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New Triads: Relationships on Hard Mode

There are a dozen excellent articles out there on how not to be a unicorn hunter; today’s post assumes you’re not, but looks at the emotional challenges of the early days of a triad. One of the things people say a lot, when they’re trying to outline why triads are Hard Mode (but also an ideal for a lot of people) is that the relationships necessarily grow unevenly and that this requires special attention to make sure that the people involved don’t feel badly about this. Full disclosure, this is the other half of the reader question posed last time - the lovely reader in question was entering a new triad and wanted advice on pitfalls and solutions to them for new triads, and advice on how to help their partner with guilt from monogamous conditioning. This half seeks to point out and then offer mitigation to the most common problems faced by new triads.

The case where the difference in relationships is the most obvious is the one where a couple seek to date together- their one, five, or ten years of partnership creates an automatic power imbalance and can create pressure either for both relationships with the new person to grow at exactly the same pace or to make relationships with the new partner “catch up” with the existing relationship. If the former is the concern, you get situations where it becomes either necessary to only spend time together all together, or where there’s insecurity and guilt if one of the relationships is growing “too slow” to keep up with the other. But I don’t know anyone who can say all their relationships actually grew at the same pace, or that they don’t have a “default speed,” but also if the connection is immediate enough they’re willing to go faster with a partner whose “default” is faster.

So you can get a situation where in an existing couple trying to date, one person’s default is much faster than the other; they had a good connection, so they went fast with each other, and the new person has a good connection, so they’re tumbling head over feet for Fast Partner- but both New Partner and Slower Partner default slow and steady. They’d find that perfectly reasonable if Fast Partner wasn’t a reminder that they can go fast- so why aren’t they, here? And a world of insecurity spins up around it, on New Partner and Slower Partner’s part. New partner worries that if they don’t “balance” things - slow down with Fast Partner and speed up or pretend to with Slower Partner- They’ll lose both, because of those years of inbuilt power dynamic. And Slower partner worries that they aren’t falling head over heels like they did with Fast Partner, so is this real? Or are they holding back this other relationship? Should they just break up and make it a V and lose this pile of worries?

Before we come to solutions, let’s discuss that second way it goes wrong: wanting to make the relationship with New Partner catch up with the existing relationship as quickly as possible. This worry makes even relationship tortoises into hares. They want to make sure they banish a pesky power differential as quickly as possible by bonding deeply and professing love early and often; there is none of the “build up” - this is a modern love story, not a Regency novel where we stand across the room and long for our love whilst knowing it’s improper to tell them so soon. As a person who has been both tortoise and hare (I once told someone I loved them two weeks into dating them; and two others at six weeks- neither in ways that violated my “I love yous within ten minutes of sex don’t count” rule- but it’s also taken me a year, more than once, to say those three little words) I feel pretty confident in saying that it has no effect on the length or quality of my relationships. It’s perfectly valid to do either. But if you’re going to be working around expectations of one or all parties that two new relationships grow as rapidly as possible to “catch up to” a third preexisting one, you need to be aware of how much extra work that is and make sure your partners know that’s where your head is at. A variation on this second concern: a “V” becoming a triad can feel like that last-formed side of the triangle has to play catch-up to be “equal” to the two existing relationships, and this can cause the same set of reactions.

Now, my gentle readers, not all is lost. These work sometimes, and here are some strategies and solutions to help it not explode in your face.

The first problem we discussed, trying to make both “new” relationships in a triad grow at the same pace as one another, is not unique to equilateral triad attempts, although you see it most often there. It also happens in other shapes of polycule where relationships happen to start close together- whether one person meets two new people with partner potential as well or an existing couple have great luck lining up good dates at the same time and get stuck on too much comparison as they move forward. The principal way to deal with this in a triad is to give each relationship its own time. In every triad there are at least four relationships that need work and support: A and B, B and C, C and A, and A, B, and C together. (You can argue that because one’s internal relationship with oneself matters too, there are 7 relationships that need tending.) The reason I point this out is because many triads that run into trouble allow separate chatting but in person rely heavily on everyone being together; and especially people with a Quality Time love language, but honestly everyone in relationships, need dyad alone time to let those flourish, and “everyone goes at the same pace” people often don’t have much of it; or only offer it via phone and then are shocked when the person with a more similar schedule or whose job allows more texting end up more intimate more quickly.

The solution that grows out of this concept is that you need to give each relationship its own time, and if the whole triad is logistically easiest, that’s fine but still build time in for the three other relationships. If you’re local, have date nights for each dyad, and prioritize them when you can over triad time (and let’s be real - you can, a lot, if you decide you want to). If you’re long distance so “triad time” is the default for in person time, build your digital time schedule to give each dyad time - including the one that previously existed, because while the stereotype is that this relationship has “all the power,” if we’re assuming good intentions in all our participants, this is a relationship that needs time to have good times and not JUST adjust to or “be added to” by the new person. Using “time off” on your two partners’ date times to do self care or tend to preexisting relationships outside the triad, or seek new ones, gives it purpose and helps it not just be a pile of FOMO. None of this is any guarantee that the relationships will grow at the same pace, or that there won’t be negative feelings or jealousy about pace, but it gives everyone as close to equal footing to be working from as possible.

If the issue is that someone (or all of you) are trying to “catch up” new relationships to the commitment or intensity levels of an existing relationship, my honest advice is: Don’t. Don’t have that as a goal. That goal requires comparison, and builds GREAT feelings for anyone who does early intensity well and TERRIBLE feelings for anyone who doesn’t. It’s also potentially very threatening to an existing partner if only one person from the “original” dyad is in that frame of mind - there’s a lot of cultural conditioning around “the new shiny” that makes NRE scary. So if you’re combining NRE for a new person with trying to in months bring their relationship to not just the consent and ethics equal footing it should be at anyway with your existing relationships, but to a commitment equal footing as something that’s lasted 3, 5, or 10+ years… That’s going to set off every culturally preconceived “This is when I get left” fear and the attendant jealousy and withdrawal possible. That applies to both the main and minor points of part 2 above.

The other possible situation that grows out of that “catching up” sub-concern is the pressure it can imply or actually include for a third romance to grow out of a V, whether this is for optics and acceptance, for one partner’s (usually the hinge, but sometimes one of the ends of the V) greater satisfaction in the way the situation is unfolding, or someone’s idealization of an equilateral triangle triad rather than a V with a friendship between the ends. This has the same solution of individual communication within dyads, and also being willing to adapt to changes. Have a frank talk about “hey, while we’re all super in love now, can we build a plan for if that ever changes?” Human nature being as imperfect as it is, you can’t ever really plan away every contingency, but making sure that everyone has a genuine goal that ending one dyad’s relationship and turning a triad into a V doesn’t break up all the relationships involved can save everyone a lot of fear, and making contingency plans that are honest about how much space people have needed after past breakups can give their other partners a sense of how much adjustment would need to happen if any of the three relationships ended.

This all has come out sounding rather heavier than I meant it to; while these relationships are challenging, when they work they’re exceptionally lovely, and they do work a fair bit of the time. The closer you intertwine more people the more effort you have to exert to keep the relationships from push-pulling on each other, and so triads require a little more balancing act than a V or a portion of a chain, in general. I wish all of you in them, especially in new ones, a great deal of love and success.

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How about when the existing 10+year relationship over compensates way too far to make sure the new one feels no hierarchy power stuff but it goes so far that the exsisting one barely exsists outside of the triad? I've seen it happen more than once, with good intentions wanting to prevent new partner from any bad feels, or unicorn fears and it creating a bunch more issues.

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