To Triad or Not to Triad

Using labels can sometimes be more confusing than helpful if you don't know what the labels mean.

My fiancé S (male, 44) and I (male, 33) have been together for 8 years and as some type of open relationship for most of that time. Until very recently, that always took the form of us playing with another person together, but that only happened maybe 2-3 times a year and even less when we went through two extended periods of being long distance.
Nothing ever progressed past one-off encounters, and most of these encounters were arranged by me through a hook up app despite me encouraging S to do so too. Although S has had his own profiles, he always seemed to enjoy the flirting and initial attention more than having to arrange any sort of meet up, sexual or otherwise.

A few months ago we met another gay couple around our ages I’ll call E and C. I had been chatting for a couple weeks with E on an app so we decided to all meet over drinks and hit it off pretty instantly. Not too long after that we got to the part where we ended up fooling around as a group, and I think everyone had a good time.

Fast forward another couple of weeks, we were all out again and I invited E and C over to finish the night. S decided he wanted to stay out later with another friend but consented that he was ok if I wanted to play with E and C solo. I was apprehensive but went through with it. Wanting to make sure it wasn’t a decision made on a whim, S and I discussed it the next day and decided to explore that being an option moving forward for both of us.

I continued to text with E pretty regularly. C also doesn’t go out of his way to communicate, so everything has largely been mediated through E and I. Ive tried to arrange more hook ups as a group as E had expressed desire to make this a regular thing between us, but they have a hectic home life (i.e. kids) so understandably E and C have had to cancel plans at times.
We otherwise see them regularly, usually a couple days per week, mostly in social situations where sex wasn't necessarily on the table. But there have also been times where S has declined to be social or wanted to do something else so I’ve been out with E and C in settings with other friends of theirs as well.

That’s however led to situations where, with S’s permission, I have also now stayed overnight alone with E and C in their bed a couple of times. I am still struggling at times with NRE and strong attractions I have with them, and the particular attention (both sexual and not) I get when I hang out with E and C alone. E has said that normally C isn’t this comfortable with him giving someone this much one on one attention to another person, but he has freer reigns with me which is of course a big confidence booster.
I am certainly closer with E, and have admitted to S that I’ve developed what feels at times like a crush on him. S knows I am experiencing some pretty intense and confusing emotions including some guilt and feeling selfish for liking all this attention. That’s also swung in the other direction where I’ve sometimes struggled to not take cancelled plans personally and still doubted whether the attraction is mutual, but I’ve been trying my best to not get lost in any of these feelings since it’s such a new relationship.

Recently, after a night where the four of us were all out, E and I had what I thought was a great heart to heart conversation about where things are going. I got plenty of the reassurance that I was craving because E said many flattering things that told me he really enjoyed where things were going. But based on a completely unrelated encounter with someone else earlier that night, E also divulged that while he and C don’t identify as poly per se, they once attempted a triad with this ex partner.
In the context of our current relationship, E mentioned they like the idea of having us as friends to do fun things with regularly, but it also came up that maybe the relationship with me is progressing further than just fwb. I agreed that I was really enjoying having this connection with E and C over pursuing more one-time hook ups. The words “dating” and “boyfriends” came up, and in the moment, I was very intrigued by the possibility of those labels.
I know enough that it’s also a lot of work that I may not even be cut out for given the circumstances and so everything remained purely hypothetical. Anyways, that night we both acknowledged this sort of escalation wasn’t a topic that would be resolved or worked out in one conversation and left it at that for the time being. E has generally been upfront with wanting S to be comfortable with everything going on knowing we’ve just taken this step to open our relationship more.

Wanting to be honest with S, I brought up the entire conversation I had with E, and he reacted very strongly against any sort of movement past the current status quo. He's joked in the past about E being my “new boyfriend”, but using that word in earnest would cause him serious discomfort. So in an academic fashion, I wanted to dig a bit more and asked first about what activities actually counted as “dates” if only to also make sure there weren’t lines already being crossed.
He went on to say that any activity alone with one of E or C that is a pre-defined “date” makes it romantic in his eyes, and he does feel come with me “falling in love” with other people. I can follow his line of thinking, but have to admit these lines still seem blurry to me and I hoped establishing significant boundaries on our home lives would be big enough guardrails to indicate S would always be my priority. I reassured S this was never anything other than a hypothetical and that I still would have my own reservations about it. I have always been firm with everyone involved that at no point would I even want anything that changes my current living arrangement or marriage commitments to S.
But on some level I was hoping this wouldn’t be a hard “no” and something we could at least talk through even if the answer ended up being the same. At face value, those labels didn’t necessarily seem as much of a relationship changing dynamic to me, but S is ultimately still afraid our relationship will change too much and I can understand that is a very powerful and reasonable fear for someone in his current position. Importantly, S told me he is still supportive of my current relationship dynamic with E and C.

Complicating things further is S recently had to make the tough decision to end a long-term best friendship, and we have potentially lost a few other mutual friendships by extension. So on one hand I know this has already been a lot for S and these reactions also stem from ongoing feelings of loneliness that he is still working through. On the other, a lot of these feelings seem to me to also be a last ditch attempt to control feelings of mine that may have either already left the station or could also resolve themselves with time anyways.
He’s already given permission for me to be in much more intimate settings with E and C without his involvement, and those could just as easily be an on-ramp to romantic feelings as a one on one “date” over restaurant food. Before this most recent development, I’d been already encouraging S to put himself out there and hopefully find a regular fwb of his own with some potential people he’s hoping to meet soon before going further. When I asked how getting drinks, for example, with one of these people was different than if it was me with E or C, he rationalized that it would only be to get to know that person initially.
He seems adamant he will be able to then compartmentalize the sex with any feelings, but I suppose could just be a difference in how we approach sex and new relationships. I crushed hard on S when we first started dating, and was very inexperienced and overwhelmed with NRE and emotions back then too. I had hoped I would handle this better now, but S has otherwise been supportive of me working through these similar feelings with E and C, and I have to give him the benefit of the doubt he’ll be as open and honest if it ever does happen to him too.

Again, Im trying to chalk up some of these conflicting reactions to S mostly being on the outside looking in to my new relationship and feeling left out. I also didn’t want to accidentally string E and C along thinking this is an option if S remains against it as I suspect he will. And despite knowing E and C are very conscious of this only going as far as everyone is collectively comfortable with, I clumsily tried to have a conversation with E about all of this. It was very one-sided so I am now left feeling that Ive made things awkward despite E’s overall response being basically it’s ok, we are go with the flow.

We’ve clearly jumped into this quickly, and probably too quickly, but this is the situation we’re in. While everyone involved in these discussions has been generally willing to communicate to a degree, I’m unclear with when communication on these issues becomes forced and worried I’m making things worse every time I try to talk about it by dumping my feelings on others. My anxiety is through the roof and I’m just generally having trouble taking a step back and letting this new relationship still progress naturally within the bounds I’ve now been given.

A lot of people begin open relationships with the rule or even the idea that they won’t develop romantic feelings for people outside of the partner they’re currently with. I would always advise against this type of rule because I don’t think that it’s that easy to tell when you “have feelings” for someone. It’s very nebulous and in terms of what “having feelings” means for people… well, it’s very different. Some people can have strong feelings for someone else and not feel any need to even be in a romantic relationship while for others, if they have strong feelings they feel strange if they don’t act on them.

I think what’s unclear here is what your feelings for E or C actually *mean*. Your partner is understandably nervous about the structure of your relationship changing because, even if it is an “open relationship”, it seems like you’ve not really had a discussion about the structure of what your relationship is going to look like as time passes. It feels like for S, an “open relationship” is really just about sexual experiences and not about forming new romantic relationships. And it seems like you haven’t necessarily not wanted that but it’s sort of developed without you thinking about it.

That’s one of the reasons why I think that the label of “boyfriend” has S nervous here, because then it’s not just about seeing each other for hookups, but about something more. And it may be that the nervousness around you having romantic feelings for others is also about the structure of your current relationship changing.

So there’s two levels of this question you need to explore before approaching E and C about this general situation. Firstly, you need to ask yourself what is *your* ideal non-monogamous set up. It’s understandable that you enjoy the attention and focus from E and C and that’s understandable, but do you want a romantic relationship with people outside of S? What do you think that would look like physically for you? Do you imagine staying with E and C for a few nights a week? If something were to happen with E and C, would you still pursue other romantic relationships? Are you curious or is this something you feel you could “give up”? And if you do decide that you don’t want to pursue a romantic relationship with E and C, do you feel comfortable with continuing to see them?

Once you decide if this is actually for you, then you need to figure out if you and S are actually compatible in terms of your non-monogamy. Two people can want an open relationship but not necessarily be compatible. Does S mind if you’re not there for a few weeknights? What is the physical reality of the life that S wants with you now and in the future and is that also what you want? Is there room for compromise or is there room for you to give up what you want — if that’s what you want to do?

All of those questions are important to answer before you even broach the subject with E and C, because that’s another aspect of this. Are E and C interested in a triad style or a more parallel style. What happens if E and C break up? What is the physical reality of the relationship they want with each other and is that compatible with what you and S want? Is there room for comparison all around?

Rather than using labels like “boyfriend” to communicate things like this, make it clear what it is that you all want and see where you’re all compatible. Because just banning those labels or having an emotional reaction to those labels isn’t necessarily the issue. It’s what’s behind those labels and what’s behind those labels is how the relationships between you and S and the relationships between E and C could change. It’s important to remember that as much as we may plan for things to be the same, life doesn’t always go along with your plan. Something could happen to you, S, E or C that could completely change your lives.

But still, it’s important to have discussions about what you physically want out of relationships and what you envision your ideal lives to look like. Maybe when you have a better idea of the things you want and the things you’re unwilling to compromise on, there will be a clearer vantage point for you to be able to make a decision about what it is that you want, what you’re willing to compromise on, and what you feel like is the best course of action for yourself and your relationships.

If you have the ability to see a couples counsellor, that’s always a good option when negotiating boundaries and wants. And it’s sometimes a very scary thing because this could mean finding out that you and S are not fully compatible or accepting that you may have to draw lines around your relationship with E and C. Some people can absolutely have strong romantic feelings for someone without that needing to develop into a relationship and exist in that sort of liminal space without needing things to be defined. But it seems like in this case, figuring things out and making it a bit clearer will help where it’s possible.

I hope this helps and good luck.

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