So, at this point y’all know I identify as polyamorous. This means, for me, that I am capable of being in love with more than one person at a time, and I am also capable of being in multiple romantic relationships at once. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I always am, just that I can be.
Up until now, I’ve largely used terms like non-monogamy, open relationships, and polyamory interchangeably. But they’re actually different, and the distinctions can be important — especially if you are new to non-monogamy.
Over at More Than Two, they’ve developed a super comprehensive glossary, but it’s not exactly 101-level.
So let’s start with the basics:
First, there’s non-monogamy. This is an umbrella term used to describe any relationship that is not “exclusive,” meaning that one or more people within the relationship have sex, date, or love people outside of that relationship. Technically, this even includes cheating, which is why some people prefer to call it consensual or responsible non-monogamy, the kind where everyone involved is aware that the relationship is not exclusive.
Under non-monogamy there are a range of relationship styles. Here are some of the most common:
‘Monogamish’ is a colloquial term, but I kinda love it. It refers to relationships that are primarily monogamous, with occasional forays into non-monogamy, typically with both partners involved. I have a friend whose been with her partner for several years, and they have a rule that they can have one one-night stand per year, but their partner has to sign off on it first. I know of another couple that only have threesomes (with each other and one other partner, usually someone they pick up at a bar). Others don’t allow sex but do allow flirtatious friendships.
These relationships are mostly monogamous, and there’s typically an understanding that outside connections are fleeting, sexual only, and that no greater romantic feelings are involved. Some of the downsides to this style of relationship are that they can feel stifling to partners who want more, and the people they do to choose to include in their monogamish partnership don’t really get much expectation of accountability.
This is perhaps the most popular arrangement of couples who choose consensual non-monogamy. Although some people use this term to also mean polyamorous relationships, you will find a lot of open couples and a lot polyamorous people insisting that there are some major differences between the two. The most basic definition of an open relationship is one that allows any non-monogamy whatsoever (so, technically, monogamish couples fall under the open umbrella).
But most of the time, couples who choose to have an open relationship are comfortable with (or at least try to be!) their partners pursuing sexual experiences that are completely separate from their primary partnership. For some, an open relationship can mean one night stands only, or it can mean seeing the same outside person for an extended period of time. Typically, at least for those who explicitly choose an open relationship over polyamory, there is still an expectation that romantic feelings and love are off the table.
People have all sorts of reasons for choosing to open up existing relationships, and just as many things they want out of an open relationship. It’s important to have a clear idea of what you want and communicate that to your partner — and be open to change if either of you discover you want something different. Downsides to open, non-polyamorous relationships include the pain that can happen if your partner does develop unexpected feelings for someone else, and, similarly to monogamish relationships, the people outside of your primary relationship usually aren’t afforded the same level of respect and expectation of accountability.
So the basic difference between being open and being polyamorous is that whole love thing.
The term’s originator told Oxford English Dictionary that “the two essential ingredients of the concept of polyamory are ‘more than one’ and ‘loving.’ That is, it is expected that the people in such relationships have a loving emotional bond, are involved in each other’s lives multi-dimensionally, and care for each other.”
There are several different flavors of polyamory. Hierarchical polyamory, which I practice, usually implies that you have a primary partner (or multiple primaries) who are expected to get a certain amount of your time, attention, and other resources. Primaries often but not always live together, share finances, or raise families together. Secondary partners — any relationships that are outside of the primary partnership(s) — still get love and attention and all the good things that come with being in a relationship with someone, but typically don’t have the same level of power in the overall relationship dynamic, or the same amount of resources (time, money, etc.) afforded to them.
Some people frown upon hierarchy because, similarly to other types of open relationships, it privileges a certain partnership over others, which means that those on the outside can feel left out or have to deal with unfair rules and boundaries being placed on their relationships without their input. Those who do not like hierarchy choose to practice non-hierarchical polyamory, where you may have a “nesting partner” (someone you live with) but no partner is expected to get any more or any less of your time, attention, care, and resources.
There’s another type of polyamory that’s important to mention here: solo polyamory, a type of non-hierarchical polyamory for individuals who want to emphasize their own autonomy, do not prioritize any one relationship over the other, and allow themselves and their relationships the freedom to grow in whatever direction they choose, without input from those outside the relationship.
The downside to polyamory over other kinds of non-monogamy, for me, is the difficulty of dealing with your partner being in love with someone else besides you. For some this isn’t a problem at all, but for people who have been monogamous for a long time, it can be really hard. (Here’s another plug for The Jealousy Workbook because it’s great!) For couples, polyamory means letting go of the (often illusory) sense of safety and security that comes with rules like “no falling in love”. It often means a lot of brutal honesty, give and take, and learning to live with things that feel super uncomfortable, but get easier over time.
As with many styles of non-monogamy, the really beautiful part is getting through the hard stuff and realizing in the end that you are okay and stronger for it. <3
How you know what style is right for you
The thing is, sometimes you don’t know what you want until you try it. This is why it’s so important to keep yourself open to the idea that things can change. All relationships, and the people within them, grow.
When my primary and I were starting out, we explicitly called what we were doing an “open relationship” — with the understanding that I would probably fall in love with someone because I am a big feelings baby, and that my partner would not. In fact, he thought that what he wanted was primarily casual sexual relationships with friends and no real romantic feelings at all.
Neither of us expected him to really want to date someone, or to fall in love with them. But that’s exactly what happened, and when it did, we had to be flexible (and really fucking honest with each other) to make room for that new person in our lives, and change how we were doing non-monogamy.
So now, we both identify as polyamorous. We still have a hierarchy, and boundaries and rules for how we conduct relationships outside of our primary partnership. But we also try to give each other and all of our other partners the autonomy, respect, care, and love that we deserve.