Polygamy vs Polyamory: What's the Difference?

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In the ever-changing landscape of romantic relationships, traditional monogamy is no longer the only option for those seeking love and connection. As society evolves, people have become more open to exploring alternative relationship structures. While both polygamy and polyamory involve multiple partners, it's essential to understand the distinctions between these two relationship types.

Polygamy refers to a marital arrangement in which one person has multiple spouses. This can be polygyny, where one man has various wives, or polyandry, where one woman has multiple husbands. Historically, polygamous relationships have been practiced in different cultures around the world, though it is currently illegal in many countries, including the United States, due to concerns about power imbalances and potential abuse.

On the other hand, polyamory is the practice of engaging in multiple loving and consensual relationships without the need for marriage. Polyamory emphasizes open communication, mutual consent, and equal power dynamics among all parties involved. This relationship style has gained increasing visibility and acceptance in recent years as more people search for ways to form connections that align with their values and desires.

This article delves into the similarities and differences between polygamy and polyamory, addresses common misconceptions, and explores the legal and cultural aspects of these relationship types. 

It also touches on the ethical considerations involved in polygamous and polyamorous relationships, providing guidance for determining if either of these relationship styles is right for you and offers tips for navigating these relationships successfully. 

Main Differences Between Polygamy and Polyamory

At first glance, polygamy and polyamory may appear similar, as they both involve having multiple romantic partners. However, the two are fundamentally different in their structure and implications. 

  • Polygamy is illegal in many countries, including the United States, Canada, and most European nations

  • Typically hierarchical, with a primary spouse holding more authority and decision-making power

  • Takes on two primary forms polygyny and polyandry

  • Often associated with patriarchal societies, particular religions, abuse, and power imbalances.

  • Polyandry is not unlawful, as it doesn't involve multiple marriages. However, it may face societal disapproval or discrimination

  • Non-hierarchical, valuing open communication, mutual consent, and equal power dynamics among all parties involved

  • Has various forms, including triads, quads, or complex networks of interconnected partners

  • Gaining visibility and acceptance as an alternative relationship style, emphasizing love, trust, and consent.

Both polygamy and polyamory also suffer the fate of being shrouded in misconceptions, albeit in different ways. People for polyamory believe polygamy is inherently oppressive or exploitative and only involves one man with multiple wives.

Others who don't believe in either concept feel polyamory isn't necessarily the better option. Arguing that it's all about sex and polyamorists are simply unable to commit or are "greedy".

Similarities Between Polygamy and Polyamory

Despite their differences, polygamy and polyamory share some similarities:

  • Both involve multiple partners: In both relationship styles, you can maintain romantic relationships with more than one person.
  • Both require communication and trust: Like any relationship, polygamous and polyamorous relationships require open communication and trust to function effectively.
  • Both can be practiced ethically: Though polygamy has been historically associated with patriarchal societies and abuse, it can be practiced ethically, just like polyamory, when all parties involved are consenting adults, and there is a balance of power.
  • Both require time management and emotional capacity: Managing multiple relationships can be demanding, requiring considerable time and emotional resources from all involved parties.
  • Both may face societal stigma: Polygamous and polyamorous people may encounter judgment or discrimination from friends, family, or society at large due to misunderstandings or cultural biases.

In summary, polygamy and polyamory have certain similarities, even though they are distinct relationship styles. Recognizing these similarities and differences helps you better understand how people form loving connections, encouraging open-mindedness and respect for people's individual choices regarding their relationships.

Misconceptions about Polygamy and Polyamory

Many misconceptions surround polygamy and polyamory, which can lead to confusion and misunderstanding. People often assume that polygamy is inherently oppressive or exploitative. While there are instances where polygamous relationships can be abusive, this is not always the case. Many people in polygamous relationships are consenting adults who have chosen this lifestyle.

On the other hand, people may assume that polyamory is only desiring multiple sexual partners. However, polyamory is about forming deep emotional connections with multiple partners, and sex is only one aspect of these relationships. People who are polyamorous often prioritize emotional intimacy, trust, and mutual support in their relationships.

Some may believe that people who are polyamorous cannot commit to a single partner or are "greedy." However, they can form committed, long-term relationships with multiple partners, showing their capacity for commitment and love in a non-traditional way.

There's also a common misconception that polygamous relationships only involve one man with multiple wives. In reality, polygamous relationships can involve a woman with multiple husbands, which is polyandry.

Legal and Cultural Aspects of Polygamy and Polyamory

Polygamy is illegal in many countries, including the United States, Canada, and most European countries. This illegality stems from concerns regarding potential abuse, coercion, and the unequal power dynamics often present in polygamous relationships. However, some countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, legally accept polygamous marriages within certain circumstances.

For instance, polygamous marriages are legally recognized under customary and Islamic laws in Nigeria. In customary law, men are allowed to marry multiple wives, and the exact number of wives a man can have varies between different ethnic groups. Under Islamic law, men can marry up to four wives, provided they can treat all of them equitably and financially support them. While polygamy is legal under these specific circumstances, it remains controversial in Nigeria and other countries with similar laws due to concerns about gender equality and potential abuse.

Polyamory, on the other hand, doesn't have the same legal restrictions as polygamy, as it does not involve multiple marriages. However, people who are polyamorous may still face societal disapproval or discrimination due to misunderstandings about their relationship style. As awareness of polyamory grows, more people are becoming accepting of this alternative relationship structure, though progress is slow in some areas.

The media also plays a significant role in shaping public perception of polygamous and polyamorous relationships. Reality television shows and documentaries often portray polygamy negatively, reinforcing stereotypes about power imbalances and abuse. Conversely, polyamory is sometimes depicted as an overly sexualized, hedonistic lifestyle, which can encourage misconceptions about its true nature.

Ethics and Consent in Poly Relationships

In both polygamous and polyamorous relationships, it's essential to have a strong foundation of ethics and consent to make sure everyone feels happy and cared for. Every person involved should freely and wholeheartedly agree to participate in the relationship arrangement.

Consistent, honest, and transparent communication is crucial to maintaining trust and understanding among partners. Each person's boundaries and preferences should be respected and considered when making decisions within the relationship.

Partners should be emotionally supportive and understanding, especially when addressing any feelings of jealousy, insecurity, or other emotional challenges that may arise.

How to Know If Polygamy or Polyamory Are Right for You

Determining if polygamy or polyamory is right for you requires self-reflection and open communication with potential partners. Begin by considering the following questions:

  • Are you open to sharing your partner with others, and can you handle the emotions that may arise from this arrangement?
  • Are you able to communicate openly and honestly with all partners involved?
  • Do you have the time and emotional capacity to maintain multiple relationships?
  • Are you comfortable with the potential social stigma associated with polygamous or polyamorous relationships?
  • How do you view the institution of marriage, and does this align with your preferred relationship style?

If your answers to these questions are largely positive, then a polygamous or polyamorous relationship might be ideal. Ultimately the decision is in your hands. Learning more about each relationship style helps you to make a learned and well-thought-out decision. 

Navigating a Polyamorous or Polygamous Relationship

It's no secret that navigating polyamorous and polygamous relationships can be more challenging than monogamous relationship styles. Here are some tips to help:

  • Communicate openly and honestly: Like any relationship, open communication is critical in polyamorous and polygamous relationships. Ensure all partners are on the same page about expectations, boundaries, and feelings.
  • Establish boundaries: Clearly define the boundaries of each relationship to ensure everyone feels comfortable and respected.
  • Be flexible and adaptable: Navigating multiple relationships can be challenging, so it's essential to be flexible and willing to adapt as situations change.
  • Practice self-care: Prioritize self-care and ensure you have the emotional capacity to maintain multiple relationships.
  • Support network: Surround yourself with a supportive community that understands and respects your chosen relationship style.

For Elizabeth Adeleke, a 34-year-old graphic designer who has been in a polyamorous relationship for the past six years, living with her long-term partner, Alex, while they both maintain relationships with other people, being in a poly relationship has been very fulfilling. 

According to Elizabeth, the key to success is open communication. She emphasizes that openly discussing feelings, expectations, and boundaries with all partners helps maintain trust and understanding. 

Being emotionally supportive of her partners and receiving the same support from them has been vital in maintaining their relationships. By openly addressing feelings of jealousy or insecurity, they work together to overcome these challenges.

Elizabeth's pro-tip for balancing multiple relationships? Schedule everything, including sex. She has found that using a shared calendar with her partners to schedule quality time ensures everyone's needs are met. She also recommends that you prioritize each connection differently. For her, Alex, her long-term partner, comes first, and she won't engage with any people or situations he doesn't feel comfortable with.

Challenges in Polyamorous and Polygamous Relationships

While polyamorous and polygamous relationships can be fulfilling and rewarding, they can also present unique challenges. Managing multiple relationships requires significant time and energy, which can be difficult to balance with other personal and professional commitments.

Despite open communication and trust, feelings of jealousy and insecurity may arise when sharing a partner with others. It's essential to address these emotions sincerely and truthfully. In regions where polygamy is illegal, people in polygamous relationships may face legal challenges, such as difficulties in obtaining spousal benefits or child custody arrangements.

People who are polyamorous and polygamous still face judgment or discrimination from friends, family, or society, even within the most progressive communities.

Where to Learn More

If you are looking to learn more about poly relationships, start with these resources.

  • Books: "The Ethical Slut" by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, "More Than Two" by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, and "Opening Up" by Tristan Taormino provide insights into the world of ethical non-monogamy and polyamory.
  • Online resources: Websites like Loving More and Loving Without Boundaries offer articles, forums, and support groups for anyone interested in polyamory.
  • Podcasts: "Polyamory Weekly" and "Multiamory" are two popular podcasts discussing various aspects of polyamorous relationships and experiences.

Understanding the differences between polygamy and polyamory is crucial in today's evolving relationship landscape. While both involve multiple partners, polygamy focuses on marriage and typically has a hierarchical structure, whereas polyamory emphasizes consensual, non-hierarchical relationships without the need for marriage. 

By learning more about these relationship styles and engaging in open communication with potential partners, people can make informed decisions about the type of relationship that best suits their needs and desires. As societal attitudes continue to shift, it's essential to remain open-minded and respectful of the diverse ways in which people can experience love and connection.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why is polyamory ok but not polygamy?

    Both polyamory and polygamy can be practiced ethically when all parties involved are consenting adults. However, polygamy has been historically associated with patriarchal societies and abuse, which has led to its illegality in many countries. In contrast, polyamory focuses on consensual relationships without hierarchy or marriage.

  • What is Solopoly?

    Solopoly, or solo polyamory, refers to people who engage in multiple romantic relationships but maintain their independence and do not prioritize one relationship over another. People who practice solopoly may not cohabit or share finances with any of their partners, prioritizing their autonomy and personal freedom.

  • What is the difference between polygamy and polyandry?

    Polygamy is a broader term that refers to a marriagenwhere one person has multiple spouses. Polyandry is a specific form of polygamy in which a woman has multiple husbands.

  • Can a woman be a polygamist?

    Yes, a woman can be a polygamist. When a woman has multiple husbands, the arrangement is called polyandry, which is a form of polygamy.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Walker J. Difference between polygamy and polyamory. The American Board of Sexology.

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  4. Pew Research Center. Polygamy is rare around the world and mostly confined to a few regions.

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By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.