“How do you have sex?”
As someone in a three-way relationship, this question follows me everywhere. It doesn’t bother me so much because of its reductive or intrusive nature (though of course, it is both those things). Rather, it bothers me because while most people tie polyamory to sex, for me it’s most closely tethered to the act of sleep.
I’m not alone. Issues around sleeping arrangements frequently come up in polyamory-oriented articles and discussion threads, and the difficulties involved in scheduling slumber timetables for nonmonogamous constellations has previously been raised here at Van Winkle's. The significance of sleep has never been lost on either myself or my partners.
To keep a lengthy history short, my lover Darren and I have been together ten years. We started out as monogamous but slowly opened up and experimented our way toward loving multiple people. On moving to Berlin, we dated men together, eventually meeting Alex. For two years now, the three of us have lived, cooked and, of course, slept together.
For the most part this arrangement is straightforward and rewarding. Yet, as is the case for those of us who buck the monogamous norm, sleep presents some of the most significant opportunities and challenges. How and where and with whom we sleep defines both our personal relationships and our social standing.
Though others define polyamorists by the sex they imagine we have, it is sleep that breaks social taboos. While sex can remain separate to our daily lives (consider the "family values" politician caught in a public bathroom with a sex worker, or the closeted office administrator who stopped by a gay sauna on the way home from work), sleep is integral to our day-to-day existence and cannot be avoided or experienced in secrecy. It carries a high degree of emotional intimacy, and in choosing to regularly snore beside someone we make a big statement — those people are generally considered an emotional priority. We know, for the most part, with whom our friends and relatives choose to share a bed.
Perhaps the personal politics of sleep seem insignificant. After all, what does it matter who’s in which bed? A snooze is still a snooze. Yet for those of you who are of a monogamous inclination, I dare you to platonically share a bed with someone other than your partner. Or start sleeping in the spare room and see if they don’t freak out. When it comes to relationships, there’s no avoiding the implications brough on by sleeping arrangements, and that’s especially true when it comes to the polyamorous. Our entire society is set up for coupledom, and our bedrooms are no exception.
The Battle with Beds
Here’s a fun fact about beds: They’re made for a maximum of two people. While this poses no problem when its purpose is for fumbling and rolling around, things become much more difficult when you’re three tall men who just want to get a good night’s rest. Sleeping in a trio means growing well-acquainted with your partners’ elbows and frozen feet, as well as with the dulcet tones of their rumbling snores. In both ears.
This honestly isn’t something that occurred to me before becoming polyamorous, and I’m certain your instinct will be the same as mine: Buy a bigger bed. The first difficulty lies with expense. Buying a bed is an investment, one which costs a significant amount of money. And as an investment it can put pressure on new relationships. Are you going to go out and buy a bed to accommodate the person you’ve been dating a month? That kind of purchase represents a serious commitment, and potentially not one for which you’re ready. No one wants an accidental grand gesture.
So, in the meantime it’s a matter of getting creative. At first, the three of us had a system using two double mattresses: During the day they were placed one atop the other to save space; at night we would lay them side-by-side, covering the floor in a giant expanse of foam and turning the room into a bouncy play area.
Eventually we bought "megabed," an antique monstrosity I found for almost nothing in the classified ads. At two meters squared (roughly 6.5 x 6.5 ft.), it’s as long as my own giant frame, and it would be perfect for three were it not for another monogamous norm, this one particular to mainland Europe: Rather than having one giant, luxurious expanse of mattress, as is offered by king sized beds in Britain and the United States, it's common here for beds to be comprised of two single mattresses. That means our megabed has a wooden bar running down the middle. Monogamous bed construction makes it difficult for to cuddle as a couple, let alone sleep as a trio. Alex, Darren and I deal with our megabed as best we can, but it’s still rare to get a good night’s rest and it requires us spending the odd nights apart.
But say you’ve managed the improbable and arranged a perfect sleeping chamber for your poly family. That’s great when you’re at home, but what about visiting friends and relatives, or staying in hotels? If it’s hard enough to create the right sleep environment in our own space, then how can we manage vacations?
The Trouble with Traveling
Darren, Alex and I like to travel, and travelling has long presented a challenge for those who are different — ask almost any lesbian, gay, bi or pansexual person and they’ll have stories of pushing twin beds together in stuffy bed and breakfasts, or faking siblinghood in cities or countries that are less accepting of their partnerships. As three men in a polyamorous trio we not only encounter the problem of homophobia, but also a near total unfamiliarity with multi-partner relationships and how to accommodate them.
Even the most queer-friendly places are unlikely to cater to polyamorous people. Hotels with double rooms often won’t allow a third adult to stay in them, and if they do, then there’s likely an exorbitant surcharge. Those that do will commonly have a double bed, with either a sofabed or an extra small single (often meant for children). The three of us are in an equal partnership together, and we don’t want anyone feeling left out, which means rotating the single bed shift. While it may not seem like a particularly big deal, it does mean that we’ve never woken up in a new city together, and how we sleep serves as a continual reminder of difference.
One trip in particular was one to rural Poland. As a rule, Poland doesn’t have the best reputation for being queer-positive, and remote locations everywhere tend toward conservatism. While we were not prepared for the multitude of crucifixes on walls, being in a trio actually provided some reinforcement for our temporary closet: No one presumes that three men are in a relationship together. Still, the Russian owner of the first place we stayed remained confused and suspicious when we turned down the room with three singles. How could we explain that we wanted to sleep side-by-side?
Truthfully, though I’m open about our relationship (as you may have guessed from this article), being queer in a strange country can be daunting, and we don’t wish to invite any potential for intimidation or violence. As with so many monogamous queer people, if we’re in a less tolerant place and have opportunity to push that double and single bed together each night, we’ll pull them apart again each morning. Sometimes it’s best to pick your battles.
There is an exception to all of this: camping. For some reason, tents tend to be designed for three, which makes sleeping outdoors far simpler than sleeping indoors. (In fact, the three of us went camping a week after we first met.) Why this convention holds is anyone’s guess, but we know better than to gaze into that gift horse’s mouth.
The Fine Art of Visiting Family
What’s more daunting than meeting your partner’s parents? Meeting two sets of them. Particularly when they’re inevitably unfamiliar with polyamory, and may not take kindly to your two-timing their offspring. Now, my partners and I have been immensely lucky with parental support, and last year even visited Paris with Alex’s mom and dad. Yet here the familiar problem arose once again: We were staying in a holiday home, with two double rooms and a sofabed downstairs.
Though Alex’s parents are warm-hearted, open-minded people, the sleeping arrangements presented another challenge. It’s easy to read into gestures when confronted by an unfamiliar scenario, and what message were we sending in who got the double bed (which of course comprised of two single mattresses), and who slept downstairs? If Darren and I were to stay together the first night, would Alex’s parents consider their son relegated to third place? What do the other combinations say about our relationship?
Perhaps Alex’s parents wouldn’t have noticed our bedroom arrangements. Maybe the way the three of us look and talk and hug one another was enough. But our culture takes slumber as a significant indicator of a relationship’s health. Many find it odd if married couples maintain separate bedrooms, and a husband snoozing on the sofa is the clichéd trope of a failing marriage. What signals does it send if we do the same, even if it’s out of practicality? The relationship between sleep and the strength of relationships seems hard-wired into our social psyche.
In the end we chaotically dismantled the sofabed downstairs, dragging the mattress part up to the bedroom, once more rotating shifts between the floor and bed. This way we were at least able to stay in the same room, and the arrangement was the most effective way of demonstrating that the three of us are equal partners.
Stories like this may be every-day common, but en masse they form our lives. Nighttime presents polyamorous relationships with specific challenges — whether lacking space to get enough daily rest, trying to vacation together or attempting to convey the right messages to friends and family — yet it also provides opportunity.
And that’s the point: People take our relationship seriously because of sleep. Sleep signifies our cohabitation and shows our daily dedication to one another. Our shared slumber cements our status as a family — albeit one of a different shape and size than most others — but a family nonetheless. It is the bizarrely public nature of sleep that gives it social power and the potential for challenging established norms, in a way sexual contact alone never can. I’m all for safe, consensual casual sex, but our deviation from monogamy is emotional rather than purely sexual, and it’s played out in the bedroom rather than the darkroom.
So, if you ever feel tempted to ask polyamorous people about their sex lives, then try asking them how they manage sleep instead. They’re bound to have some stories.