The quintessential poly guide to nesting partners

Peter Gamlen
Life

I first saw the term “nesting partner” — a term used for a live-in partner in poly relationships — in early 2020, when the world was unknowingly teetering on the brink of disaster and rebirth. Jim’s dating profile said he was polyamorous, genderfluid, and pansexual, with a “non-romantic nesting partner” as well as “satellite partners.”

That was a lot of poly jargon for me to process. I’d dated my live-in boyfriend, Thomas, for seven years. We’d been nonmonogamous for two of them. I gathered Jim had a lot of relationships to sustain — he sounded close to being what the books called “polysaturated” — but I wasn’t looking for anything serious. I just wanted someone, outside of my relationship with Thomas, to peg once a week or so.

So I swiped right. Jim and I went swimming. We pegged. We pegged more. We caught feelings. And the stress of the pandemic annealed our relationship while combusting mine and Thomas’s.

Because every time I went out with Jim, Thomas found a reason to get angry. In a fit of coffee-throwing, picture-smashing, expletive-hurling rage, Thomas broke up with me. My own nesting partner had taken flight, but not without messing up my nest first.

A situation that started out balanced and compartmentalized suddenly wasn’t. I found myself vertiginously in love with Jim while newly alone in the house I’d shared with my ex. And although Jim’s satellite partners had largely left his orbit, he informed me that his nesting partner would not. So, I had to confront the importance of that term I’d seen on his profile. Could I continue in this poly relationship without a nesting partner of my own? Did I actually even want one?

I needed some unbiased professional help. I sought out Kathy Labriola, a California-based counselor specializing in non-traditional relationships and author of The Jealousy Workbook: Exercises and Insights for Managing Open Relationships, to help me dissect the significance of a nesting partner in polyamorous relationships. Labriola has been counseling poly folx for decades and is a self-proclaimed “card-carrying bisexual and polyamorist for 50 years,” but she didn’t hear the term “nesting partner” until five or six years ago — around the same time it rose to prominence among Google searches.

“It’s really pretty new. The term ‘nesting’ assumes you live together — in the same nest,” Labriola says. By contrast, a satellite partner is someone with emotional and physical distance from the nest. “The term refers to the couple as the center of the relationship universe and the outside relationships as satellites revolving around that relationship — similar to how the planets revolve around the sun.”

Maskot/Maskot/Getty Images

Polyamorous people sustain multiple intimate, loving, committed relationships at the same time. These relationships can be romantic (or not), sexual (or not), long-term, or intermittent. They can involve cohabitation, marriage, and child-rearing — or none of those things. Part of the appeal of polyamory is the ability to choose which elements are part of your partnership, rather than defaulting to the “relationship escalator.”

“The relationship escalator is where you’re dating, get serious, become exclusive, live together, get married, and have children,” Labriola says. “Somewhere along the line, you merge finances.” Many polyamorous people, in her experience, want to jump off the relationship escalator and not assume any steps are necessary to have a committed relationship. But that doesn’t mean poly people don’t want any of the trappings of a traditional domestic partnership — which is where nesting partners come in.

The concept of poly people living with one or more of their partners isn’t new, by any means, but that time five or six years ago when Labriola started hearing the actual term “nesting partner” coincided with the rising popularity of “relationship anarchy.”

While some polyamorous people refer to their long-term, committed partners as “primary partners,” relationship anarchists reject the hierarchy implicit in a model that characterizes relationships as primary and secondary. By referring to a live-in partner as a nesting partner instead, polyamorous people deconstruct that hierarchy. “Amongst young 20- to 40-year-olds doing polyamory, the idea of hierarchy seems to be a dirty word,” Labriola says.

For her part, Labriola thinks the term “nesting partner” obfuscates what actually is the primary relationship. “If you’re living with someone for 20 years and share finances and a home, you make decisions based on that relationship more than any other,” she says. “[I find that] those relationships are much more likely to succeed long-term.”

That gave me pause. After a year and a half of dating, I knew Jim was a keeper. I wanted to build a life with him. Would separate domiciles doom our relationship to failure?

Together, Jim, his nesting partner, her boyfriend and I comprised a polycule — a web of interconnected polyamorous relationships. I got along with my metamour (the nesting partner of my partner). On Sunday nights, we’d all cook together and eat in the backyard with the neighbors, a tradition we half-jokingly dubbed “Awkward Poly Dinner.” It didn’t feel awkward to me, though. It felt like family.

But most families live under one roof, and shuttling back and forth between two houses was difficult for me. I broached the subject with Jim in the kind of uncomfortable, soul-baring conversation that’s endemic to polyamory. I said my needs for long-term commitment and domestic partnership weren’t being met. He said he wanted me to move in eventually, but his nesting partner wanted to shelve that conversation for at least the next six months. If I did move in with them, there would be more difficult conversations in the future.

“It can happen that an additional partner will move in and become a nesting partner,” Labriola says. “There’s nothing wrong with having two primary partners.” Or, as relationship anarchists might say, two concurrent nesting partners.

But there are also a lot of challenging aspects, just as there would be in a household with three roommates (with the added complication of sex). “[Adding a nesting partner] is particularly difficult for a couple living together that has established patterns of behavior, not only in how they relate to partners, but how they do dishes, what food they buy,” Labriola says. “The new person has the challenge of saying, ‘How do I feel like I have ownership over how we live together?’”

In my case, the thought of those complications made life as a solitary cat lady sound increasingly appealing. But Labriola says that, in her experience counseling people in polyamorous relationships, those who were able to navigate these challenges not only found joy in their relationships, but also found “fabulous and amazing” economic and social rewards. For one thing, three or four adults can better utilize financial resources. People who might not otherwise be able to afford to buy a house, stay home to raise a child, or care for an elderly parent have more flexibility to do so when there are two other breadwinners in the household. “You have a huge economy of scale where you can better utilize financial resources,” Labriola says.

As for me, I don’t know how my relationship with Jim will pan out on a material, domestic level, but that isn’t a decision I have to make right now. I’m in a privileged position. I’m an able-bodied homeowner who’s in love, and that love forced me to examine who am I and what I need from a relationship. It turns out it might not resemble the monogamous, heteronormative, nuclear family framework I was raised with.

If I can’t live with my partner, I decided, it isn’t a dealbreaker. And if things ever do begin to feel unbalanced or unfulfilling, I’ll explore finding another partner who I can live with — after all, this is a polyamorous relationship, and I have that option. It might require me to add the words “nesting partner” to my dating profile, though.