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Three's A Crowd?: Finding the Language to Describe My Three-Person Relationship

Please don't call us a throuple.

by Hugh Ryan
Aug 23 2015, 4:17am

Three lovely pelicans, not in a thruple. Photo courtesy of Flickr user ali_arsh

The hardest part of having two boyfriends isn't awkwardly asking for a "plus two" to weddings, nor finding an apartment with enough closet space to hold all of our clothes, nor deciding who gets the dreaded middle seat in the back of the taxi. The worst part of my relationship is the language I have to use to talk about it.

"Thruple" is a hideous neologism that sounds like wet paper being torn. "Threeway" and "threesome" are great if you're writing copy for a porn site, but not if you're trying to have a polite conversation with your boyfriend's Sunday-school-teacher Southern mother. "Love triangle" comes with too much baggage, while "triad" calls to mind gangsters in Southeast Asia. "Tribunal" is too judicial, "troika" too communist, and "triumvirate" is just too damn long. "Triplex," when used with any kind of sexual connotation, sounds like a herpes medication. "Trio" makes us sound like three buds palling around, a mistake that already gets made often enough. My younger brother suggested "Neapolitan"—as in the packs of ice cream that combine vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry—but that feels like too far of a mental leap, and one that would inevitably come with all kinds of racial assumptions.

What's left? Tricycle? Triceratops? Tribble? No, no, and hell no.

I've had a lot of time to think about this in the past five years, ever since I met Jason and Tim, my boyfriend and my "other boyfriend" (yet another horrible bit of phraseology I find myself using on a regular basis). And I know it's been even more linguistically awkward for them. They were together for ten years before we met, which means a decade of being "a couple" and having "a boyfriend." In fact, shortly before we got together, they'd officially become domestic partners, another word that isn't particularly useful in our situation. (Threesome pro-tip: If you try explaining to someone that you have multiple partners, they will assume you work at a law firm.)

For a while, we went old-school with it: I was their "roommate" and "good friend." But with a cumulative 40 years out of the closet between us, that tired old dance lacked even the frisson of the forbidden that made it exciting in high school and college. So we came out, in a series of awkward but loving conversations with our families. My mother, God bless her, had only three questions for me: Are you all "intimate" at the same time? Do you all sleep in the same bed? And, lastly but most importantly: You know this doesn't get you out of having grandchildren, right? (My answers, for the record: "yes," "yes," and "Mom!")

More and more of us are experimenting with relationships we can't quite define. Yet. And I have faith that our language will catch up.

By far the most awkward part of the conversation was—and remains—how to name what we are. But then, that's part and parcel of exploring uncharted territory. As a society, the more unfamiliar or uncomfortable we are with an idea, the more awkward the words for it feel in our mouths. Once upon a time, homosexuality was "the love that dare not speak its name." Given that the options back then were sodomite, catamite, and ephebe, I might have held my tongue too. But, quoth Dan Savage, it got better. Or rather, we made it better through a century of verbal exploration. In order to get to "gay" and "lesbian," we had to pass through all kinds of linguistic podunks, the backwoods of verbiage where a menagerie of strange and wonderful terms now lay forgotten: invert and uranian and homophile; gynophile and tribade and urningtum. Next time you complain about how awkward it is to say LGBTQ, just remember, it could be IUHGTU.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with ordering strange products from the back of comic books. Things like joy buzzers and sea monkeys and other cheap mail order disappointments. Once, I ordered a device that looked like a cement mixer and promised to turn a handful of pebbles into a glittering array of semi-precious stones. After four days of constant grinding—a noise that sounded like the A-train was barreling infinitely through our suburban basement—my father tossed the whole thing out.

We, as a culture, are in that grinding phase, and the labels all feel like pebbles in our mouths. When I talk about my family, my words smash to the ground with the grace of hailstones. "Polyamorous," in particular, has all the kluged-together elegance of a chunk of concrete. Much like "homosexual," it forces a Greek prefix to lie with a Latin root, and the result is monstrously deformed.

To some people, that very awkwardness carries with it an overlay of aggression, as though I am forcing something upon them. Everything I say gets their dander up. It's nearly impossible to have a conversation about the issue, when the words alone are enough to make people stop listening.

Please don't call us a "threeway." Photo via Flickr user Tambako

This is grinding, I remind myself. Some days I can even see it in action: Small communities, mostly filled with people already on the sexual margins, where decades of use have filed "polyamorous" down to "poly." At least from this vantage point I can imagine that it might someday become common parlance. With every step, the next step seems a little more possible.

Mostly, though, I draw hope from other communities whose linguistic evolution is a little further along than ours. In just the last few years, there has been a sea change in public understanding of the concept of "transgender." Make no mistake: We do not yet have laws in place to protect the civil rights of trans people, and it is still somehow considered acceptable to debate the legitimacy of their identities in newspapers and on television. We are still not yet comfortable with trans people in many ways, but we have agreed upon some words with which to wage that discussion. And within LGBTQ communities, further debates are raging about who can use what slang for transgender, and when, and how. Trans people have begun to assert their right to say that certain words are offensive, and come with too much baggage, to be used—much as has every marginalized community at some point on the road to equality.

I dream of the day when Facebook will recognize us with a panoply of polyamorous relationship statuses, from "sister wives" to "primary partners."

But look how much our language has already changed, in just a few short years! And I'm not just talking about words that start with the prefix "trans." Today "sex change" sounds lurid and dated. Instead we say "sex reassignment surgeries." "Genderqueer," a label that goes back at least to the 1990s (if not further), now pulls up 691,000 hits on Google. Just recently, an article in this very paper discussed the use of "Mx." as a gender-neutral (or trans-specific) honorific. But perhaps the biggest change of all is the emergence of "cisgender," which uses the scientific, Latinate prefix "cis" (meaning "on the same side as") to create a word for people who are not transgender. If that feels like a funny progression, you should know that the word "homosexual" was in common usage long before "heterosexual"—and that "heterosexuality" was at first a psychiatric condition, a "morbid" attraction to a member of the opposite sex.

For families like mine, I can't say where things will go from here, what new words will emerge or what familiar ones we will reconfigure into more pleasing shapes. I dream of the day when Facebook will recognize us with a panoply of polyamorous relationship statuses, from "sister wives" to "primary partners." A day when our law and our language reflect the fact that our lives come in a diversity of shapes that detonate the limits of the "nuclear family." In our words, we're not there yet. But in daily practice, in the ways we actually live our lives, we're getting closer by the hour. More and more of us are experimenting with relationships we can't quite define. Yet. And I have faith that our language will catch up.

Until it does, most people refer to Tim, Jason, and me as "the boys," much in the way my father lovingly but awkwardly referred to our first lesbian neighbors as "the girls." Unless and until we have a bunch of sons, that works well enough. But I can envision a future time when kids will look back and think that sounds closeted and strange. In fact, I'm looking forward to it. I'm ready to be an eddy in the river English, a pause along the way to a better world, a better word.

Just—please God—don't let it be thruple.

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Love
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Hugh Ryan
polyamory
three person relationship