Polyamory is a type of relationship with many of the same components as other relationships. Things like love, trust, compassion, and empathy, to name a few, are just as crucial in making a polyamorous relationship work as they are in traditional, monogamous relationships. However, the significant difference is that the relationship dynamic involves more than two people.
So, what does polyamorous mean? At its core, polyamory is a type of consensual non-monogamy where one person is in a romantic relationship with multiple people. Everyone in that relationship knows what is going on and where they stand with others in the arrangement. This often includes a sexual relationship, but that is not always the case, as we will explore here.
Before diving into polyamory, let’s identify other similar relationship agreements that aren’t considered polyamorous.
Ethical non-monogamy (ENM) isn’t the same as polyamory because the love and commitment part of a relationship isn’t there. What separates ENM couples from poly couples is that ENM couples are romantically committed to each other only. ENM couples' relationships with other people are primarily sexual, also known as swinging, with no promises or commitments to anything more. On the other hand, polyamorous couples incorporate the emotional components of relationships into their arrangement with their partners.
However, as with most things in life, it isn’t always that cut and dry. Depending on the type of arrangement, poly couples can also participate in swinging, and ENM couples can have more than just a sexual transaction relationship with other people. The key to these relationships, as with all relationships, is to have open and honest communication.
Let’s take a deeper look into polyamory.
Types of Polyamorous Relationships
There are various types of polyamorous relationships. Within those varieties, different circumstances are specific to a particular relationship arrangement.
According to Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, authors of the famous tome on polyamory, More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory, there are general buckets of polyamorous relationships:
Solo polyamory. This means that the person does not have a primary partner, an anchor partner, but rather dates multiple people. They primarily prefer to identify themselves as single.
Polyfidelity. When a group of three or more people are romantically and/or sexually committed to each other and do not date with anyone outside of that group.
Hierarchical Polyamory. A relationship in which two people consider the other their primary or anchor partner, while other relationships are not prioritized as the prior relationship.
- Egalitarian Polyamory. This arrangement means that all involved in it receive and provide equal amounts of attention and time, and usually, the couple makes decisions as a group.
Even within these broad categorizations, there are countless variations and exceptions. As we will continue to explore here, there isn’t one single answer to what it means to be polyamorous.
Misconceptions About Polyamory
There are plenty of misconceptions about polyamory. The first one that usually pops up is confusion with polygamy, where a man is wedded to more than one woman. On the other hand, polyandry refers to one woman having multiple husbands. While all polygamists are polyamorous, not all polyamorous people are polygamists.
You can “cheat” in polyamory, but not in the way you’re probably thinking. Let’s explore first the concept of cheating and then see how it applies to polyamory.
At the heart of cheating is deception. In a monogamous relationship, you’re cheating on your partner if you have sex outside of your relationship because it goes against the agreed arrangement of monogamy.
In a polyamorous relationship, however, the relationship doesn’t rest on the pillar of single-sex partnerships. Therefore, the mere act of having sex with another person isn’t cheating.
The cheating happens when there’s lying or secrets involved, and these interactions aren’t necessarily sex-related. But, depending on how you and your partners define your poly relationship, cheating could also include having sex outside of your relationship. Polyamory moves the foundational structure away from sex and builds it on a foundation of trust and honest communication.
A frequent question poly people get is—don’t you get jealous? Like the cheating question, let’s talk about what jealousy means and where it fits in a polyamorous dynamic.
Jealousy is a naturally occurring feeling in humans, so it’s impossible to turn it on and off. At its core, though, jealousy is a selfish feeling. You feel jealous, for example, because something is happening that doesn’t involve you.
Regarding sex, jealousy arises because you’re not the one engaging sexually with your partner. Someone else is. This mentality generates feelings of ownership over your partner—they are “mine,” and they can only have sex with me.
In polyamory, on the other hand, jealousy is thought of differently and channeled differently than in a monogamous relationship. There’s a beautiful term called compersion—this is when you feel joy because your partner is experiencing something they want and enjoy. You channel those natural, jealous feelings into something more constructive and positive. You are happy because your partner is happy.
How Do Polyamorous Relationships Work
The rules of a polyamorous relationship are just as wide and varied as the people who engage in it. There’s no one size fits all approach that works for everyone.
However, there are several things to consider, like what kind of polyamorous relationship you want to be in and why—it should look like that work for you and your partners.
Brene Brown once said, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” This is especially important when entering into polyamory because, with more than two people involved in a relationship, the chance of disappointment rises, as does your vulnerability of getting hurt. Setting boundaries regarding what you’re comfortable with and what you expect from your partners will determine whether your polyamorous relationship will succeed or not.
Rickert and Veaux write in their book that “when we create relationships, we let people deep into our hearts. While this intimacy is wonderful and profoundly transformative… It comes at a price because you’re also opening yourself up to be vulnerable and hurt. And in the case of polyamory, by more than one person.”
When exploring what emotional and physical boundaries you’re comfortable with, first have an honest conversation with yourself about what you’re looking for, then talk with those in your life with whom you’d like to be in a relationship.
How Do You Know If You Are Polyamorous?
This is a question that only you can answer. Some questions to think about can be, are you comfortable sharing a partner with someone else, not only sexually but emotionally? Are you able to channel feelings of jealousy into compersion?
In addition to answering these questions, you can also take this quiz to help you better understand whether you’re ready or not for a polyamorous relationship.
No one can, or should, tell you that you’re ready or not for polyamory. Only you can decide that for yourself. Being in this type of relationship starts with knowing what you want and then working with others about what is expected. If you’re having doubts about the lifestyle or questioning whether it’s right for you, you’re probably not ready for polyamory.
If you think you may be interested in pursuing polyamory, learn as much as you can about it and talk with people in your life that you might consider being polyamorous with. Remember that honesty and communication are an essential part of all relationships once you have a good sense of how these relationships work and feel ready to be a part of your polyamorous couple.
Franklin Veaux, Eve Rickert, More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory (2014).