With grateful acknowledgement to Jenny

Often in poly relationships, one person may be dating or considering dating another person who is already part of an existing couple. Sometimes, one person may be considering dating both members of an existing couple. It’s quite common for polyamorous people to begin new relationships while already in a relationship; this is, after all, the nature of polyamory.

If you’re considering dating someone who’s already in an established relationship, it might be tempting to believe that person has less at stake than you do—less risk of hurt, less emotional vulnerability—because, after all, that person already has someone else to fall back on if your relationship doesn’t work out, right?

In practice, it doesn’t work that way. Being involved romantically with someone does not make the pain of losing a relationship any less. (In fact, I’ve written an entire essay on this topic.) This page is intended to provide some tips for would-be “third wheels” to avoid causing unnecessary pain.

- If any of the people concerned are bisexual, it’s important for those people to be completely up front about it, and about the expectations (if there are any) of sexual or emotional intimacy.

Sometimes, when a person who self-identifies as “bisexual” begins dating someone in an existing relationship, there may be an expectation that he or she should be sexually or romantically involved with everyone in that existing relationship. This kind of expectation, especially if it’s unspoken, can create all sorts of tension. If the couple expects the romantic relationship to include both of them, but the person entering the relationship does not, it’s particularly important that everyone understands everyone else’s intentions clearly. If you’re interested in one member of the existing couple, but not both of them, say so. Likewise, if you are interested in both members of an existing couple, say so. By defining the parameters up front about who you expect to be intimate with, you can avoid a lot of grief down the road.

- Be very skeptical of couples who say things like “We only want someone who will date both of us” or “We expect someone to have the same feelings for both of us.” It’s generally neither reasonable nor possible to expect relationships with two different people to develop at the same rate and in the same way; there are many people who try to make this happen, but it very rarely works. This combines two of the most common poly mistakes—trying to force relationships to fit a predefined shape, and expecting different relationships to develop the same way—into one.

Worse, some couples try to use this as a way to avoid dealing with jealousy or insecurity, naively believing that if both members of the couple are dating the same person, then nobody will feel “left out,” and therefore nobody will feel jealous. In reality, it doesn’t work that way; jealousy, like all emotional responses, is rarely rational, and does not often give way to rational thoughts like “Well, I’m having sex with her too, so I shouldn’t feel jealous if he has sex with her!”

- Don’t assume that it’s necessary to develop a relationship with both people in a couple in exactly the same way; relationships grow on their own, and no two relationships are ever the same anyway. Doing this may impose unrealistic expectations on you; even if you were to date identical twins, it would be reasonable to expect each relationship to develop differently! Remember, you may be dating a couple, but each person in that couple is still an individual.

- Don’t take one half of the couple’s word that the other half “is fine with it” on anything you propose to do for the first time. This is particularly a problem with “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationships, where it may be difficult or impossible for you to verify whether or not your prospective lover’s partner is even okay with the idea of non-monogamy at all!

Similarly, don’t take one person’s word for the way the other person is feeling or thinking. Even the slightest trace of misunderstanding, ambiguity, or wishful thinking can quickly escalate into a full-fledged meltdown. If you have any questions, go to the person involved directly.

Maintaining a successful relationship with one half of a couple often relies on good communication with both members of that couple.

- Don’t start a relationship with one member of a couple, unless you are prepared to be involved to some extent with both of them. This might sound elementary. Read it again, anyway. Regardless of whether or not you are dating both members of the couple, a relationship exists between you and both members of that couple, in the sense that each of them can have an impact on the shape your relationship takes.

I’m not saying you must be romantically involved with both members of an existing couple. What I am saying is that your partner’s other relationship can and probably will affect you relationship.

If one member of the couple wants to have nothing to do with you, wants no contact or communication with you, or seems reluctant to even acknowledge your existence, take this as a warning sign. The likelihood is rather high that this will lead to grief down the road. At the very least, it makes asking for the things you need significantly more difficult, and it forces your partner to separate her relationship with her other partner from her relationship with you, making time management, scheduling, and communication more challenging.

- Understand that whether you are dating both halves of a couple, or forming a V relationship, there is an existing bond that is very important to the people concerned. The strength of that bond directly impacts the amount of love and energy available to you—the stronger the bond, the more goodies for you.

You cannot fix a broken relationship. If the couple is already having problems, adding a new relationship with you to the mix isn’t going to fix those problems. The stronger their relationship, the better the foundation for your relationship; and the more problems exist in their relationship, the more problems will likely occur in yours.

- Don’t become the go-between in the couple’s relationship. This is asking for trouble—and if things go badly, which they almost certainly will, you’re likely to end up being seen as the villain.

- Don’t expect someone else to be a go-between for you. If you are involved with one member of an existing couple, don’t expect the person you’re involved with to act as a go-between for you and the other partner. If you have questions or concerns about your partner’s other partner, talk to that person directly about them!

- Be clear what you need and expect from a relationship, and be clear that your lover or lovers are willing and able to meet your needs and expectations, or at least treat them with respect.

- Understand what their “rules” are. Just as importantly, seek to understand why those rules exist; that way, you avoid the dangers inherent in obeying the letter of the rules but violating their spirit.

- Understand that “rules” are based on feelings, and feelings can change, and this may mean the rules need to be renegotiated. This includes your rules and your feelings.

- You have the right to make yourself heard. If you feel that a rule is unreasonable, or if a rule is actively acting against your interests, or if some agreement on the part of the couple excludes you from getting what you need from the relationship, say so. There is no shame in asking for what you need, and if you do not ask for what you need, you can not reasonably expect to have what you need. Understand, though, that asking for something does not and should not automatically mean you get it.

- The couple’s relationship is not more important than your relationships with them. It is longer-lived. It operates on a different set of rules. But it is NOT more important.

- Remember that while you may sometimes miss out on time with your lover(s), due to competing commitments, you will often get better-quality loving, because you are not always available and therefore taken for granted like the long-term partner.