What Is Polyamory?

Relationship experts weigh in.

You may have heard terms like non-monogamy, polyamory, or polygamy. Still, increased visibility of non-monogamy and its variants doesn't mean we all know what these things mean in practice.

So what is polyamory, and how does it differ from consensual non-monogamy and open relationships? Is it different from polygamy or polyandry, concepts that existed long before the sexual revolution? Read on to learn more.

polyamory vs polygamy
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Polyamory Definition and History

Usage of the term "polyamory," in particular, arose in the 1990s. At its simplest definition, polyamory is a compound of two Greek root words (poly and amory), which come together to mean "many loves."

A more specific definition refers to polyamory as a practice when people engage in or are open to multiple relationships with every involved person's consent. The relationships are typically long-term partnerships. They can also be romantic, sexual, or both.

Beyond this, the definition of polyamory varies significantly from person to person. For instance, the people involved in a polyamory relationship may:

  • Live together
  • Not live together
  • Live long-distance and spend parts of the year with each other
  • Not be sexual
  • Have specific expressions of sexuality that vary from partner to partner

Sometimes it can involve multiple degrees of commitment. Some "polycules," or groups of polyamorous people, all connect romantically. For example, someone might have an asexual, or "ace," nesting partner and not be sexually intimate with them in the same ways as they are sexually involved with other partners.

And some are relationships where if logistics and distance work out, the partners are sexually involved but are not seriously invested in each other when apart. These partners are sometimes called "comets."

The Connection Between Polyamory and Consensual Non-Monogamy

Polyamory is a type of consensual non-monogamy (CNM). The terms polyamory and CNM are often used interchangeably by contemporary practitioners.

Though polyamory and CNM are terms in society, their exact meaning can shift from person to person or couple to couple.

Other Forms of Non-Monogamy

Other terms used for non-monogamy in centuries prior have been specifically gendered. Polygamy means "many wives," and polygamy implies that the person with many wives is a man. Similarly, polyandry means "many husbands" and suggests that the person who has many husbands is a woman.

Of note, the use of the terms polyamory and CNM are more popular than polygamy and polyandry because they are de-gendered.

What Does Consensual Non-Monogamy Look Like?

CNM often means something similar to polyamory, as described above, but that, again, varies situationally.

Usually, it means that a CNM-practicing individual will have different degrees of commitment (or non-commitment) with partners. They will be very open and communicative about these attachments and what boundaries exist sexually and romantically.

For example, someone might practice CNM and be romantically invested in their primary (or hierarchically prioritized first) partner. At the same time, they may be sexually involved with multiple other people but not romantically invested in other partners.

"One common misconception that shows up in my office frequently when working with people who are exploring non-monogamy is that there is a specific or correct way to be poly or open or to do any kind of ethical/consensual non-monogamy," Dulcinea Alex Pitagora, Ph.D., LCSW, CST, NYC-based psychotherapist and sex therapist, told Health.

That's why these definitions do somewhat vary situationally and from person to person.

"The fact is, these categories and labels can be a helpful starting point for conversations with partners, but they need to be defined and agreed upon by the parties involved and nobody else," said Pitagora. "One person's poly relationship can look a lot like someone else's open relationship, whereas another person's poly can look a lot like someone else's relationship anarchy."

Other Adjacent Terms

You may also hear terms and phrases used in the context of non-monogamous sexual play. These terms refer more to sexual habits rather than romantic relationships:

  • Swinging: When couples engage in sexual activities with other couples, in tandem, or a couple playing with a third
  • One-penis policy: When a person with a penis is uncomfortable with their partner's desire to explore sexually and limits the partner's interactions to be only with people with vaginas
  • Unicorn hunting: When a couple seeks out a third individual, known as the unicorn, to engage in sexual activity, commitment, or some combination of the two with one or both individuals in the couple. Typically, the couple is heterosexual, and the third person is a bisexual woman. However, all three individuals may identify as other genders or have different sexual orientations.

It's important not to assume someone who says they are polyamorous is participating in these sexual tropes.

Other structures within consensual non-monogamy are things like relationship anarchy, which often avoids labels.

About Relationship

Relationship anarchy cultivates a relational approach based on the principle that love is abundant and not a commodity that can be used up. It also emphasizes that each relationship is different and should be treated as such rather than being forced to conform to a societal norm.

How To Have a Healthy and Safe Non-monogamous Relationship

If you are in a non-monogamous relationship or are exploring the potential of being in one, there are ways to have a healthy and safe one.

Have Open Communication

You'll want to be open about what you want and need while in the relationship. Listening to others' wants and needs is also a good idea. Communication is a key tenet of CNM and can be in polyamory.

Individuals in polyamorous relationships often discuss agreements about what involved partners are allowed to do. That means that talking about boundaries is also important in non-monogamous relationships.

Check In With How You Feel

Checking in with emotions during a non-monogamous relationship is just as important as communicating about what you want. There is often an emotional component to polyamorous relationships.

For example, one common myth thrown around often in (or about) the polyamory community is that jealousy shouldn't exist if you can just communicate well enough about your needs.

While this may dissipate the emotion's prevalence for some, it's pretty normal to experience jealousy and worth sitting with those feelings instead of rejecting them outright, Jesse Kahn, LCSW-R, CS, director and sex therapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC, told Health.

Decrease the Risk of Spreading Sexually Transmitted Infections

Everyone involved in a non-monogamous relationship should be diligent about preventing the spread of STIs. Getting testing and using condoms are good places to start. However, you'll also want to share if you may have been exposed to someone with an STI during sexual activity and STI testing results.

Fear of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) shouldn't prevent people curious about non-monogamy from trying it. Due to the emphasis on consent in the polyamory community, the spread of STIs may be less likely.

Some research shows that it's likely that polyamorous folks will have a lower risk of contracting an STI than someone casually practicing serial monogamy. This lower risk might be due to things like a higher frequency of STI testing and greater condom use in polyamorous relationships.

How To Know if You’re Polyamorous

Knowing if you're polyamorous is a process of exploration.

"It's about knowing what works best for you and your relationship and co-creating that relationship with your partner(s)," said Kahn. "I think there are lessons that we can learn from polyamory, though! Some of those lessons are that: it's okay to be attracted to multiple people, communication is crucial, and it's up to you to define your relationship(s)."

Pitagora agreed: "The bottom line is that whatever your relationship structure looks like, as long as there's a basis of ongoing consent and clarity on agreements between partners, then they're doing it right."

It's more complicated than just individual preferences and meeting situational needs, of course. Non-monogamy has been practiced in every culture throughout time, but in American society, monogamy is the desired norm.

Knowing this, however, doesn't mean it's easy or possible to slough off acculturated norms or that doing so would be the right thing for your relationship.

"Start by educating yourself on polyamory, various polyamorous structures," said Kahn, "explore and think about what about your past/current relationship structures worked and didn't work, and in your fantasies, what they might've looked like instead."

A Quick Review

A type of consensual non-monogamy, polyamory is when multiple sexual and romantic relationships can occur with the consent of each person involved. Some practices, like swinging, are associated with polyamory; however, people in polyamorous relationships may not engage in these practices.

Polyamorous relationships vary according to each situation, and it may take some time to explore if it's the type of relationship you would be interested in. If you're in a polyamorous relationship, ensure you do things like communicating with others to have a safe and healthy relationship.

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8 Sources
Health.com 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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