Easy as one, two, three: Are throuples normal now?

Are the polyamorous finally gaining respect?

Once subjected to side-eyes and the assumption that they must be promiscuous or destined for pillow-throwing break-ups, people who have multiple romantic partners have lately been thrust into the spotlight.

“Students are much more likely now, than 10 years ago, to say they’re open to polyamory, or that they are in fact polyamorous,” says Dr Samuel Shpall, a senior lecturer at The University of Sydney who teaches The Philosophy Of Sex.Credit:Dionne Gain

“Is monogamy natural? I feel like it’s a bit of a social construct,” said Jessica Navin, the contestant on The Bachelors, who made headlines last month for vying for a bachelor while she had a committed boyfriend outside the television show.

True, Navin’s way of life quickly became the focus of outrage. (Cue: headlines about the 25-year-old model’s “divisive open relationship”.)

But she’s among a growing and diverse number of people and organisations – from academics to psychologists and a major hotel chain – who are coming out in support of relationships with multiple partners and various forms of consensual non-monogamy.

“We wanted to create an inclusive campaign… [and] you know, it is something that is becoming more mainstream,” says Danelle Ayers, director of brand for QT Hotels and Resorts. The company is launching its upcoming “You, Plus Two” Valentine’s Day deal, aimed at celebrating “love that comes in three”. Whether that be “a power throuple” or people “trying a trio on for size”, the QT’s Australian and New Zealand hotels and resorts will be offering free martinis and oysters for bookings of three this February 14.

“A few years ago you would’ve had to have googled the term ‘throuple’, whereas now it’s fairly well known and we like to be on trend, and part of the cultural zeitgeist,” says Ayers. The term throuple refers to a committed romantic relationship between three people. (This is different from an “open” relationship, in which two people in a relationship have separate relationships outside the relationship.)

But are more people actually choosing to be part of a throuple or exploring forms of consensual non-monogamy?

Actor Jack Thompson, pictured in 1974 with sisters, from left, Leona and Bunkie King, who he was in a relationship with for 15 years.Credit:Weekly World News

“I find, clinically, often couples come in saying, ‘We want to explore non-monogamy as a way of spicing up our [sex] life’,” says Sydney sex therapist Jacqueline Hellyer, noting that she has seen an increase in the number of clients who are broaching the topic with her over the last few years. “It’s often seen as a bit of a quick fix to a bored or jaded relationship. ‘Let’s get our own boyfriend and girlfriend on the side’. There’s certainly a lot more people throwing that possibility in the mix. It’s kind of just in the ether.”

Hellyer isn’t opposed to polyamory, noting that she knows two throuples whose relationships have lasted for years.

“I think it’s a really nice idea because otherwise people are deceitful and deceit is never a good thing,” she says, referring to traditionally monogamous couples who might otherwise date others behind their partner’s back.

“It really is just possibilities of loving each other differently, or wanting to be sexual differently.” (Throuples can be monogamous or non-monogamous.)

But her clients often don’t go forward and pursue being part of a throuple, or another consensual non-monogamous arrangement, after she walks them through what they really want from their relationship, and how having multiple partners can play out.

“It’s way more complicated, you know… When you’ve got three, you’ve got the possibility of the two-against-one [scenario],” says Hellyer.

Dr Samuel Shpall, who teaches a course on The Philosophy of Sex, has also seen a noticeable shift in his students’ attitudes towards non-monogamy.

“Students are much more likely now, than 10 years ago, to say they’re open to polyamory, or that they are in fact polyamorous,” says Shpall, a senior lecturer at The University of Sydney. “There’s just lots of evidence, I think, of a gradual cultural shift.

The popular television show Schitt’s Creek explored the complications of being in a “throuple” when Stevie, left, and her best friend, David, right, discovered they were both dating Jake, centre. Credit:Netflix

“Many of them nowadays come into a lecture on non-monogamy with the prior belief that monogamy is unjustifiable, or at least that monogamy is, you know, a set of often coercively imposed structures that aren’t conducive to human wellbeing,” he says. “Ideas in that ballpark are, it seems to me, much more popular, particularly with young people, than they would have 10 years ago.”

This is, he thinks, partly the result of the proliferation of podcasts, TV shows (like Schitt’s Creek) and journalism that investigate consensual non-monogamous relationships. The wider social critiques of patriarchal arrangements like traditional marriage and conversations surrounding gender non-conformity, feminist and LGBTQI issues that have flourished have also had a marked impact, he says.

It’s a far cry from the 1970s, when news broke in the 1970s that Breaker Morant actor Jack Thompson was in a romantic relationship with two women, who happened to be sisters.

“That was the first, sort of, public discussion about polyamory and people were [thinking] he was an actor, handsome, so therefore he could get away with it,” says Elisabeth Shaw, CEO of Relationships Australia NSW. “He was, like, the only person who did it; it was seen to be kind of a saucy, outrageous thing that an actor might do. It really felt like a one-off. An end of the discussion.”

Now, she “definitely has much more conversation with people who are coming in about polyamory”. “A lot of young people, in particular, are saying, ‘Well, the proposition that you meet someone and stay with the one person is not the sort of holy grail that we were sold’,” she says, noting that many have come from divorced parents, or have a relative who has divorced.

But this doesn’t mean there is greater acceptance of polyamory throughout the wider Australian publication, according to Shaw.

Many therapists, she says, are inherently mistrustful of these types of relationships.

“People in my own field that are trained in couple work have a mainstream understanding of what a couple is… [so often] I will have a couple ring to check whether I will have issues with [polyamory before I counsel them],” says Shaw. “[Because] there are people in my own field that would have bias and expectations about it, and think immediately that would be a flawed arrangement and unviable.”

Of the wider mainstream view, she says: “You have that heteronormative mindset that this [polyamory] is a version of accepted infidelity. And so, as soon as that’s the framework, then there’s a worry that it’s bound to be an entirely problematic and troublesome arrangement… But, of course what’s very different about this is that it’s based fundamentally on transparency and honesty. So if there is any covert arrangement, or breaching of the agreed boundaries, the same issues come up that come up with any other infidelity. Polyamory is not about being unfaithful or being promiscuous. It’s actually fundamentally about doing this with integrity and having some honesty and transparency.”

So the additional conversations that are now proliferating about alternative romantic relationships are a positive development, she says.

“These are important conversations for me, as a therapist,” says Shaw. “The one point that we should value in all of this is actually being accountable and clear and transparent about what you need and what you’re on about, and what your relationship is about and [that it] is healthy for everybody [involved].

“If someone is prepared to say, ‘This is what I’m on about, will you join me?’, that is itself a much healthier platform to build a relationship [on]. What you’ve got to do is wait for other people who are absolutely on the same page.”

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