A Couple-Three: A Personal Essay
By Bernadette Lynn Bosky

In grade-school, long before I learned -- and instantly adopted -- the mid-south colloquialism "a couple-three," I liked that inexact and useful concept. In fact, I routinely used "couple" to mean anything more than one and less than "a few." "Well," my mother once said after I had asked for "a couple of" something and picked three, "If that's your idea of a couple, I'd hate to see you on your honeymoon!"

Neither of us dreamt how prophetic that would be. I now live in a committed triad with two men. I have lived with Arthur for thirteen years, and my romantic involvement with Kevin began over seven years ago. The three of us became a social unit within a year; and two-and-a-half years ago we moved in together as a full-time household. Neither Arthur nor Kevin is bisexual. They are not married to each other, as each is married to me, but they are family to each other. We share expenses, pool our resources, support and share in good times and bad. While keeping our individual differences and interests, we make plans as a household, spending our non-work time together far more often than not. Our relationship is still sexually open, but we rarely if ever take advantage of the opportunity.

At first glance, we don't seem to be the kind of people who would live a sexually-adventurous lifestyle. In fact, I've sometimes said that one advantage of living in a triad is that we can automatically be exotic and avant-garde, without having to do anything. Certainly, we tend to value consistency and security over the challenge of complicated interrelationships, a calm household over emotional gymnastics. We live in the suburbs of New York City, in an Italian-Catholic area, and we seem to be fully accepted in the casual, distantly friendly manner of neighbours today. In many ways, we are like a rather ordinary couple, for large values of two.

In other ways, of course, that isn't the case and can never be. As my spouse Kevin has put it, "As long as there are three of us, we will always be odd." As with other forms of societal values and prejudices, the orientation of our culture towards the couple is so pervasive that it can be hard to notice -- until you are (or sufficiently listen to) someone who is on the other side.

We have been fortunate in many areas of life, and as a result we have had it much easier than other triads might. Since we can afford our own house, we don't have to worry about our landlord kicking out the "third person not related by blood," as happened to friends of ours. Living first in an enlightened college town and then in a multicultural metropolitan area, we haven't experienced the prejudice described by friends of ours in smaller towns or more conservative states. Nor do we have to worry about the reaction of our employers, a very real fear for many multiple marriages: Arthur and I freelance from home, while Kevin's office -- where he got a job largely through friends in the science-fiction community -- is truly liberal and welcomes both me and Arthur at the company Christmas party.

Still, even when there is no overt judgement, there is the iron law of the default, the constant de facto privileging that comes in a world built for couples. I'm sure this is not actually directed at triads (or any multiple-adult household), any more than it is directed at single people; but in each case, the effect is to make our lives that much harder, to make us seem that much more like outsiders. Carnival rides are built for two, and Valentine's dinner specials are two-for-one; commercial forms have room for two names, legal forms for one next-of-kin (unless it's your parents). It's not that these things can't be circumvented -- they can, and we are usually successful in doing so -- but that no matter how well it is dealt with, the message of exclusion is there.

The strongest example of this in our personal life may be marriage itself. With enough ingenuity (and, again, money), three people can have all of the component benefits of marriage, and we have done many and plan to do the rest: sign powers of attorney and appropriately-drafted wills, legally own property together, even have a public social event sanctifying and commemorating our union. Yet not only is this much more expensive and complicated than legal marriage, it will never actually be the same thing. Because, the not-so-covert message goes, you can "really" marry only one person at a time.

More than having to accommodate to a world that does not fit our number, or even being denied legal opportunities and protections that other families have, I think relationships like ours suffer from our invisibility. Such households are uncommon, and there are many ways in which a marriage of more than two people can go wrong. But it can work well, too, in many more ways and much more often than most people imagine. People organise themselves in units of "a couple-three" -- more than two, but less than a group -- all the time, even if the romantic mythology, of the couple or of "buddy" pairings, tends to obscure this.

In fact, during the time in my life when I used "a couple" to mean "three," there was a more serious predictor of my current life: through most of grade school and all of junior high, my sister and I had the same "best friend." We did everything together, from studying to playing superhero as The Tremendous Trio; and while we had squabbles, as any schoolchildren will, there was never any consistent tendency for two to gang up on -- let alone shut out -- a third. On the contrary, my sister and I and our friend Nancy seemed to disagree less, and settle our agreements more amicably, than my sister and I did alone.

It was only years later, after college, that I even realized this was considered remarkable. An informal survey of my friends certainly did make it seem uncommon. Now I have come full circle, and I wonder how unusual such social and emotional constellations are, and how much they are instead simply ignored, re-defined as two plus one, or two plus two, instead of acknowledged as a stable, ongoing three or more.

As I have looked around me, I have continued to notice more and more examples of these groupings. They are rarely permanent, but they are often very long-lasting -- and on average, the ties among a small cluster of college friends, closeness of two couples, or bonds between a couple and their mutual friend may last longer than the average marriage. Most of the relationships do not include sex (except within couple sub-sets), but my guess is that the sex would be much, much more common if the culture were more conducive to it. And it is probably already more common, in a sad and dishonest way, than is openly acknowledged.

This makes it all the more amazing that households of more than two adults, as a recognised alternative lifestyle, are still almost invisible culturally, but that is definitely the case. In sharp contrast to gays, there is less hostility towards people in multiple marriages, but there is even less acknowledgement and support.

Please don't get me wrong, here: social attention can be very dangerous, too, and there is no doubt in my mind that being ignored and feeling totally isolated is much better than, say, being beaten to death. Still, there have been times when I would have given quite a bit -- though definitely not that much -- to be able to turn to the kind of literature, support community, role models, and advice on dealing with the world at large that gays can now find. Instead, I have discovered that if we want that kind of identity and support, we will have to build it, for ourselves and for others.

In the only book on triads and threesome sex, Threesomes, Arno Karlen comments, "I began to wonder if anything on threesomes wasn't moralising, proselytising, or guesswork." With a few exceptions, this could be applied, in my jaundiced view, to all treatments of marriage among more than two people. The subject is understandably a strong one emotionally, and most authors have either pathologised or idealised the whole experience, with their work suffering accordingly. Karlen's book is an exception to this, as is Marcia Seligson's Options, but both of them show another problem: the number of sexual and domestic arrangements possible for more than two people is so vast, and the number of books written on the topic is so small, that there is a tendency to look at too wide a field and sacrifice more specific or characteristic analysis. Moreover, much of the writing about triad and group marriages barely manages to avoid the most common mistake that the general public makes on the topic: overemphasising the sex. Yes, if it had not been for sexual attraction, our menage would never have come about; and certainly sex helps smooth and assure our connections, as it does in any marriage of fewer people. Yet as any married person will tell you, the ups and downs have a lot less to do with the sex and a lot more to do with the life which it reflects and fits into: the tears and laughter, the bills and good news, keeping the home working and accommodating each other's foibles.

In my more self-deprecating moods, I sometimes say that our triad works so well because it takes three of us to make one adult couple. At other times, I see the same link, but think of it as a comment on the nigh-impossible demands of marriage in a nuclear family, rather than on any inadequacies we might have. Arthur and I were never a self-enclosed pair, and we have always turned to family and friends for emotional support and help, as well as for enjoyment and recreation. Still, having a core household of three people provides us with that much more strength to draw on all the time, that much more flexibility and give in our life together. Not only does this make for more security and joy within our household, it means we have more to share with those outside the household as well, from shoulders to cry on through strong backs for moving furniture.

During times of tension between two members of a triad, the presence of a third person can create even more involved messes, but it can also -- instead -- provide an oasis of calm during stormy arguments. This can include both reliable general reassurance (to both people arguing) and the benefits of a knowledgeable but more objective perspective on things. My spouse Arthur has often said that he never understood how two people could determine which of their views was more realistic. With us, the third opinion might not always be more correct in itself, but the perspective it gives is always useful, leading to a more accurate understanding overall. We also find that the mere presence of someone who loves both people helps keep conflicts civil: for one thing, the innocent third party doesn't deserve shouting within the home!

When more than two adults are involved, all of the processes of home and family life are basically the same, yet the details can be very different. That is, the same jobs must be done, and one experiences the same kinds of emotions and challenges, leading to the same kinds of joys and sorrows; and always, some will do better at this and some will manage it more poorly. Yet the same could be said about handling any computer, from a Kaypro to a Cray, while details differ so much that even knowing one word-processing program will not necessarily prepare you to use another. In my experience, what I learned about being a good spouse in a couple has never hindered me being a good spouse in a triad, but it often has been inadequate. We had to make new models, come up with creative solutions -- and we had to do it almost entirely on our own.

A community and support structure is just now beginning to spread. It often uses the term "polyamory," a pleasant and useful neologism that covers a wide range of people with "many loves," definitely including marriages of more than two. On the Internet, for instance, I can communicate with people interested in polyamorous life, some of whom are in multiple marriages older than ours. The feeling of belonging is wonderful, and deep friendships can be formed (I was recently an attendant in the wedding of an Internet friend to her second husband), but I am even more delighted by the opportunity to share the nuts and bolts, the practical and emotional details of our lives.

We discovered this community, however, after we had mostly grappled with the basic issues of our own. Arthur and I had known a few triads through science fiction fandom; otherwise, I'm not sure I would even have seen it as a possibility when the situation did present itself. However, the examples were so few, and the differences between them and us so major, that I still felt very much alone. We had sympathetic friends who were more than willing to listen, but that cannot compare with being able to talk with others who are charting the same territory.

As the three of us decided to make commitments and form something beyond a couple (and their single friend), I spent about three years almost constantly conscious of and working on our relationship(s): assessing and talking, excited and scared -- in some ways an invigorating thing, but incredibly demanding. I honestly do not know if I could have done it if I had been employed full-time, or if our natures had been only slightly different. I was in therapy for other reasons, and my counsellor definitely helped, though we joked about his nervousness at the newness of it all too. Slowly, the feeling of being on a high-wire diminished. Of course we still work to make our love go well, but things feel basically settled now, for which I literally thank God. I never doubt that all the work was worth it, but I would not want to have to keep it up, either.

In my experience, it is not so much that following couple-based patterns will get you into trouble with more than one partner, as much as that you can be repeatedly caught up short by situations in which it is simply impossible. Many of our friends have commented that this produces a wonderful freedom from the burden of old social roles, and that is true. Yet having to be free and creative, and being unable to rely on habit and convention if you want to, can be its own kind of burden. The best of both worlds would be a blend of freedom and security, including being able to look at a number of possible role models and incorporate a number of different, at-least-somewhat-tested elements in one's own relationship(s). I hope this will happen for others because of work being done now, including projects like this book.

One thing that needs to be done is the further development of the terminology. What exists is all helpful, but there is far too little of it. For instance, even within the polyamory community we have not come across a general name for Kevin and Arthur's relation to each other, though we have come to use my therapist's term "co-husband." "Triangular" vs. "linear" is a useful way to indicate whether (respectively) all people in a triad share sex, or two people share sex with the third but not each other -- but there are no equivalent terms for levels or kinds of sexual involvement (A shares sex with B while C is also sharing, but not alone; B sexually enjoys cuddling A but does more extensive sexual stuff only with C), let alone for lines of emotional, social, financial, or other connection.

Probably, some terms can be culled from the anthropology of polygamous cultures, while others could be neologisms (like "polyamory") or new uses for general words (like "linear"). Already this is happening, along with borrowing from the terminology of gay and other alternative communities (especially "coming out," a useful term for a concept we find vital also). Perhaps the biggest hindrance to this work now is the tendency to argue, as soon as the terms are defined, over which approach is better, or at least to covertly assign superior value to one or another term. This may be inevitable, but the more it is avoided, the more quickly we can reach a useful descriptive vocabulary.

Similarly, we need to record and share as various as possible a range of approaches and role models for polyamorous living, encouraging people to find what is right for them. The emphasis must be on finding the right match to one's own situation and temperament, rather than what is "better." In addition, we need to both create and discover or identify even more kinds of basic approaches to households with more than two adults. As far as I can tell, the three major inspirational templates now seem to be the pastoral commune, the novels of Robert A. Heinlein, and the self-sufficient nuclear family -- none of them well suited to be the whole basis of something practical and successful, though all can contribute useful and even invaluable elements.

In practice, the flexibility and inventiveness shown by people forming polyamorous households can be quite delightful. Most of those we know have idiosyncratic terms they have adopted -- developed out of the relationships and personalities involved -- which have both specific meanings and deep emotional associations. This is not easily applicable in the more general sense I have spoken of, but by examining the more personal terms and roles we can learn what issues, distinctions, and concepts we might look for in a more categorical analysis.

Our own major invention was to think of Mom, Dad, and Junior as identifications that floated among the three of us, a technique that helped us both to acknowledge and to create a balance among us in terms of the traditional family roles. Thus, Kevin might be Dad as he arrived from work and picked us up to go out to eat, Arthur would be Dad as he figured out the bill and laid down the cash, and I would be Dad as I drove home. (When I explained this to one feminist friend, twice she said, "And you're always Mom, right?" and twice I had to correct her: "Oh God no! How awful!") Our one rule is "no single parents": it takes two people to be responsible enough for one to be mostly taken care of, and trying to do that with only one other around is an imposition. Obviously, this would not work for everyone -- if nothing else, it would need some adjustment, or at least clarification, for a triad that also has real children to raise. The most important thing is what it did for us, leading us to look at how traditional family roles did and did not apply to us, what aspects of them we wanted to use and what we wanted to reject.

Finally, as a community grows, it will inevitably fulfil the basic purpose of sharing experiences. While my temperament and profession lead me to care about terminology and psycho-social roles, I have to say that this level of personal exchange is probably the most important kind of discussion there can be. How do you set up living-quarters: one home or more? shared or separate bedrooms? If there are children, are all participants equal parents? is it important who the genetic parents are? is it even known who the genetic parents are? How are finances handled? Housework? How do decisions remain open to all without the process becoming unwieldy? In each case, the answers will differ, but they will all be equally vital, both to the people involved and -- as sparks to their own ideas, if nothing else -- to those forming new households in the future.

As I have said, our own triad is now pretty settled and secure -- it is, at any rate, no more frightening, awesome, exhilarating, and profoundly challenging than any other marriage. In some ways, I feel that to truly share your life with another human being is so incredible a thing that nothing can make it much more so, even upping the number of people. Still, a triad -- or any kind of multiple marriage -- has some of its own unique answers to that universal challenge, and these need to be discussed in the open, in ways that have hardly yet begun. Even this essay is not so much a first attempt as it is a call to action, but I hope that I have at least indicated both what we should be studying and why. The first step in understanding something, after all, is to really look at it -- or even, if the prevailing opinion is otherwise, to apprehend that it exists at all and is worthy of our attention.