So You’re Looking for a Third

AKA: How to not be a polyamorous unicorn hunter

Let’s get something important out of the way here:

Threesomes are way easier to coordinate than a closed polyamorous triad.

  • closed: exclusive relationship
  • polyamorous: loving connections between more than two people
  • triad: a relationship including three people

It’s true. And if you’ve ever tried to coordinate a threesome, you know how hard that can be. (Haven’t tried yet? Give it a whirl. The lesson will come in handy on your search for a polyamorous third.)

Add feelings to the equation? Add a whole relationship? Talk about passing a camel through the eye of a needle.

If you just want threesomes, this should come as a relief. You’re not seeking polyamory—and that’s okay!

There’s nothing wrong with casual sex, including casual sex with more than two people. There are plenty of hookup apps, sites, and play parties where you can seek threesomes out as a couple.

If you just want threesomes, this post isn’t for you. I don’t care if you want casual sex with your partner and another person, and I’d argue that the vast majority of the polyamorous community doesn’t care, either. Go forth and have fun!

If you want a closed polyamorous triad, however, and feel like you’re in a good place to start searching, read on.

“What are unicorn hunters, and why does everybody hate them?”

Photo by cottonbro

If you’ve posted in any polyamorous spaces about seeking a third, you’ve likely already heard about unicorn hunting.

I’m going to lean on some of the great writers who have come before me to define this term. Here’s one from the invaluable unicorns-r-us.com site (10/10 recommended reading):

Unicorn Hunters are a male/female couple, the female partner is bisexual while the male partner is heterosexual (mostly), and they are looking to have a woman start dating them together.

David Noble

This is the most common situation people refer to when they say ‘unicorn hunting.’ While it is certainly possible for couples of other gender identities to seek a third of any gender identity, the M/F seeks F structure is so common in polyam circles and has been for so long that, honestly? It’s played out af.

But it’s true: F/F, M/M, F/NB, M/NB, and NB/NB couples can play into some of the same toxic scripts so many unicorn hunters have, so it’s good to be aware of what those are if you’re any couple seeking ‘a third’.

As for unicorns, I like how Andre Laroussini frames what it’s like to be in their shoes:

…think about what the dating opportunities look like for a hot, bisexual, sexually open woman. Out of the limited pool of hot, bisexual, sexually open women out there, many are just not inclined to date a couple…and the ones that are have all the single people on the planet to pick from, in addition to all those other unicorn hunters.

Andre Laroussini

Ask yourself: Why would a unicorn choose to enter an exclusive relationship with you and your partner? Sure, you’re awesome for each other, but will you be awesome for and to them?

If you have rules about things like

  • who can/must fall in love
  • what sex acts can/can’t happen
  • who can/can’t have sex with who
  • how quickly things can move
  • how often people get together, or
  • how much time the third has to commit to each of you

…those certainly aren’t selling points. Looks like a recipe for this flowchart:

Franklin Veaux

If a third has little to no say in the relationship and risks being tossed aside when one of you is no longer ‘feeling it’ with this polyamorous experiment of yours—why bother? There are plenty of more easygoing, non-exclusive couples out there, and they’re much more fun at parties (both the sex kind and otherwise).

Not only that, but falling in love with two people is hard. How long did it take you to find one partner you could love as deeply as you do? If you’re lucky, maybe it didn’t take long. Many people spend years looking for that kind of connection—forming it with two people simultaneously is a huge ask.

At the end of the day, the odds are astronomically against couples actively seeking someone to ‘complete their triad’ because what they offer often isn’t very attractive to would-be thirds. So much so that finding one is considered mythical…thus the ‘unicorn’ name.

How Poly Triads Actually Form

Photo by Darina Belonogova

“Okay,” you may say, “but closed triads do exist. How do they happen?”

Great question! In my experience, there are quite a few ways triads form. Here is one common path I’ve seen play out:

  1. A couple starts having casual threesomes with others. This may happen at play parties, via a hookup app/site, picking women up at bars, or some other way.
  2. The couple has every intention of keeping things casual. They may have threesomes for years like this without ever developing feelings for any of their Special Guest Stars. Many couples have threesomes and group sex this way for decades and never become polyamorous.
  3. One day, a Special Guest Star comes along who is Really Good. The couple invites that person back for more, and more, and more. Then…
  4. …one of the partners in the couple develops feelings. In some cases (not all), the Special Guest Star feels the same way about that person. Or they don’t. Maybe they are into the other partner, who doesn’t reciprocate. Or maybe both partners in the existing couple are falling for the third, but the third is unsure whether they feel the same way about both partners, or to the same degree, or maybe they only like one of them romantically.
  5. *CHAOS ENSUES*. The ‘love triangle’ trope plays out in any of a number of ways. The original couple feels unsure the relationship will survive. There are usually a lot of tears, vulnerability, and confessions of fear and insecurity. Relationship weaknesses come to the surface. Some people are better emotionally equipped for this than others. Sometimes, the original relationship falls apart.
  6. …or it doesn’t. In some cases, the Special Guest Star and a mutually attracted partner bond, and it somehow doesn’t Ruin Everything for the person who was perhaps initially left out. This reaction pleases everyone. Everyone grows. Everyone spends time out of their comfort zone and, if lucky, the relationships survive the upset. Bonds form. The connections between all of the partners are unique from one another. The original couple’s relationship is forever changed. They’re no longer a couple, but a triad, and their pre-existing relationship holds little or no priority over the Special Guest Star they’ve fallen for.

This is far from the only way a triad can form. I’ve also seen:

  • three friends who had all dated each other separately over the years realize that the reason none of their couplings ever worked out was because they were meant to be a ‘tripod’ (triad).
  • couples who let a friend crash on their couch or in their spare room for a while and—oops! One partner fell in love, the other partner didn’t protest much, and there they were.

Pro Tip: The Normalizing Nonmonogamy Podcast is an excellent place to listen to true stories of people’s paths into nonmonogamy, including triads.

Personally, I’m struggling to think of any triads I know of that came about as a result of unicorn hunting. That isn’t to say it’s impossible, just that at least in my experience it’s less common. (If your triad formed this way, please reach out! I’d love to hear/share your story.)

“We don’t want casual threesomes. We want a shared partner who we’ll both love.”

Photo by juan mendez

Okay, you’re determined. I see that.

Let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

In your existing relationship, there’s you, your partner, and the relationship between you and your partner. That’s three things to keep secure.

In a triad, there’s:

  1. you
  2. your partner
  3. your third
  4. the relationship between you and your partner
  5. the relationship between you and your third
  6. the relationship between your third and your partner

SIX things to keep secure. That is work. And while you won’t be doing it alone, keep in mind that everything is interrelated. Issues between your partner and a third will inevitably affect things between you and each of them as well. And of course, people’s individual sense of security can and will take hits as unexpected emotions come up—including your own.

If you or your partner are not already the kind of people who can stand on your own two feet if the other partner is emotionally unavailable, take pause. Think about what would happen if one of you needed to immediately go spend one-on-one time with a third to work through some critical issues, but you’ve been having issues between the two of you as well.

Sound tough, but doable? Great! You’re on the right path.

But if your response is, “Well, we’d just ask the third to wait until me and my partner work our stuff out first,” I’ve got some bad news for you: you’re a unicorn hunter.

How to Identify a Unicorn Hunter

Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Let’s get back to why unicorn hunters are so scorned in polyamorous communities, and what you can do to avoid being one.

There are some key things to watch out for when identifying unicorn hunters. Here are descriptions used by Jesse Dagger in To Unicorn Hunters, From an Ex-Unicorn that I like:

With regards to the unicorn’s ‘role’—

She is expected to fit in to their relationship without changing the existing relationship with the couple, and if they feel that she’s not following any rule, she’s out, to protect The Couple.

With regards to ‘protecting the couple’—

The main difference between people looking for a triad and Unicorn Hunters is that Unicorn Hunters tend to look at the third partner as an addition to their relationship, instead of realizing that you’re creating a brand new relationship, with three people instead of two.

There’s no way to build a lasting triad that protects the pre-existing couple without treating the third unfairly.

Even if you find the rare third who is happy to be ‘secondary’, a sort of best-friend-with-benefits for both of you, it’s almost unheard of for secondaries to be content with only dating and having sex with one couple—at least not for very long. Eventually (and understandably), these partners want either equity in the relationship or the freedom to date others.

It’s also really not polyamorous to try to protect your relationship this way. Polyamory is about many loves. Trying to control how much love anyone in a triad gives or receives just doesn’t align with polyamorous values.

Protecting your relationship means you’re not acting from a place of love for your future third. Instead, you’re acting from a place of fear—fear of what the third will do to or reveal about your existing relationship.

Complete relationship protection is unrealistic in the context of polyamory. Love cannot be constructed, forced, or controlled. Trying to predict love or put up walls to contain feelings is simply foolish.

Accepting Risk

In order for opening up to a third to work, both partners must accept that doing so from a place of genuine love requires relinquishing some control. It requires trust that your relationship is strong enough to survive whatever comes, or that if it isn’t, that it’s worth trying and learning whatever lessons there are along the way.

It means trusting each other to communicate through whatever happens and respect other people as fellow human beings, not as puzzle peices that may or may not fit your relationship ‘hole’. (Also: Please don’t use people to try to patch your rocky relationship. It’s bad form.)

Unexpected things will come up. Things you can’t imagine, both good and bad, will alter your relationship in ways that can’t be undone. One year from the day you find your great-fit third, your pre-existing relationship will likely be unrecognizable…for better or worse.

This is the chance you must be willing to take to truly and fully welcome a third into your relationship. Opening up at that level inhertently introduces risk to your existing relationship, and it’s risk you both must accept before you can move forward.

Note: It isn’t uncommon for pre-existing partners in a new polyam triad to feel the need to grieve the loss of their original relationship as it was.

Monogamy has some pretty cool perks, like built-in security and a shared history that can feel like a beautiful masterpiece woven over years. Adding a new thread is exciting, but it means changing the way things have been done, and saying goodbye to a good thing is always hard—even if it’s to step into something potentially more exciting and growth-inducing.

Be open to grief and, eventually, acceptance. Exciting things are ahead.

How to Approach Seeking a Third

Photo by ELEVATE

The first thing you need to know about seeking a third while avoiding unicorn hunting is that it is exponentially more common for a third to be more attracted to one partner in a couple than the other.

This attraction may expand to include the other partner eventually, but it might not. There’s no guarantee.

A ‘V’ relationship (where one partner has two partners who aren’t involved with each other) is generally easier to achieve and thus more common in polyamory than a closed triad. Being open to a ‘V’ or ‘Z’ (where two connected partners each have separate outside partners) drastically increases your odds of finding compatible people.

I know that for many, this is a huge compromise. It’s too far a deviation from the ‘ideal’ of a closed triad. It only gets harder from there, though. Seeking a third realistically requires:

  • accepting that no one can control or force love
  • accepting that love doesn’t follow ‘rules’
  • actively working to challenge your own couple’s privilege

Dagger offers these pieces of advice:

Don’t set rules to combat jealousy. All it does is coddle jealousy. If you say that your wife can’t kiss her new boyfriend (a surprisingly common rule) it doesn’t keep them from getting intimate and close, it simply builds resentment that the rule is in place, and perhaps even paranoia on your part that the rule was broken.

Just as rules for your partner won’t help, neither will rules for the third:

One of the biggest problems with unicorn hunters is that they often tell the third person that they need to divide their time, affection, and sexual interaction equally between the existing partners, without offering the same to that person. Not that making that offer would help, since it is impossible to promise an equal division of any of those.

Rules like the second one are often made in an attempt to be ‘fair’ or ‘equal’. But no two people’s needs, desires, and boundaries are alike. Fair and equal will look different for each partner and partnership.

The trouble with these rules goes beyond their impossibility, however.

The term for [protective rules] is “couples privilege” and just like unicorn hunting it’s extremely common. You have set up a rigged system that makes your third expendable before you’ve even met her because you want to protect your existing relationship

Andre Laroussini

Couple’s privilege exists even if you don’t practice hierarchical or closed polyamory (polyfidelity), but it’s especially prevalent in these situations. A third won’t have the history and relationship security you and your pre-existing partner have; that puts them at a disadvantage. Exclusivity also means your third isn’t free to seek other partners outside the relationship, something you just had the benefit of doing.

Acknowledge this privilege and work to put more power in the hands of any potential partners you meet. Reading the Proposed Secondary’s Bill of Rights can be very helpful here.

Hierarchical and Non-Heirarchical Polyamory

Photo by Will Mu

A ‘secondary’ is a third who is not prioritized over the pre-existing relationship. This is hierarchical polyamory.

If you’re planning to practice hierarchical polyamory, you’ll need to put a lot of work into making sure your third is treaded fairly. Center their needs, wants, and desires in early talks. If they say they’re comfortable being a secondary, ask what being a secondary means to them. All three of you will need to work together to agree to what it means for all of you, rather than the role being dictated to the third.

For non-hierarchical polyam folks, there still has to be an acknowledgement that equity does not mean equal. For example, one partner’s love language may be quality time while another’s is receiving gifts. Equal time with each partner may not give the gift-receiver what they actually need to feel loved, but extra gifts to the gift-receiver might stoke jealousy in the partner who is normally content with quality time. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Whether you go with a hierarchical or non-hierarchial approach, there’s work. And if you or your partner develops a closer attachment to the third than the other, no hierarchy you’ve constructed will matter. Expect the unexpected.

The Unpredictability of Life

Another important thing to remember is that life rarely moves along a predictable path. Even in the unlikely event that a triad develops according to a particular plan, life changes can always happen and affect our relationships.

People go back to school or get great job offers that require them to move. Partners get pregnant and make adjustments to best raise children. Family members need care in times of need, accidents and disasters happen, and deaths of loved ones can make people reconsider their life’s priorities.

Have more than two people in your relationship? That’s just more people with more life changes to navigate. Will you simply cut your third off when the going gets tough, or are you prepared to lean in as much for them as you would for the partner you have now?

This is why people say there are no rules in polyamory. Anything can happen. Rules only work until they’re broken, and they often go out the window as soon as something big changes.

If you need rules, you’re better off seeking a threesome in my opinion. Put personals up, have a casual dating app profile, and/or meet people at play events to get your toes wet interacting intimately with fellow human beings as a couple. Who knows? Maybe one of those Special Guest Stars will click with one or both of you romantically. It isn’t unheard of.

A Note on Seeking Partners

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

As you probably already know, bisexual and pansexual people are members of the LGBTQIA+ community; a marginalized group.

If you’re seeking a bisexual/pansexual/queer individual for threesomes or a triad, it falls to you to be extra considerate and take steps to prevent and reduce harm. These wonderful people have seen it all, and unfortunately that includes being fetishized and placed into boxes they didn’t ask to be put in.

  • Do not assume that every bisexual/pansexual person enjoys having threesomes with couples.
  • Do not assume that they enjoy performing oral sex, or any sex act for that matter, on people of all gender identities.
  • Do not lead prospective thirds on by having one (often female) partner form connections before divulging that she’ll only have sex if her (often male) partner is included.
  • If you’re in it for threesomes, just say that up front. There are interested people, and you’ll find them faster if you don’t waste everyone’s time talking to people looking for romantic connections with individuals.

Your prospective third, whether for threesomes or a triad, is a human being with unique needs, desires, and boundaries. They may not be into what you’re into, may not have sex the way you have sex, may not be interested in having sex as frequently as you do. Respect that. Be honest about your intentions up front. Listen to what they have to say.

Treat people as the equals they are.

Operate From a Secure Base

Photo by Joshua Mcknight

Finally, for a triad to be in reach, you need to be in a place where the idea of your partner falling ‘more in love’ with someone else than with you is preposterous, neutral, or downright exciting to think about.

That’s because it’s possible. Well, kind of. ‘More in love’ is really hard to quantify in most situations. Still, if things go well, you will experience moments where it feels like your pre-existing partner’s energy is directed more at the new partner than you. There will likely be times where you feel that way because it’s actually true.

You need to be secure enough on your own to handle that, standing firm in your belief that your partner’s love for you is unshakeable. They need to be able to do the same if the tables are turned.

Often, couples want closed triads because they’re trying to construct something with the security of monogamy with the fun of a third partner. It’s an understandable desire, but more often than not a compromise must be made.

If these ideas make you feel nervous about polyamory, I highly encourage you and your partner read Polysecure before taking any further steps. Being prepared to have your security challenged, and having tools to search within yourselves as individuals, not as a couple, will go a long, long way in navigating the unpredictability of polyamory.

Step-By-Step Guide to Finding a Third Without Unicorn Hunting

Okay, this has gone on long enough. For those of you who like guided journeys, here’s a proposed map to seeking a third without falling into the bad habits of unicorn hunting.

  1. List needs, desires, and boundaries. Each partner in the existing couple should sit down and write an individual list of what they need to feel comfortable moving forward with this plan, what they desire of any relationships that develop, and any soft and hard boundaries. This list can help with the sexual side of things, but consider non-sexual things like living arrangements, marriage, children, and lifestyle choices as well. Note: the focus here isn’t envisioning ‘the perfect third’, but rather the ideal relationship. A couple hard needs are fine, but don’t get lost in making up a person who doesn’t exist.
  2. Compare lists. Next, compare your lists and note overlaps as well as areas where you need to discuss whether compromise is possible. Avoid the temptation to make rules; you are having a discussion as grown adults and finding the natural places where your ideas overlap, not forcing anything. You may discover at this stage that your needs, desires, and boundaries are simply too different to move forward, and choose to revisit this idea at a later time.
  3. Date separately. Armed with these lists and discussions, you’re ready to date. Do so separately, while being honest with prospective partner about what you are seeking. You are each individual people, and prospective partners will often need individual time with you to see if there’s any chemistry. There are other benefits to this: it reduces the intimidating “interview” feel of a 2-on-1 date, and it demonstrates that the existing partners of the couple trust each other enough to be alone with others and remain within their pre-determined boundaries.
  4. Be very up front with non-negotiables. Hard boundaries, desired relationship structure, and agreed-upon needs should be mentioned as early as possible. Avoid dragging people out to dates to drop bombshells on them. Ask about their needs, desires, and boundaries as well, and be comfortable with walking away amicably if things don’t line up with you and your partner’s. As things progress with someone who is aligned, the three of you can come to mutual agreements with an understanding that these agreements may change as the situation changes (which it will; situations always change—that’s life).
  5. Date your existing partner. While all this is going on and separate dates are happening, it’s critical that the existing couple remain connected and checked in. Schedule regular dates for the two of you, as well, and make sure you’re not losing the romance during what may be a long search for a third. Dating is hard! Be each other’s source of rest and restoration. However, don’t fall into the trap of quietly re-prioritizing your relationship without telling a promising partner; rather, have conversations and bring them to that promising partner. Transparency is key.
  6. Say the quiet things out loud. Speak the unexpected thoughts that pop into your head. The weird gut feeling you can’t place. The expectations you didn’t think you had to talk about before opening up. The fact that you thought you could commit more time and attention to this but maybe you overestimated yourself. The new desires that crop up as things shift and change. Revisit the lists. Face the fears: disempower them by speaking them out loud. Bring uncertainty into the light so that you and your partner(s) can examine it.
  7. Don’t keep score. “If my partner gets this then I get it, too,” doesn’t work. Again, individuals are each unique and have their own needs, desires, and boundaries. If your partner is into anal play and you aren’t, you certainly wouldn’t want to be penetrated anally just because your partner got to do it. Don’t apply that to other things, including dating and alone time, with a “tit for tat” attitude.
  8. Remember that every person is a person. Treat people with kindness, and work to not lean on your couple’s privilege when things get uncomfortable. That means both doing the internal work necessary to be ready for the unpredictability that bringing a third into your lives comes with, as well as being honest as things progress about any hesitations. Being realistic is much better than being romantic at this stage.
  9. Stay open minded. Because most successful triads form organically, it can help to acknowledge that while you and your existing partner have ideas about what you want this to look like, you can still remain open to whatever else comes your way as long as it doesn’t breach hard boundaries. Who knows? You may bump into something that’s even better than you envisioned.

Whew! This turned out to be a much longer post than I initially anticipated. In lieu of a proper conclusion, I’ll leave with you some words from David Noble which really touched me as I researched resources on this. I hope they resonate with you, too:

I love each of my partners very much, I don’t want them to go away. I don’t want them to tire of me. I don’t want to lose them. But ultimately, I do not want to cling to them in a way that stifles their opportunities for growth, finding happiness, and achieving their fullest potential.

David Noble

If you’d like to learn more and explore whether ethical nonmonogamy is for you, I offer a class to help you do just that.

This virtual class digs deep into ethical nonmonogamy and things like:

  • how people handle jealousy
  • common mistakes people make when starting out
  • signs that a person is ready for ethical nonmonogamy

Class attendees get a live Q&A with me as well as an exclusive worksheet. Sign up at https://sexcoachshannon.com/classes.


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Published by Shannon Burton

Sex educator and writer by day, poet and flash fiction author by night, I occasionally manage to get out of the house to enjoy New Orleans as it's meant to be.

2 thoughts on “So You’re Looking for a Third

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