What Is Polyamory?

When More Than One Partner Is Involved

Two men and a woman with their heads close together

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To be polyamorous means to have open intimate or romantic relationships with more than one person at a time. People who are polyamorous can be heterosexual, lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and relationships between polyamorous people can include combinations of people of different sexual orientations. Sometimes polyamorous relationships are hierarchical (one relationship takes priority over others) and sometimes they are equal. The defining aspects of polyamorous relationships over other nonmonogamous relationship types are consent and communication.

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.

"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."

What Polyamory Is and What It Is Not

While the boundaries in polygamous relationships are quite different from those for 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 one-on-one 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 on 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.

Diversity of Polyamourous 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 individuals 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.

Are Polyamorous People Addicted to Sex?

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

Most polyamorous people emphasize the need for clear communication and boundaries among all concerned; it is a key feature of the polyamorous philosophy. The complexity of interrelationships between polyamorous partnerships 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.

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