What Is Polyamory?

How Polyamorous Relationships Work

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What Is Polyamory?

"Polyamory is the nonpossessive, honest, responsible, and ethical philosophy and practice of loving multiple people simultaneously," according to the Polyamory Society. "Polyamory emphasizes consciously choosing how many partners one wishes to be involved with rather than accepting social norms which dictate loving only one person at a time."

To be polyamorous means to have open intimate or romantic relationships with more than one person at a time. People who are polyamorous can have any sexual orientation, and polyamorous relationships can include people of different sexual orientations.

Unlike open relationships, polyamory is characterized by emotional as well as sexual or romantic intimacy between partners. In contrast to infidelity, adultery, or extramarital sex, polyamory is consensual and disclosed to everyone involved.

Sometimes polyamorous relationships are hierarchical (one relationship takes priority over others) and sometimes they are equal. In a hierarchical scenario, a person may have primary and secondary partners.

  • Primary: A primary partner is at the top of the hierarchical structure; this person may be the person with whom you live, have kids, or even marry. A primary partner is not necessary for polyamorous relationships.
  • Secondary: Secondary partner(s) may not be as intertwined in your life as a primary partner; for example, you may not share housing or finances but you may still be fully committed to each other.

The defining aspects of polyamorous relationships over other nonmonogamous relationship types are consent and communication.

What Polyamory Is Not

While boundaries in polygamous relationships are quite different from those in monogamous relationships, they still exist.

People in polyamorous relationships may or may not be married, although people who identify as polyamorous may reject the restrictions of the social convention of marriage, and particularly, the limitation to one partner.

Polyamory should not be confused with bigamy or polygamy, which involves marriage to more than one person and is illegal in the United States.

Nor should it be confused with "swinging" or "spouse swapping." in which couples in established relationships have casual sexual encounters with people in other couples.

Polyamory is also not the same as an "open" relationship, which involves a committed couple agreeing that one or both partners are permitted to have sex with other people, without necessarily sharing information with the other partners. However, polyamorous couples may also have open relationships.

"Consensual nonmonogamy" is an umbrella term that psychologists use to describe swinging, open relationships, and polyamory. Research suggests that more than 20% of Americans have participated in a consensual, nonmonogamous relationship at some point in their lives.

Polyamory is also not a type of sexual orientation or gender identity. However, people of all orientations and identities may participate in polyamorous relationships, including those who are straight, gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, nonbinary, or pansexual.

Talking About Polyamory

If you’re looking to bring up polyamory with a potential new partner, consider a conversation starter such as:

  • What type of relationship are you looking for—exclusive or nonexclusive?
  • Before we get serious, I need to tell you that I’m not looking for a monogamous relationship.
  • What are your thoughts about dating multiple people at once?
  • Have you ever heard about polyamory? Would you ever consider giving it a try?

Types of Polyamorous Relationships

Unlike monogamous relationships, which by definition are limited to one partner, polyamory comes in many forms and may change over time based on the people involved.

While many polyamorous relationships are characterized by a couple who openly and consensually pursues independent or joint relationships outside of their primary relationship, others practice polyamory by having multiple independent, separate relationships, or even relationships between three or more people.

Polyamorous relationships can also be closed relationships. In a closed polyamorous relationship, individuals who are part of the polyamorous group agree to not see other people or bring more people into the relationship.

Triad

Also known as a “throuple,” a triad refers to a relationship with three people. Not all three people need to date one another, however. One person may be dating two different people.

Quad

As the name implies, a quad refers to a relationship with four people. This type of polyamorous relationship often occurs when two polyamorous couples meet and begin dating one person from the other couple. You can also have a full quad, where all four members are romantically or sexually involved with one another.

Polycule

This term refers to a whole network of people who are romantically connected. For example, it might include you and your primary partner, your secondary partner, your primary partner's secondary partner, your primary partner's secondary partner's primary partner, and so on.

Kitchen Table Polyamory

This term refers to a family-like network formed by people who know each other. The name comes from the fact that people in this type of polyamorous relationship gather around the kitchen table for meals.

Parallel Polyamory

Parallel polyamory refers to relationships in which you’re aware of each other’s other partners but have little no contact with those partners.

Solo Polyamory

Individuals in a solo polyamorous relationship do not intend to merge their identity or life infrastructure with their partners. For example, they don’t wish to marry or share a home or finances with any of their partners.

Sex Addiction and Polyamory

Most in the polyamory community reject the idea that polyamory and sex addiction have anything to do with one another. Sex addiction is not a defining characteristic of polyamory, and polyamorous people do not necessarily engage in the excessive sexual activity that is characteristic of sex addiction. However, people with sex addictions based on the desire for multiple partners may be particularly drawn to the polyamorous community.

Avoiding Relationship Issues

The need for clear communication and boundaries among all concerned is a key feature of the polyamorous philosophy. The complexity of interrelationships can leave some individuals vulnerable to exploitation.

However, research shows that people in consensual nonmonogamous relationships and those in monogamous ones have similar levels of psychological well-being and relationship quality.

Establish Rules and Boundaries

A big part of polyamory is ensuring that all partners are on the same page when it comes to emotional and physical boundaries, including:

  • When and whether to divulge details about relationships or your polyamorous status with others
  • How often to spend time with each other and other people
  • What sexual acts are OK and what are not
  • What safety practices everyone will follow

Definitions of what constitutes cheating or infidelity in a polyamorous relationship depend on the rules that those in the relationship have established. In a polyamorous relationship, ignoring the boundaries and rules that those in the relationship have agreed to is often considered cheating.

Support One Another

Just as in a monogamous relationship, it’s important to support your partners and show respect and courtesy, even if you don’t like your partner’s metamour (your partner's partner who’s not romantically or sexually involved with you).

Avoid Comparisons

Although it’s human nature, do your best to avoid the comparison game. For example, don’t go and book an extravagant trip for two just because your partner had a weekend getaway with one of their other partners.

Express Your Feelings and Needs

Jealousy is a common feeling that can come to the surface in a polyamorous relationship. Communicating these feelings, instead of letting them consume you, is key for polyamory.

In fact, a common term used in polyamory is compersion, or the feeling of joy from seeing your partner happy with another partner. This is the opposite of jealousy.

Recap

Issues that may cause polyamorous relationships to fail include lack of boundaries, lack of support, comparison, jealousy, and poor communication. Addressing these issues can help improve the quality of the relationship.

A Word From Verywell

Only you can decide whether polyamory is right for you. Having this type of relationship not only involves challenging the ideal of monogamy but examining what you expect from love and romantic partners. In the end, being honest with yourself and your partner(s) about your feelings is most important for a happy relationship.

2 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.
  1. Polyamory Society. Introduction to polyamory.

  2. Rubel AN, Bogaert AF. Consensual nonmonogamy: Psychological well-being and relationship quality correlates. J Sex Res. 2015;52(9):961-82. doi:10.1080/00224499.2014.942722

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.