As the weather gets colder, snuggle season sets in, and we all start seeking out lovers to help us warm our bones. Single folks look for wintertime significant others, couples retreat and nest in front of Netflix, and some monogamous pairs even start to stretch their feelers out for a third person to come help keep them toasty.
I get it. There are loads of great reasons to open up your relationship and start dating and canoodling together (or separately). Maybe you’ve entered a sexy era of your marriage, and you’re eager to pepper it with a little extra something in the hay. It could be that you’re yearning to explore a new facet of your sexuality, or you want your partner to experience something different. Whatever it is, there’s nothing wrong with having a little extra love to go around. Polyamory is on the rise, and in U.S. metropolitan areas it’s old news to see couples on dating apps, or three people holding hands on the street or in a restaurant.
Love is love, and a new configuration in your relationship is exhilarating. But sometimes, what’s exciting for the couple can be damaging to the new person joining in. Unicorn hunters – couples seeking out one mythical dreamboat to fill all their insatiable desires – often plow ahead in bringing their fantasies to life without considering how their new person feels.
Polyamory where a couple dates a new person together can be beautiful and empowering for everyone. When it’s done right, a triad can teach you about yourself and show you how to be vulnerable. It opens you up to experiences and emotions that change you for the best. But when it’s done wrong, a three-way relationship can get rocky in no time flat.
I’ve been there – as someone who’s married and poly, I’ve dated people in a trio for years. It hasn’t all been a breeze; the first year was full of hurdles and hiccups, and it wasn’t until my spouse and I started reading poly think pieces and articles that everything changed for the best. Through it all, I learned to avoid one practice above all others: unicorn hunting.
You know what it is about unicorns? They don’t exist. You can strap a horn onto a horse’s brow all you want, and it won’t change the fact that they’re a fantasy. Unfortunately, not all freshly minted poly couples have gotten that memo. They’re too busy tromping through the grass, looking for that one unicorn that will inject magic into their lives, to stop and wonder if their search is fruitless to begin with. Unicorn hunting couples are most often a bisexual woman with a straight boyfriend or husband, and they may be looking to play for the night, but they could be looking to play for keeps.
Either way, the unicorn they’re yearning for can come in a range of looks, interests, and personalities, but generally, they fit one common profile. The standard unicorn is...
While there are without a doubt countless unique configurations of unicorns and hunters that come in all kinds of juicy gender and sexuality blends, the cisgender trio featuring a straight man and two bisexual women is the most common. This focus on two women with one man leaves the poly community joking about a unicorn hunting couple’s “One Penis Policy.” Generally, we write this whole thing off as rooted in a man’s insecurity. Because of this rigid layout, women have room to explore the bounds of their sexuality, but men are assumed straight every time, leaving the stigma against male bisexuality intact.
For some, unicorn hunting is a stepping stone into the diverse world of polyamory, and being a proudly vocal unicorn hunter usually tips off other members of the poly community that these unicorn hunters are new to town. This entry-level practice is one of the more socially acceptable ways to be poly, which is part of its appeal, and for some couples, it’s feels like a way to get frisky with little-to-no risk(y).
But don’t be fooled. Even though this is a more acceptable way to play, it’s still pockmarked with some pretty serious problems.
The biggest issue with unicorn hunting is that, at its core, it prioritizes the needs of a couple over any new person that joins them. They’ve created a specific role with rules and guidelines that make up their “perfect” partner. Usually, the couple that’s doing the hunting has flirted with the idea of finding “a third” for awhile. The two of them have had countless conversations about their fantasies, romantic boundaries, and goals with this mythical third. When that person finally joins the fold, there’s no way for them to live up to the couple’s every ideal – and the couple’s daydreams never seem to factor in this unicorn being an individual with her own romantic goals.
Just take a closer look at the language that comes from the culture of unicorn hunting to see how toxic it really is. The couple refers to themselves as “hunting,” and the unicorn is hunted. Simply put, these women are prey. When couples talk about dating another person together, they often reduce that new person’s title to “a third.” As in, “We’re looking for a third.”
Even if this person moves in with the couple eventually, it’s commonly accepted that a unicorn will always play second fiddle to the original relationship. If this isn’t dehumanizing (not to mention an incredibly tall order), I’m not really sure what is. In fact, Poly Living puts it best when they say that announcing you’re a unicorn hunter is basically announcing that you’re looking for a girlfriend who’s “disposable.”
You could be thinking that all parties consent to hunting and being hunted, don’t they? While to an extent they do, all parties aren’t equally informed about exactly what this means for them. The couple isn’t necessarily advertising that they’re unicorn hunting, and the individual the couple is dating has her own visions and hopes for a relationship or hookup that may not totally mesh with the couple’s ideas. Even if she is just looking to get in on a threesome, you can bet she’s hoping her consent, boundaries, and fantasies will be as valued as the other two’s are.
All in all, the problem with unicorn hunting is that one person in the trio is always treated as less than in and out of the bedroom.
The problem starts at home. Two people comprise a couple, and they came into their relationship as two unique individuals. Together, they formed the parameters and isms that make what they have special and unique; even if you’re in a one night stand, you enter into the relationship taking equal responsibility for how it unfolds.
But when a couple begins to date someone else, the first mistake they make is diving in as an inseparable and indistinguishable unit. They brand themselves as just one personality: a couple who wants a third.
This way of arranging the relationship is lopsided from the get go. Someone who decides to date a couple has to confront the depths of that couple’s history, their ways of doing things, and their existing habits and expectations. It’s intimidating. When a couple has a vision for a perfect addition to their relationship, it’s even more for that new person to handle. At the end of the day, the idea of what the dream woman will or won’t do only keeps her separate from you.
In fact, this kind of rigid thinking makes it so that the person is dating a unit, not people – and how does something like that lend itself to any long-term depth? If you’re too busy thinking about what your partner “can” or “can’t” do, you’re missing out on divine opportunities to encounter and be surprised by lovers with diverse interests, passions, and personalities.
Think of it as if you were just dating the new person for a moment, one on one. How would you feel if they were suddenly giving you rules? What if that person dictated, from the beginning, whether you could do certain things like selling panties or staying out late, or who told you about who you’re allowed to see or the ways you could have sex?
When you look at it that way, this double (triple?) standard just doesn’t stack up.
If you’ve dreamt of having a third person in your relationship and now feel totally lost, don’t throw in the towel just yet. Because of the way our culture is shaped, I feel that many people start out their polyamorous journey more than a little misguided. I know I did.
Although I never went full-on unicorn hunter, I definitely entered the poly game without even knowing what couple privilege was. It took a lot of learning – and a healthy dash of hindsight– to learn the best way to approach a kind of poly that works for me and all of my partners.
Just by reading this, you’re already doing something right: you’re thinking critically about the dynamics of polyamory while dating as a couple. Keeping reading about it. The more you read up on how couples enter a three-way relationship with the upper hand, the more comfortable you can make your new partners feel. Most importantly, don’t just take my word for it. I’ve only lived on the couple side of the equation. Read up on the experience of individuals who date couples, and learn what worked (and didn’t) in fulfilling them. Most of the links in this article are from people who have dated a couple.
Do even more homework. Look up polyamorous blogs, follow polyamorous groups on social media, or attend local poly groups where you can troubleshoot and grow as a community. The more work you put in, the better your relationships will be.
It doesn’t just end with research. Put what you’ve learned into practice. Take pains to make sure your new partner feels equal in your triad. Ask questions, talk openly, and learn what your new partner wants out of a relationship. A poly getup that involves a couple meeting and dating one person together can be absolutely magical. The problems crop up when the couple’s needs are valued more than the new partner’s, time and again.
When you enter a relationship as a couple, acknowledge and embrace each person’s autonomy. Your new partner is not beholden to you, and it’s wrong to expect them to be monogamous with only you two, while you go home and sleep together without them. Instead, encourage them to find love in whatever ways work for them – and be sure to ask what that looks like. Also, talk as a group about what kind of intimate acts you’re all comfortable with. Lay those sexy cards out on the table. It’s not fair to do one act with your spouse, but not with your new partner. Penetration is a common one that’s “off limits.”
I made that mistake early on. And by the time I realized it was a flawed idea, a medical emergency made penetration a frightening prospect for months, and because of it, I was closed off all over again, while still being poly. In those days, any penetration felt like practice and was mentally taxing. I don’t think penetration is on any level necessary for good sex, but I made a big mistake in my poly configurations: the only person I told about why I didn’t want penetration was my spouse. At the same time, I vetoed it when we were with other people. Naturally, there was an imbalance in our poly life, even though I didn’t want it to be there.
Unsurprisingly, around the time my health recovered, my spouse and I fell into a really beautiful and fulfilling three-way relationship with a partner. And honestly? It ruled. Although we moved away, when we visit this person (or they visit us), we don’t have rules or limits. We all three built unique bonds with each other, and I love hearing about the other people they’re dating. By letting go of any lingering unicorn tendencies, I found something without labels that worked for all three of us.
My spouse and I date successfully through a lot of conscious work, but one of the most fundamental rules we both follow is this: never say anything to your long-term partner about the relationship that you won’t say to your new partner. In fact, if you talk about it with your long-term partner, you have a moral obligation to talk to your new partner about it, too – ASAP. Leaving them in the dark while you work through struggles is a fundamental no-no and surefire way to unbalance whatever you’re building.
And when you go on those first few dates, don’t head in with rules or guidelines in your head. Instead, try to figure out what that new person wants. Ask questions, learn about them, and be open to changing your own mind about what you’re looking for. Acknowledge the elephant in the room, too. Dating a couple can be intimidating. Give a voice to it, ask them questions, and answer any of theirs.
If and when things get serious, and you want to be exclusive, propose the idea of being a triad that practices polyfidelity. In this case, you all three are dating each other, are sexually exclusive, and have a relationship that is magical in equal measures for all three – nobody takes precedence over the other.
It’s okay to have done things hurtfully in the past. Reading my first article on couple privilege, it felt like stones were weighted in my belly. I felt so guilty. But I’ve realized this: most of the time, people who are dubbed unicorn hunters have their hearts (and loins) in the right place. They just didn’t think.
You can start now. Deepen the connection you already have with your long-term partner. Encourage each other to read up on polyamory together and separately, and share whatever you find. If you realize you or your partner just aren’t up for talking about polyamory or couple privilege, then y’all just aren’t ready to poly. And that’s fine. But bringing someone else into a relationship when you aren’t willing to read up on how to avoid hurting them isn’t fair, and isn’t right.
If you’re with two women and one man, consider taking penetration off the table the first time you hook up – and not for the reason you might think. By stepping back from penetration and coming into a space that focuses on oral and toys, it puts the emphasis on an in-depth exchange of pleasure that has a lot more levity and a lot less of an “end.” For the week leading up to a first hookup, consider having that same kind of sex with just the two of you, as well. Focusing on each other’s bodies in like this puts the highlight on the moment, on enjoying the right, and often puts a spotlight on the female orgasm!
Slow down and enjoy the moment in all your sexual experiences, and contemplate the sexual limits and boundaries come up for you. If you’re a cisgender man dating a cisgender woman, ask yourself why you’re not comfortable with your partner sleeping with another cis man. Do you view sex between two women as “less than” sex between a man and a woman? When you acknowledge the parts of yourself that are closed, rigid, or just feel wrong, you can move on from there and build a better foundation.
By the time you meet someone and finally date them together, you’ll be better positioned to connect with them as an individual.
And if you’re just looking for sex, be up front about it. Stick to hookup-exclusive apps and be direct about being a couple who’s looking for casual fun. Just make sure your only selling point isn’t being in a couple. Tell the people in the app about you – both of you. What makes you unique? What about your partner? Ask yourself why a prospective fling should choose you two for cocktails and smooching over some other couple – and put the effort in to be your most vibrant (and authentic) self, as well as a good listener.
By being humanizing yourselves instead of dissolving into a strange and indomitable unit, you and any potential partners will be worlds happier than if you’d stayed a unicorn hunter. Even a one night stand is worlds deeper when we’re all tuned in to each other’s desires.
I was flawed when I started out dating poly, and my partners weren’t given the playing field I should have given them. But I learned – and you can too.
Having a partner who knows you better is inevitable when dating a new person with your long-term partner, and your shared history isn’t something to pretend isn’t there. By acknowledging it with your new partner and communicating with them at all junctures, you can cultivate something meaningful for all three of you.
There is no single way to poly – but there are ways you can poly your best. Communicate with all your partners equally, value their time and opinions, and explore with an open heart. The rest falls into place.