Maintaining a healthy monogamous relationship can be pretty hard work. As well as navigating two people’s emotions, quirks and gross habits, you also need to have the whole trust and communication thing down.
It’s a potential minefield of misunderstanding, rejection and jealousy. Which is why for those of us who have been socialised to think of monogamy as the standard relationship template, the idea of adding another person into the mix might seem ludicrous.
But, for couples who have learned to communicate their emotional and sexual needs, actually listen to each other and set clear boundaries, non-monogamy can be a shared experience that brings them together.
“My now-husband Thomas and I met eight years ago and we became a couple very quickly. He was the first person I’d been able to be honest with about my true ideas and sexual desires, without getting an angry reaction,” says Cathy Keen, now 38. “The commitment we had for each other was instantaneous, and I knew we were going to be life partners from the moment we met.”
Where it began
After having their son a year into their relationship, Thomas, now 33, and Cathy decided to go to a sex party together. “We’d had a conversation about being open. I wanted it for my own personal, sexual reasons, and my fantasy was to be with more than one guy. And Thomas wanted to experiment in his own space, and to flirt with and get close to other people.”
At their first party, Cathy, who works in events for couples dating app Feeld, was nervous. But, she soon found women felt very attracted to them as a couple. And, seeing women have a connection with her husband was surprisingly something she was really into. “It wasn’t a dirty, seedy thing,” she says. “It felt warm and fuzzy, and almost like we’d transcended the normal party vibes. It was such a long-lasting experience. We came out of that first party and were skipping down the road.”
Since that first experience deepened the connection between them, Cathy and Thomas, a carpenter, decided to open their relationship. While they've both had individual sexual experiences with other people, they agreed never to lie to each other about them. “We both wanted to remain committed to our family, but allow each other the freedom to explore our sexuality,” she says.
Despite going to numerous other sex parties together, none were quite as transformative as the first – which is how Cathy and Thomas came to realise it wasn’t just sex they were looking for, it was meaningful connection.
“We then started having relationships with other people,” Cathy says. “Some experiences were good, if the people were on the same page as us and wanted what we did. Thomas had a boyfriend on and off who I loved to pieces. And I met people I have connections with too. But some were bad experience because they either fell for Thomas or me, and wanted a monogamous relationship with one of us.”
Meeting their girlfriend
Then, two years ago, Cathy met Nicole Everett while working in events at 23 Paul Street, an ethical house of striptease in East London. Through working together Cathy learned that Nicole was queer, and had been seeing a couple on and off. “I just thought she was so open, and after she told me she’d been with a couple I became more interested in her,” Cathy says.
When an opportunity came up for a quick drink, Cathy introduced Thomas to Nicole. “It felt like a chemical reaction,” she says, “and the sparks went off between them. I’ve always had this twinge of sexual excitement when I see someone I love with someone else. Nothing was explicitly said about the three of us being together, but I just felt this connection.” As soon as they got home, Thomas said to Cathy, “So... did you feel it too?”
Cathy decided to take Nicole out one evening and put the feelers out. Thomas met up with them later, and it went so well, Cathy left them together for some alone time. “I wasn’t ready for a sexual experience with them, but I wanted them to have a night together.”
The next day, Nicole rang Cathy and talked her through the experience she’d had with her husband. “Nicole was just so communicative and open,” Cathy says. “It was clear she shared our values and was really emotionally intelligent. I felt so good about it.” Together, Cathy and Thomas agreed Nicole would be the perfect partner for them.
While Nicole and Cathy have slept together a few times, Cathy defines their relationship as “more intimate than sexual”. She says, “the conversations we have are very open, and we’re really close. Even though we don’t have a regular sexual relationship, we’re very touchy, loving and intimate – and I call Nicole my girlfriend.”
Identifying as a ‘throuple’ or ‘three-way couple’, Thomas and Nicole will go out at the weekend together, and leave Cathy to have time by herself in the house. They might go out together as a three one night during the week, and then the next Nicole will go out with her friends to allow Cathy and Thomas to spend quality time together.
“It just flows really,” Cathy says. “Although I love him to pieces, I think because Thomas and I have been together for eight years, our sexual time isn’t as intense as it was when we were new lovers. We just don’t have the same desires as we did at the beginning… maybe the security takes the adventure out of things a little bit.”
Cathy’s parents have been understanding of their relationship, saying an open three-way relationship wouldn't work for them, but wishing her and Thomas all the happiness. “Thomas’ family found it a bit more difficult,” she says. “They went into themselves and didn’t really talk about it after we told them four years ago. It was a bit of a shock to the system for them, but now they can see we’re happy and settled.”
As she admits, the three of them have until recently existed in an echo chamber where they’re fortunate not to come up against judgement or negative reactions from others. After appearing on MTV’s True Love or True Lies, they were a little shocked by some viewers' vocal reactions to their relationship. “People were saying Thomas and I couldn’t possibly love each other if we also loved Nicole,” Cathy says. “People thought our relationship clearly isn’t working properly. I definitely subscribed to that mindset before we opened our relationship, so I understand that’s some people’s version of truth.”
What Cathy does find hurtful, is people questioning how her relationship affects her son. “I’ve been asked, ‘Why don’t you think about your child?’ Which is quite judgemental,” she says. “I was raised in a very traditional family, and I only had my mother and father to look to who were struggling with each other. To me, extra people in the relationship are extra inspirational adults for a child. Nicole is really close to our son, and he adores her. She brings a different skill set to the relationship which my son is learning from.”
Nicole is currently living with Cathy, Thomas and their son. “We don’t know how long it will last,” she says. “If Nicole wanted to start a family, I would be interested in opening up our family unit and living communally. But Thomas and I will never be monogamous. We have nothing against it, but we’ve learned it just doesn’t work for us.”
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