Did someone say three’s a crowd? A growing number of people are expanding to three-way relationships, but what are the challenges?

As the saying goes, “two’s company, three’s a crowd.” But when it comes to relationships, many people are discovering that’s not the case. The mainstream view of monogamy between two people is starting to dissolve, and different relationship structures are taking its place, including the throuple, a three-way relationship that extends far beyond a one-off experience under the sheets.

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As you’ve likely guessed by now, the word throuple is a combination of “three” and “couple.” For those at the back who are logically minded and pointing out that “couple” means pair, I’ll gently re-direct you to its other definition, which means to combine or to mate. I’m sure the people who came up with the term have thought this through.

Regardless of the origin of the term, which has a nice ring to it, throuples are a legitimate choice for many people. Unlike polyamory or open relationships, these three-way relationships are exclusive, a closed container where intimacy is shared in a consensual love triangle.

While three clearly isn’t a crowd, throuples come with their own relationship challenges. So if you’re considering adding a third person, and looking for “the two” rather than “the one,” let’s explore the potential mishaps and challenges along the way.

The Unique Challenges of a Throuple

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Like all sorts of non-conventional relationships, the fantasy, or the imagined ideal of the dynamic, can be a distant cry from reality. Any unconventional (or conventional for that matter) relationship that is pursued as a way to fix other issues, or escape from unprocessed pain, or inability to commit, will be unlikely to be fulfilling and healthy. A throuple is no different; while the idea of having three people that all love each other, get along, and have twice the amount of support (and sex), the reality is that the complexity increases.

With the increased complexity of the dynamic, comes even more challenges. A big issue with throuples is how balanced the relationships are. How do you quantify how much you love someone, and will there be issues if two people within the triad are closer than the others? It takes even more emotional maturity, and even better communication, to navigate the territory.

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Within the dynamic, certain rules have to be established. How will issues be raised and discussed? For example, if two people in the couple have a falling out, do they keep that, and the subsequent effort to heal, to each other? Or inform the third person? If they don’t inform the third person, will they feel left out?

Equally, when things are going well, how is attention, time, and energy divided? What if one person experiences jealousy? What if two people are more physically intimate? All of these are issues that have to be resolved for the relationship to function.

Conflict and the Drama Triangle

When three people are involved in intimate affairs, there’s a high risk of messiness. Psychology has many views on this. One, triangulation, talks about the manipulative tendencies dynamics have when they involve three people, for example, indirect communication that is “filtered” through one person, to another. In psychology, there’s a theory called the drama triangle, created by Stephen Carpman. It consists of roles that people are said to fall into during conflict: the victim, the rescuers, and the perpetrator.

People can move between these roles, and shift, as the drama unfolds. Carpman’s big takeaway was that this triangle keeps the drama energized and moving, because each role feeds off the other. The rescuer by default sees someone as victim and places someone else as the perpetrator. The victim sees someone as the perpetrator and has to be rescued.

In summary, a three-way relationship has to be able to navigate these complexities, in a healthy way, in order to flourish. For most people, that’s likely too big an ask. 

How Do Throuples Emerge?

throuple

With all the potential for complexity, how do throuples emerge? It’s not straightforward to form a triad, although there are some common ways these three-way relationships form. For many, it could be an established relationship that “opens up” to another person. Maybe that started as a polyamorous relationship, or an open relationship, where one extra partner became more integrated into the group. Other relationships may be monogamous, but through various circumstances, open to someone else.

In these situations, the trap is looking for someone else to add spice or become a fix for underlying issues. In addition, the “new” person in the relationship then has to adapt and integrate, a process that comes with its own challenges. How will the original relationship adapt? What about behavioral patterns already established? All of this has to be considered.

Another way throuples emerge is from the beginning, spontaneously. Maybe three people know each other, get along, and all have the same “starting point” for when things start to evolve from a platonic relationship into a romantic relationship. This is usually easier to establish ground rules and a clearer structure, as each person enters with a fresh slate.

Is Being in a Throuple Bad for Your Mental Health?

With all the potential traps and red flags to look out for with a throuple, the question is, are they beneficial, or a mental health challenge? That’s difficult to give a straightforward answer to as it depends on the people involved, the relationship itself, and the dynamic of the three people involved, which in some sense becomes its own entity. If you’re involved or considering becoming involved in a throuple, there are some key things to consider.

The first is getting clear on your intentions for starting the relationship. This’ll take a lot of self-honesty. Is it a nice idea, that you haven’t clearly thought through? Or do you feel that the two people you have in mind are right? Consider how you’ll establish boundaries or ground rules, how you’ll communicate when times are tough, and what long-term visions and goals for the relationship might be.

For example, are the three of you on the same page when it comes to living arrangements and future plans? Finding one person to match, and be compatible with, involves compromise. Two is another level still. So there has to be willingness to be flexible, as without it, there can be a lot of stress and upset involved, or even self-betrayal to keep the relationship sustained.

Consider your ability to regulate your emotions, how well you deal with jealousy, and how you communicate when triggered. All of this is essential. But, if you’re already contemplating, the only way to know is likely through experience.

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