This article was first published in Attitude issue 322, June 2020
Words: Jacob Alexander Clark
Dear readers, your author is in a bit of a dilemma. Recently, I almost lost my relationship. One day, not long ago, a new face appeared on Grindr: a six-packed Brazilian hunk who was in town on holiday for a week. Naturally, my boyfriend and I jumped at the chance to invite him over to get ‘acquainted’. We all shared a fantastic evening which ended with the boy staying the night. Long story short: he never checked into his hotel.
During this week, while my boyfriend was working hard, I had the chance to fall head-over-heels in love and got swept away by all the passion, spice and excitement that someone new brings to your life. By the time the boy left, we were both besotted, and my boyfriend wholly sidelined. This was the breaking point, and my boyfriend left me. Every inch of my body wanted to chase after him and say anything he needed to hear to get him back. However, I knew it would be unfair to both of us if I kept pretending to be satisfied with the current status of our relationship.
Although we are together once more, we both know we won’t settle for a one-on-one, monogamous deal, but clearly, we still have a lot to learn about what we really want. We may live in the 21st century, but there is no guidebook on how to successfully maintain a non-normative relationship, because every one is so different. Keen to find out more, I went to meet four vastly different couples, who are triumphantly living in healthy, happy relationships that break the traditional mould. A new decade means new rules… Welcome to the roaring Twenties!
Shortly after meeting a year ago, Guno and Alex had tickets to the same party. It came at that tricky stage of a relationship when you’ve started dating, but you haven’t made it exclusive. It’s the grey area where (technically) you can’t yet be held accountable for your actions, but you’re aware that there could be repercussions.
When they bumped into each other at the party, they felt sparks fly and knew their connection was special, but that it wouldn’t stop them having a little fun with other guys. Whether or not they knew it at the time, the party was an essential experience that would define the kind of relationship they would embark on when the time came to commit. “I’ve always been able to separate what is love and what is lust,” reasons Alex. “There are people I want to build my life with — cuddle, watch Netflix with, smell their farts! — and people I just want to f***.”
To distinguish between the two, they’ve put a simple guideline in place: “leave it where it happened”. They recognise that lust is a primal instinct and can’t be planned. If one of them is out and meets another guy, and the blood starts flowing and the adrenaline pumping, they agree that it’s fine to act on it. However, sitting at home trawling Grindr for hours and orchestrating a hook-up feels invasive of their privacy and, ultimately, of their intimacy.
“There was one incident where Alex came home from a party with a hickey,” says Guno. “Of everything he got up to that night, the hickey was the only thing that upset me. Simply because I had to see it for the next few days, reminding me of someone else in moments that were meant just for us.”
The next rule they agreed on — to tell each other everything — has never been hard to follow because of the legitimate interest they have in each other. They willingly and excitedly share every detail of their encounters and “spill the tea”. For them, this BFF-meets-lover dynamic has strengthened their relationship, because they can trust each other to be completely transparent. They also both rest assured that if their other half starts having feelings for someone, ties will be cut before their bond can be threatened.
“Because we tell each other everything, when we feel the urge to keep something a secret, we know it’s a sign for us to stop it,” Guno explains.
As strong as their relationship is now, it wasn’t always a smooth ride. “I had to get over my personal insecurities before being genuinely happy to share Guno,” confesses Alex. “With his help, I came to accept that there is always going to be someone hotter than you, taller than you, with a better body or a bigger dick, but I can only be me, and at the end of the night I’m the one he chooses to take home."
Nick and Danny met 15 years ago, and, after five years together, decided to open up their relationship. The need to take that step wasn’t to accommodate feelings for another person, but simply, as Danny puts it, “I like red wine. I like steak. I like dick.”
They started by having threesomes, thinking it would be the natural way to have sex with other people without hurting one another. However, they soon realised that these experiences weren’t having the desired effect, and were creating too much jealousy instead.
“The physical closeness and emotional chemistry that I had built with Danny were suddenly being disrupted by the presence of a third body in the room,” admits Nick. “We ended up over-thinking everything and not just enjoying it. So what was the point?”
The pair knew they needed to rethink the boundaries and rules of their relationship if they wanted to enjoy the benefits of the new arrangement without hurting each other. After putting their heads together and trying out several different tactics, they found what works for them. In short, “don’t ask, don’t tell”.
They recognised that they didn’t need to know everything that is going on in the other person’s life at every point of the day. The process of debriefing their every move felt gratuitous and unnecessary. “Sometimes, when you confess something to someone, you are doing it selfishly to get whatever it is off your conscience,” explains Danny. “You have to be receptive to where the other person is mentally. They may not have a problem with what you are about to say, but they may not be in the right state of mind to hear it.”
This isn’t to imply that they hide everything they get up to in a safe and throw away the key. There are periods when they feel exceptionally close (or just horny!), and start to open up, knowing the other person is ready and interested to hear.
Although for many same-sex couples in a non-exclusive relationship, competition can play an unwanted role, Nick and Danny have not experienced this. “We both go for different types of guys, so there has never been much competition between us in the traditional sense,” adds Nick. “There have been periods where I’ve been envious of how easy Danny finds it to navigate an open relationship. A discrepancy in how people experience things can make something feel competitive even when it’s not. That’s been important for me to remember.”
Learning to be incredibly intuitive of each other’s emotional differences is not the only way this couple has made things work for them. They have also set a rule that any extra-marital shenanigans must not go on at their house. “I’m sure all the readers will know [that] this creates the ‘can’t host’ dilemma,” jokes Danny, “but it’s important for us to keep the home a safe place that is just ours.”
For some people, the desire or need to have a third party present lasts longer than one night and goes far deeper than a physical connection. This was the case for Tom and Chaim.
They’d been married for 15 years and hadn’t been actively searching for someone new when they met Jesse. Alas, they fell in love, and despite the societal norms we’re accustomed to, started a three-way relationship — known as a throuple or triad.
They all knew that some things had to be shaken up to accommodate Jesse’s arrival. “Tom and I had to essentially break up and start a new relationship from the ground up,” says Chaim. “The entire foundation of our relationship got brought back into question, which was terrifying while also being incredibly revitalising. We got the chance to rediscover each other and be shown new sides that we’d never seen.”
Interpersonal difficulties were not the only obstacles all three had to face when solidifying themselves as a throuple. “Society is not equipped to deal with a three-person relationship,” remarks Jesse. “We have to explain ourselves in the face of confused reactions constantly.” Tom continues, “If that wasn’t tough enough, even simple daily tasks become more complicated with three.”
Opening a bank account: straightforward for two, long-winded for three. Booking a hotel room: easy for two, tricky for three. Going through passport control: no questions asked for two, a lot of questions asked for three. Buying a bed: shop-bought for two, custom-made for three!
Although Tom, Chaim and Jesse spend the majority of their time together, sometimes hanging out in couples suits them better. How often do we do something our other half wants to do, simply to make them happy? A lot, should be the answer. Well, here comes a blessing these three have discovered along the way: when you have two partners, you don’t have to pretend to like something ever again. “Chances are, if you don’t want to join in, the other one will,” jokes Jesse.
This newfound pattern of encountering things in pairs plays a significant part in the bedroom, too. In this relationship, the connection between any given pair is unique and different, and that also goes for sex. A new partner to play around with opened up the doors to new experiences. Any sexual revelations discovered between two of them are eagerly shared with the other partner. As for threesomes, having every participant know and love one another only maximises the intensity and passion.
For the majority of couples, society has pitched marriage as the final and most prominent step in their journey. As you can guess, things get a little different with three. The commitment Tom and Chaim made to Jesse was promising that when they were ready to take their next step as a throuple, they would get divorced. An unorthodox demonstration for sure, but a strong symbol of their devotion to him and a way to even out the playing field, making each player an equal teammate.
To summarise (and perhaps simplify) how this kind of relationship works, Tom puts it beautifully: “You may have twice the problems and twice the fights, but you get twice the love, too, and that makes it all so worth it.”
Abdela and Raquel have been married for 13 years and are parents to three wonderful children. Three years ago, to celebrate their 10th anniversary, they took a trip to Amsterdam, and with the new city came fresh temptations.
Alone without the kids, why shouldn’t they experiment a little? As the classic saying goes, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”. Except, in their case, it didn’t stay in Vegas. Their new-found curiosities followed them home, and so they began to frequent swing clubs. Starting off as a wild way to shake up date night, this habit slowly turned their closed and heterosexual marriage into a queer, open relationship.
“At the beginning, the bisexuality was merely a consequence of the threesomes we were having,” says Raquel. “The girls I kissed at swing clubs felt like they were only interested in me as a way of ‘performing’ for their men. I only started to allow the bisexuality to carry over into one-on-one meet-ups when I met a lesbian.”
In addition to having to comprehend their new sexuality, Abdela and Raquel were also faced with the challenge of making an open relationship work for them. When together in a threesome, even with the freedom to do whatever they wanted, things were different between them. What if Abdela was in the mood for a guy that night, and Raquel was in the mood for a girl? They knew that to satisfy their individual curiosities, they would sometimes need to venture out alone.
For Abdela, the new adjustments were met with ease, while Raquel struggled with feelings of jealousy. “There was one time that he slept over with someone else, and I couldn’t handle it,” recalls Raquel. “I called him crying, telling him to come back! He immediately said that he would. After hanging up the phone, I remembered all the times he’d been selfless when I was the one out having fun. A few minutes later, I came to my senses, and I called him again to say he should stay.”
“I want the same thing for her that I want for myself,” adds Abdela. “I don’t want her to suffer or be jealous. I want her to be happy. If she’s happy staying with someone else, then she should go for it.”
Regardless of the kind of relationship you have, the possibility of falling in love with someone else is always there. That’s the ugly truth — or the beautiful truth, depending on how you look at it. “As people, we are able to love more than one person. We love our friends. Our parents. Our kids. Love in and of itself is not monogamous,” declares Abdela. “However, when it comes to relationships, society teaches us to love only one person. We’re taught that to love ‘correctly’, we should focus all our attention on one other human and dedicate our lives to them. It’s unnatural.”
Acknowledging this reality allows Abdela and Raquel to be a support in every aspect of each other’s lives; often coaching each other through the tough times. They act as each other’s counsellor in times of hurt or jealousy, analysing things and adapting as they go further along this journey. This strengthens the bond between them and roots their love deeper than any other connection they make.