Quick, name a romantic comedy where Sandra Bullock must choose between two romantic partners and decides to end up with both of them — and the two men she chooses want to be with each other too. It's OK: Gregory Rayo, Kai Stenstrum and Mark Aldridge, three gay men in love and living together as a triad outside of Boston, haven't heard of any either.
Rayo and Stenstrum met online about seven years ago and began dating while living two hours apart in California. They eventually moved to Los Angeles and then to the Boston area together.
But a month or two into their long-distance romance, a guilt-wracked Rayo confessed to hooking up with a friend at a party. That's when Stenstrum (who responded with "Was he hot?") floated the idea of opening the relationship. First, it was sex with other people, and then dating other people.
Then Rayo met Aldridge through a dating app one night.
Rayo began to split his time between Stenstrum and Aldridge, living with Stenstrum during the week and shipping off to Aldridge on the weekends.
"I would be stressed out if my bus was late or my train was fucked up, because it was like, 'I only have this amount of time to spend with this person before I go back,'" Rayo told Mic.
Then in March 2014, a Hollywood-sized act of fate occurred. While on a ski trip in New Hampshire with Stenstrum and Aldridge, Rayo conked his head and landed in the hospital, requiring some help at home upon his release. Aldridge, who lived a few miles away from the other two, stayed with Stenstrum and Rayo for the weekend to tend to their mutual beau.
As of that weekend, they made a mutual decision to become a triad. Rayo was relieved of his two-man juggle, and Stenstrum and Aldridge were excited to close the open loop in their three-person arrangement. In a way, the accident solved Rayo's time management problem.
"That was a stroke of luck," Rayo said, with a slight grin, of both the concussion and the change it caused.
Polyamory by the numbers: An estimated 1.2 million to 2.4 million people in the U.S. practice polyamory. Take into account those who maintain relationships which allow outside sexual or romantic partners, or open relationships, and the number almost quadruples to 9.8 million. According to a 2009 Newsweek article, there may be as many as a half-million openly polyamorous relationships in the United States.
However, as polyamory takes many forms, often looking vastly different from relationship to relationship, none of those numbers are specific to three-person relationships.
Among millennials, the polyamorous sexual revolution may be even greater: Fewer millennials are getting married than previous generations, and many are embracing nontraditional, difficult-to-define relationship structures.
Sharing space: A nontraditional relationship structure means running a nontraditional home. In Nancy Meyers' rom-coms, a character's house reflects a character's inner self. Sunk into a brown sofa, a clean oasis in an accumulation of belongings, Stenstrum made clear what their one-bedroom apartment said about them.
"There's too much stuff all over the place," he said. "We're fitting too many people in too small a place right now."
There's one queen-size bed in the apartment, which Stenstrum and Aldridge share while Rayo works the overnight shift at a pharmacy. Stenstrum and Aldridge work during the day, as an IT support tech and a project manager. On weekends, Rayo takes the sofa. Eventually, they'll implement a rotation schedule when they move to a two-bedroom apartment.
A rotation schedule may sound odd, but while the relationship's mechanics function differently, its core is downright banal: hard work and honesty.
Stenstrum said the three were largely in unchartered territory. "We have no books or rom-coms to go off of," he said.
"You need to kind of become comfortable with the fact that you have negative emotions, things like jealousy," Aldridge told Mic.
"Jealousy always gets a bad rap, but it doesn't have to be that way," Scott Kramer, a social worker and psychotherapist who sees polyamorous patients, told Mic. Kramer said every relationship needs a little jealousy to thrive.
"With a healthy jealousy we might be able to say, 'Hey, wait a second, something doesn't feel right or seem right. Let me unpack things and see where this jealousy really comes from,'" he said. "Then talk to the people in the relationship and see if that jealousy is founded or unfounded."
"You need to be able to talk about your feelings or whether you're feeling jealous or any number of emotions — even good ones," Stenstrum told Mic.
How to fight: Kramer said the best relationships, regardless of the number of people in them, are built on this kind of open and honest communication.
"If someone says, 'How are you doing?' and you're not doing well, don't say, 'I'm doing fine.' That's technically a lie," Aldridge said.
That level of honesty helps quell tensions. Their fights can take on many structures: one-on-one with a third intervening or two-on-one. Their last fight found Rayo as the odd man out.
On most days, Stenstrum cooks and Aldridge scrubs the dishes. "One of our big things is dishes, because we don't have a dishwasher and I have to have things a certain way if I'm going to do dishes," Aldridge said.
"I get upset about that one thing because I've asked [Greg] to make our home together nice and when you don't do that it feels like you haven't listened to me or you don't want to help keep me happy," he said. "I need to feel like we're all on the same team."
"I'm a messy person and I've been trying to undo that part of myself," Rayo said. "I'm getting better by doing more chores around the house."
They said they all prefer to nip conflict in the bud.
"It doesn't usually end up in like one big fight," Stenstrum said. "It's usually like, Mark and I will notice it and start to get frustrated and we sit Greg down and start to talk to him about it."
Aldridge uses Stenstrum as a springboard for solutions. "I go to Kai to make sure I'm not being completely ridiculous," he said.
For Aldridge, who is new to polyamory, this method of conflict is a vast improvement.
"It's been so fantastic to have someone who's not part of the fight but is concerned with the welfare of both parties," Aldridge said. "It's interesting to have a third person who cares about both of you and can kind of help resolve situations and keep you in check and say, 'No, you're being irrational' or 'Your demands are not good demands to make of someone you love.'"
Sharing responsibility: Having a third person around has been beneficial for Rayo, who often retreats to decompress.
"If I need to sink into a dark corner, there's someone around to handle things," he said. "Luckily for Mark, Kai is a plant who can sustain himself."
Their setup has been beneficial for Aldridge, a frequent business traveler. One time, Aldridge had to travel while Rayo felt ill.
"If someone you care about is sick and they're home by themselves, they need to have somebody, so I didn't have to worry about that," Aldridge said. "It was really good having peace of mind."
Sharing sex: In their sex lives, they oscillate between being a unit and acting independently, with the help of communication.
They have sex all together, in multiple ways. They have sex one-on-one. They have sex inside the relationship and outside the relationship, though they often have to make sure people aren't using them for cheap thrills.
"We're not here just to fulfill your personal fantasy," Stenstrum said. "Can you just talk to me as a person first?"
Rayo laughed. "Well, we fulfill someone's fantasy if we like them."
But know that if you come into their home looking to play, it's a package deal — all three or no one.
Aldridge said, "I think it comes down to feeling like I'm at least welcome in the situation." But he says no if he's not interested: "As long as I'm included in the initial 'You could join us,' in general, I'm OK with that."
The unit did express a tension with their queer, monogamous counterparts. In the time of marriage equality, they said they often have had to fight to be seen as three individuals in one legitimate, loving relationship.
"I think whenever I talk to somebody, they have an assumption I'm trying to recruit them into a sex cult," Rayo said. "I explain to them that it doesn't work like that. We have ups and downs that can potentially damage a relationship, like any other relationship out there."
"They say it's not a real relationship or you're not really in love," Stenstrum said. "That doesn't make any sense to me, really, that you only have to have one person who is your soulmate."
Rayo added, "Or that there's a finite amount of love you can give someone."
"Kai and I have been in a relationship for the better part of a decade now, and I guess out of spite, we've just added more people to it," Rayo said.
"And love!" Aldridge said.
Rayo looked at Aldridge and laughed. "Spite and love."
Their relationship may seem different from the outside, but the Hollywood storyline is there: Two men visit a loved one at a hospital after an accident. It turns out to be the same loved one. They all decide to become each other's loved ones. The credits roll.