You can see my other post on the topic here, directed at “Unicorns”.
Note: This post is not referring to everyone that looks for a triad – in this context, “Unicorn Hunter” is specifically referring to the kind of people that make the really common mistakes below. It’s similar to if someone mocks a new Dom that doesn’t understand consent by calling them Christian Gray. If you want to look for a triad, go for it!
Dear Newly Poly Couple,
Welcome to exploring the world of non-monogamy! It’s exciting, scary, exhilarating, tense, thrilling, and any other word you can think of in the rollercoaster of emotions. You’ve already talked about what you want, laid down groundwork, and set rules to make sure that each of you are comfortable. You may have even had a threesome or two already! Now, you’re all set to find a bisexual woman to join your relationship, love both of you, and be just what you both need. Right?
You might not yet know you’re a unicorn hunter. You might not know what one is. Or you might even know what it is, and are offended that I’d call you that. It’s okay.
If you don’t know what a “unicorn hunter” is, that’s simply an established couple, a heterosexual man and bisexual woman, that’s searching for a bisexual woman* that is open to a relationship with both the man and the woman in the existing relationship (but no one else), who will love them both equally, and agree to the rules that the couple has already decided are healthy for their relationship. She is expected to fit in to their relationship without changing the existing relationship with the couple, and if they feel that she’s not following any rule, she’s out, to protect The Couple.
There’s a reason we call them “unicorns” – none exist. And there’s a reason we call them “Unicorn Hunters” – they’re toxic.
There are plenty of women who are excited to do threesomes, or live in a triad, as the partner of both a man and a woman. I should know, I’m one of them! But there’s a difference between wanting to be in a triad and Unicorn Hunting.
The main difference between people looking for a triad and Unicorn Hunters is that Unicorn Hunters tend to look at the third partner as an addition to their relationship, instead of realizing that you’re creating a brand new relationship, with three people instead of two.
Triads are complex. When you’re in a monogamous, two person relationship, you have a relationship with each other: A has a relationship with B. When you’re in a relationship with three or more people, it doesn’t just mean you have one more person, you have two more relationships, and your relationship with everyone else’s relationship. Sound confusing? It is.
Let’s say April, Brian, and Christine are in a triad. April and Brian have a relationship, April and Christine have a relationship, Brian and Christine have a relationship, and all three have a relationship together. However, most people don’t think of the other part: April and Brian have a relationship but Christine has a relationship with that relationship – if April and Brian are having problems, then it will affect Christine in some way. Add that to each relationship, and suddenly going from one relationship in monogamy, you have six interrelated relationships going on at the same time.
It’s because of this that everyone in a triad must have a say in how they fit into the relationship, and cannot just be wedged into an existing one. For the most part, many poly people will emphasize that fair does not mean equal, but in this case, it is: In an ethical relationship involving any number of people, everyone gets an equal say in how the relationship is structured. This may mean that the relationship is unequal, in time spent, emotional investment, commitment, or other parts of roles. The point is, everyone gets to decide for themselves, and they don’t get placed in a role they didn’t have a part of creating.
Rules, Boundaries, Agreements
There is one big difference between rules, boundaries, and agreements: Rules are set beforehand, without involving the person that has to follow the rules, whereas agreements are negotiated to make sure things are fair for everyone involved. If you set rules in a relationship you are already in, then add a third person and expect them to follow those rules, that will never end well.
Not only that, but rules are only effective as long as they’re not broken. Sounds obvious, but think about it – if you trust someone not to break a rule, then why make it a demand? You should be able to be honest about your needs and boundaries, and be able to ask your partner to meet your needs where they can and respect your boundaries. If they won’t, then setting a rule won’t change that anyways. Not only that, but rules don’t meet needs – they only restrict your partners without actually helping you with your needs. If you want to make the rule of “You can’t kiss your other partners,” then figure out why, and think of it more in the frame of a request for your needs: “I would like you to be more physically affectionate with me, because it helps me feel wanted.”
Every time you start a relationship in poly, you can’t assume anything. You have to lay out expectations, boundaries, and preferences right at the beginning. You have to be far more up front in first and second dates than most people are when going on dates when monogamous. You have to discuss what you expect and what you can offer, as well as your preferences, your current relationships and where they stand, and your dealbreakers.
It is perfectly fine to have boundaries and dealbreakers – these are different from rules in that they are something you genuinely won’t do. You’re not demanding that your potential partner change to fit your rules, but rather being up front about what you are unable to deal with. These often have nothing to do with any existing relationships, and they could be big or small. You may be asexual and want to be up front that you want a romantic but not sexual relationship. You may want to make it clear that you never want to get married or have kids with anyone. You might want to say that you will never do BDSM (or that it is absolutely essential for you to have in your relationships). You may not be willing to be in a relationship with someone that smokes, or with someone that is not a vegetarian. You may be unwilling to be in a sexual relationship with someone that has Herpes or HPV – or you may have one of those and have to be upfront in case the other person has that hard limit.
Once you’ve gotten past the dealbreakers and boundaries, you can move on to agreements and other softer limits. These often should not be set in stone. For instance, how much time can you commit to spending with this person? That answer may change in the future, but for now you should be honest about such things. Communicate these expectations as often as you feel that they changed for you, or for the other person.
How To Protect Your Existing Relationship
It is impossible to have a bulletproof, unchanging relationship, especially in polyamory. If you expect that, you’re in for a rude awakening. Things will change, and it’s up to you to decide to keep those changes healthy.
Now, if you’re asking how to keep your relationship healthy, that’s a different matter. The best way is to remember that the grass is greener where you water it: You need to invest in your relationships, all of them, if you want to keep them healthy. Don’t ignore or deprioritize your existing partner just because you’re excited about your new, shiny relationship, but at the same time, don’t keep your new partner at arm’s length to placate an existing partner’s jealousy.
Don’t set rules to combat jealousy. All it does is coddle jealousy. If you say that your wife can’t kiss her new boyfriend (a surprisingly common rule) it doesn’t keep them from getting intimate and close, it simply builds resentment that the rule is in place, and perhaps even paranoia on your part that the rule was broken. Not only that, but if you’re unicorn hunters, you’re often only setting rules that affect the third person, not your existing relationship. That is completely unfair and telling the other person that they are less important.
If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this: Fair does not mean equal. You will never, ever be able to have a fair, respectful, and happy relationship by demanding tit-for-tat equality, especially in a triad. You cannot demand that everyone have sex at the same time, or that if your other partners have sex then you need to have sex with both of them too. You cannot require that your two partners love you equally.
One of the biggest problems with unicorn hunters is that they often tell the third person that they need to divide their time, affection, and sexual interaction equally between the existing partners, without offering the same to that person. Not that making that offer would help, since it is impossible to promise an equal division of any of those.
Every person involved in a relationship is equally important, but they may not want to or be able to offer equal time, priority, or affection. Conversely, don’t feel as though you are entitled to that person’s priority, time, or affection over them giving it to someone else.
Yes, this is exactly what you don’t expect to do. But it is important to build relationships with individuals, as individuals. You are not getting into relationship as one couple, you are two people, with different needs, desires, interests, personalities, and everything. You have to be able to offer who you are, not who you have decided to be in a couple.
If all you want is a triad, and not to date outside of that, it will be very, very hard to find. It is possible, though, and it is possible to go about it in a healthy way, if you’re able to keep the above in mind.
Footnote: I’m writing this article with Unicorn Hunting specifically in mind: a heterosexual couple seeking a bisexual woman. However, every other combination of couples seeking to form triads (A gay couple seeking another man, a lesbian couple seeking another woman, a heterosexual couple seeking a bisexual man, etc.) can have these same issues, and the above can apply to them as well.
David Noble: So, someone called you a Unicorn Hunter?
The Good Men Project: Hunting the Elusive Unicorn