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What is Polyamory?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 29, 2021

Polyamorous people have multiple loving, intentional, and intimate relationships at the same time. Polyamory is a type of open or non-monogamous relationship that follows certain guidelines. 

Polyamory specifically refers to people who have multiple romantic relationships at the same time. It does not mean any type of open relationship that may include more casual sexual partners. In many polyamorous relationships, each partner is aware of the other ones. Partners may also have relationships or friendships with each other.

There are a few different types of polyamory:

  • Solo polyamory includes people who don't have primary partnerships but date multiple people. They remain mostly independent in their personal lives.
  • Polyfidelity refers to a group of three or more people who have a committed relationship with each other and do not date outside of the group. 
  • Hierarchical polyamory means people who have primary partnerships to which they devote the most time and attention, and secondary and tertiary partnerships that receive less time and attention. The primary partner may have more power over important decisions.
  • Non-hierarchical polyamory refers to people who don’t have a hierarchy of partners. It is also called egalitarian polyamory or relationship anarchy. Each partner may receive equal time and attention. They may also have equal input on important life choices.

What is the Difference Between Polyamory and Swinging?

Swingers have multiple sexual partners but may not develop emotional or romantic connections with their partners. Swingers usually attend sex parties and other events to swap partners. They may have recurring sexual partners, but their focus is not on having romantic relationships.

Polyamorous people, on the other hand, focus on fostering romantic relationships. Polyamorists can also be swingers or attend swinger parties. Swingers are sometimes also polyamorous. 

Myths and Misconceptions About Polyamory

Polyamory is Just Cheating

People in polyamorous relationships are open and honest with each other about their other partners. Successful polyamory depends on honesty, integrity, and communication. Polyamory is not about being secretive or hiding your activities with your other romantic partners.

Additionally, people in polyamorous relationships can cheat. In a poly relationship — as it is sometimes called for short — doing something secretive may count as cheating, depending on the relationship agreements. Examples include seeing a new partner and hiding it from someone or violating a previously set boundary.

Polyamorists Are Just Avoidant or Afraid of Commitment

Commitment in polyamory often looks different than it does in monogamous relationships. Couples may not create traditional relationship milestones together, like cohabitation, engagement, or marriage. However, they still have committed relationships and are there for each other. Some people believe that polyamory requires a lot of commitment because of how much dedication to open and honest communication it requires. 

Polyamorous Relationships Don't Have True Intimacy

Some people do find that having multiple partners detracts from the intimacy in their relationships. But, other polyamorous people find that being in intimate relationships with multiple people creates more intimacy due to the vulnerability and communication required. 

Polyamourous People Don't Get Jealous

Many polyamorous people do get jealous. However, the way they deal with jealousy is usually different than the way monogamous people do. They usually view it as an insecurity or fear to work on and overcome, rather than a relationship-ending problem. 

Parents Having Multiple Partners is Damaging for Their Children

More research is needed to determine the full effect of polyamory on children. However, preliminary research shows that some polyamorous families can be good for children. Just as with monogamous parents, some situations may be better or worse for children depending on several factors. 

Polyamorous People Just Want to Have a Lot of Sex

Some polyamorous people do have a lot of sex, but for many, the focus of polyamory is more about building loving, intimate relationships. Most romantic relationships do involve sex, including polyamorous ones.

How Polyamory Works in Relationships

Polyamorous relationships are complex and each one is different. People in polyamorous relationships design their own relationships by setting their desired boundaries and establishing rules that are different from those in monogamous relationships.

One of the most important agreements that polyamorous people have is an agreement about safer sex. This usually refers to a rule about who they will have unprotected sex with and forms of birth control for people who can get pregnant. This is essential to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections or unintentional pregnancy in polyamorous relationships. 

How to Explore Polyamory

If you already have a partner, the first step towards establishing a polyamorous relationship is to talk to your partner about it. If you are nervous about bringing it up, you may want to gauge their interest in or knowledge of the topic by:

  • Inviting them to watch a movie with a polyamorous situation
  • Asking them what they think about polyamorous people you both know
  • Asking them their thoughts about a non-monogamous celebrity
  • Sending them an article about polyamory

Bring up the topic in a moment of peace, in a safe space and time. An argument is not the best time to ask about opening up the relationship. If your partner says no or expresses concerns, listen to them. 

Relationship specialists recommend reassuring your partner that you still care about them. Express your reasons for wanting to try polyamory while also assuring them that you are committed to the relationship. 

However, if you already know that you are poly, whether you have a partner or not, it may be best to seek out new partners who are already polyamorous, or at least interested in non-monogamous relationships. 

Helping Your Loved Ones to Understand Polyamory

Coming out as polyamorous should always be your choice. You may choose to come out to personal friends or family members, but not to coworkers or acquaintances. Consider why you would like to come out before you do so. 

Some experts recommend finding out a person's thoughts about polyamory by asking them a few questions before you come out. You can ask them about another alternative lifestyle choice or a movie with polyamory in it to gauge what they may think about polyamory.  

When coming out to children, relationship experts recommend waiting for the child to ask about your relationships. Give honest and age-appropriate information. Present the information in a calm manner to help children feel safe and secure.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

LGBT Wikia: "Egalitarian Polyamory."

LGBT Wikia: "Hierarchical Polyamory."

Loving More: "What is Polyamory?"

Metro: "How to tell your partner that you want to be in a polyamorous relationship."

Montrose Center: "What is polyamory?"

Psychology Today: "Coming Out as Polyamorous, Part I."

Psychology Today: "Coming Out as Polyamorous, Part II."

Psychology Today: "Seven Steps For Coming Out to a (Potential) Sweetie as Poly."

Psychology Today: "Solo Polyamory, Singleish, Single & Poly."

The Oprah Magazine: "Here's How Polyamory Works."

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