk.
“When you’re in a three-way relationship, you’re actually dealing with four different relationships,” Melanie tells Bustle. “You have three couples and then the triad relationship. All of those need to be nurtured and taken care of.”
In Melanie’s case, this means not interjecting when Cliff and Charity are fighting with each other — and they do the same if she’s in conflict with either of them. Each “diad” (or couple) also consciously tries not to argue in front of the third party. Melanie says she’ll check in with each individually if she sees they’re upset, but she doesn’t ask about the relationship unless they bring it up.
“I don’t try, and problem-solve with them or even get into the nitty-gritty unless they want to share it,” Melanie says. “It’s not the easiest thing, but we’re all good about recognizing the strain on the third person and acknowledging that strain and conflict.”
One of the things that Beth, 30, a sex educator in Florida, loves about being in a relationship with a married couple is that if Beth is having a bad day, “I have a minimum of two people trying to make me feel better.” They’re also Beth’s cheerleaders when Beth goes on dates — the girlfriend does Beth’s makeup, and both the girlfriend and boyfriend like to tease them, lightheartedly.
“Any time anyone has someone new, there’s a lot of ‘oooooh’ and cutesy noises that friends do when you have a first date,” Beth tells Bustle. “They have a lot of compersion. We all have it.”
For monogamous people, the concept of “compersion” — which means joy at seeing a partner have romantic or sexual relationships with other people — can be a hard one to grasp. But all three people who spoke to Bustle for this article said that while jealousy comes up — as it does in almost any romantic relationship, regardless of the number of people involved — they’re prepared to deal with it.
“I don’t want to say we never get jealous,” Carly says. “But we’re good about communicating. We check in beforehand, like, ‘I’m going to do this. Is this OK with you?’ It’s a lot of talking, talking — always talking.”
In Melanie’s triad, each diad conscientiously spends dedicated time together. They also have a weekly triad date night, which she says helps soothe any issues that might be going on between couples. And when it comes to jealousy, she says it’s hard for her to be jealous of relationships outside of her own, “because those relationships don’t involve me.”
“If the two of them are off doing their thing, that has nothing to do with me,” Melanie says. “I’m not Charity, and I’m not Cliff. And I can’t fulfill Charity-ness for Cliff and Cliff-ness for Charity.”
Then, of course, there’s the question of sex. In The Politician, everyone is doing it with each other. But that’s not always the case, as exemplified by Carly’s relationships. Other times, it is. In Melanie’s house, Cliff and Charity sleep together while Melanie has her own room. But their “entire basement” is a kinky “play area” for the three of them — and most of their sexual activity happens down there.
Beth actually met their couple when Beth was in a relationship with another person, and they all had group sex together. Beth felt like not many people in northern Georgia (where they lived at the time) understood polyamory — but the couple did. And so when Beth broke up with their primary partner, the couple was there for them. The friendship evolved and eventually became sexual, first with the husband and then with the wife.
“At first, I thought I liked her more like a friend than a partner,” Beth says. “And she thought the same thing. But her husband was like, ‘You both like each other. Please talk!'"
After it was established that the wife wanted “to do lots of sexy things” with Beth, the couple took Beth out to dinner and asked them to officially be in a relationship with them. Beth said yes, and they’ve been together ever since.
So, yeah, triads probably have more sex than most of us do. And they definitely talk about feelings more. But when it comes to drama, they’re pretty low-key — at least in these three groups. "Our cultures go to monogamy as if that's the norm, and it really doesn't have to be," Melanie says. "As long as you're with consenting adults and everyone is getting what they need, who says the norm can't be whatever you want it to be?"