article

05.07.09

Threesome Marriages

First came traditional marriage. Then, gay marriage. Now, there's a movement combining both—simultaneously. Abby Ellin visits the next frontier of nuptials: the "triad."

Less than 18 months ago, Sasha Lessin and Janet Kira Lessin gathered before their friends near their home in Maui, and proclaimed their love for one another. Nothing unusual about that—Sasha, 68, and Janet, 55—were legally married in 2000. Rather, this public commitment ceremony was designed to also bind them to Shivaya, their new 60-something "husband." Says Sasha: “I want to walk down the street hand in hand in hand in hand and live together openly and proclaim our relationship. But also to have all those survivor and visitation rights and tax breaks and everything like that.”

“I want to walk down the street hand in hand in hand in hand and live together openly and proclaim our relationship,” says Sasha Lessin. “But also to have all those survivor and visitation rights and tax breaks and everything like that.”

Maine this week became the fifth state, and the fourth in New England, to legalize gay marriage, provoking yet another national debate about same-sex unions. The Lessins' advocacy group, the Maui-based World Polyamory Association, is pushing for the next frontier of less-traditional codified relationships. This community has even come up with a name for what the rest of the world generally would call a committed threesome: the "triad."

Unlike open marriages and the swinger days of the 1960s and 1970s, these unions are not about sex with multiple outside partners. Nor are they relationships where one person is involved with two others, who are not involved with each other, a la actress Tilda Swinton. That's closer to bigamy. Instead, triads—"triangular triads," to use precise polyamorous jargon—demand that all three parties have full relationships, including sexual, with each other. In the Lessins case, that can be varying pairs but, as Sasha, a psychologist, puts it, "Janet loves it when she gets a double decker." In a triad, there would be no doubt in Elizabeth Edwards’ mind whether her husband fathered a baby out of wedlock; she likely would have participated in it.

There are no statistics or studies out there, but according to Robyn Trask, the executive director of Loving More, a nonprofit organization in Loveland (yes, really), Colorado, dedicated to poly-education and support, about 25 percent of the estimated 50,000 self-identified polyamorists in the U.S. live together in semi-wedded bliss. A disproportionate number of them are baby boomers. (Paging Timothy Leary: Janet Lessin claims on her Web site that she's able to travel astrally.)

As with a couple, the key to making a triad work is communication. The Lessins' group specifically advocates something called "compersion": taking joy in another person's joy. Thus, they know how to process jealousy. “We don’t have anything take place off-stage,” says Sasha Lessin. “You witness your lover making googly eyes and you share your feelings. It’s not difficult for most people to be compersive once they feel they’re not being abandoned.”

Like most people in the poly community, the Lessins, who also helm the school of tantra (they take pleasure of the flesh quite seriously), take great pains to discuss pretty much everything. Some people even write up their agreements like a traditional prenup, detailing everything from communal economics to cohabitation rules. And buoyed by an increasing acceptance of same-sex unions, others want more legal protections. "We should have every right to inherit from each other and visit each other—I don’t care what you call it, we’re not second-class citizens!” says Janet Lessin. “Any people who wish to form a marriage with all the rights and duties of a marriage should have the legal right to. The spurious arguments of marriage being for procreation of children is ridiculous.”

That said, Valerie White, executive director of the Sexual Freedom Legal Defense and Education Fund, a legal-defense fund for people with alternative sexual expression in Sharon, Massachusetts, says she believes that triads are actually a great way to raise a family. "Years ago, children didn’t get raised in dyads, they got raised with grandparents and aunts and uncles—it was much looser and more village-like," says White. "I think a lot more people are finding that polyamory is a way to recapture that kind of support.” For a year, Loving More's Trask and her then-husband were both involved with another woman, who was a part of the family. Trask's three children knew all about it. “I’m totally out,” says Trask.

Many others aren't. Larry, Rachel and Andie would only talk to me anonymously, due to the fact that Rachel, 47, works at large, traditional financial institution in Manhattan. Larry, 56, met her on a commuter ferry two years ago. At the time, Larry was a member of Poly-NYC, a polyamory group in New York; on their first date, he told her about it. Rachel had just gotten out of a year-and-a-half-long relationship with, unbeknownst to her, a married man. “I was so overwhelmed with Larry’s honesty," she says, "I said to him, ‘I need to look that up and understand it.'"

A few months later, they met Andie, 56 at a poly retreat in upstate New York. Andie has been has practiced "multi-partnering" since the early '90s, and was giving a talk on the subject. Rachel turned to Larry and said ‘Wow, that’s someone I would turn poly for!’ “She was so elegant and classy. I just felt she was a beautiful person.”

While Larry, on the other hand, was not especially attracted to Andie, he was fully supportive of Rachel exploring her attraction. She didn’t, but ran into Andie at a few other events. Andie, in turn, began noticing the quality of the relationship between Larry and Rachel. “They didn’t just go to those meetings and do what happens to other poly partners, that they disappear from each other,” she says. “They stayed together.”

Three months ago, they reconnected at yet another retreat, and this time the three bonded on an emotional level. So they decided to figure out how to make a three-way relationship work. This involves weekly conference calls where they discuss the tenets of the relationship (honestly, respect, communication, jealousy) and agree to undergo blood tests for STDs. They talk about what they want out of life, and each other. “There are people who’ve been married 20 years and never had these kinds of conversation,” says Andie. “I feel blessed.”

Akien MacIain and his wife, Dawn Davidson, have been counseling dyads, triads, quads and once even a quint, in San Francisco for over a decade. On their Web site, they offer tips for creating agreements—among them, “Use Time Limited Agreements Where Needed” (i.e., two weeks, two months, and so on) and “Check in Periodically; Renegotiate if Needed.”

“A triad is a series of dyads, but it’s more complicated because if I’m in a relationship with one other person, there’s my relationship with the other person, her relationship with me, and the relationship that each of us has to the couple,” says MacIain. “When you make it a triad there are four factorial connections. It’s very hard.”

And yet some make it work. Doug Carr, Robert Hill, and Paul Wilson have been a happy threesome for 29 years. The three men, who live outside Austin, Texas, share a bed, a checking account, and joint real-estate properties in each of their names—“a left-handed form of cementing the relationship in a legal context,” says Hill, 69, a retired financier (because of their arrangement, they, too, requested I use pseudonyms). Their ranch is split three ways; they call themselves “husbands” and wear matching wedding bands. Back in 1980, when they met at a furniture store in Dallas, Hill and Wilson were a confirmed dyad for 10 years. Carr, now an assistant dean at a local college, fell for both of them; they developed a friendship, which soon turned to love.

Wilson, 61, a consulting engineer for the health-care community, admits that initially he was less gung ho. “I thought, how is this going to turn out? You can’t read an article in Readers Digest, ‘Twelve Ways to make a Triad Work.’" He finally saw the light on a trip to Vienna the three men took. “I decided to go for it. I turned to them and said, ‘I love you,’ and I love you,’ and let’s make it work.”

They held a commitment ceremony in 1984 for 20 friends, and then a reception for 200 in their house, where we “introduced ourselves to the world as a triad,” says Carr, 49. They would like to marry legally, though they are not holding their breath that it will happen any time soon.

“As far as we’re concerned, in the eyes of God we’re already married—and from an economic standpoint, we’ve taken that as far as we can, ” says Hill.

Despite the fact that they are also “Dad, Daddy and Pappa” to the 4-year-old quadruplets Carr sired with a lesbian couple, they actually see themselves as quite traditional. “We’ve patterned our relationship on the relationships of our parents,” says Hill. “So many gay people throw away all the values they learned at home. Some are worth throwing away, but a lot are not."

“The crux of all this,” he says, "is commitment.”

Abby Ellin regularly writes the Vows column for The New York Times, and previously wrote the Preludes column for that newspaper about young people and money. She is the author of Teenage Waistland, but her greatest claim to fame is naming “Karamel Sutra” ice cream for Ben and Jerry's.