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Many people confuse polyamory, polygamy, polygyny, and polyandry — and this confusion is unsurprising, considering that those terms are new to most of us!
While these are all different relationship styles that involve more than two people, there are some key differences between them.
In short, polyamory is the act of having intimate relationships with more than one person at the same time. A polyamorous person might have or might be open to having multiple romantic partners.
Polygamy, on the other hand, involves being married to multiple partners.
Some polyamorous people are married and have partners outside of their marriage. However, polygamy exclusively describes relationships where people are married.
Polyandry and polygyny are both forms of polygamy (in other words, they involve marriage too).
Polyamory and polygamy might sound similar, but in practice, they’re quite different.
Polyamory and polygamy are both gender-neutral terms. They can refer to women having multiple partners of any gender, men having multiple partners of any gender, or nonbinary people having partners of any gender.
Polygyny specifically refers to a man who has multiple wives. Polyandry refers to a woman who has multiple husbands.
In practice, polygyny is far more common than polyandry.
While polyamory is about intimate relationships of all kinds (including dating and marriage), polygamy specifically refers to marriage, as does polygyny and polyandry.
Some people practice polygamy because of their religious beliefs.
For example, some Mormons and some Muslims practice polygamy, although many do not. In fact, some Muslims and Mormons oppose polygamy.
History and legality
Many countries don’t allow people to have multiple legal spouses.
As such, many polygamous people don’t have their marriages recognized by the state. In other words, it’s a de facto marriage and not a legally sanctioned marriage.
In some countries, including countries in northern Africa and the Middle East, polygamy is legal. In other countries, polygamy is illegal but not a criminal offense. In other countries, like the United States, polygamy is illegal and criminalized.
In places where polygamy is legal, it’s mostly only that polygyny is legal — in other words, men can have multiple wives, but women can’t have multiple husbands.
Polyamory, polygamy, and polyandry are all different forms of nonmonogamy.
In other words, they are different kinds of nonmonogamous relationship structures, as they involve one or more people having multiple partners.
In the case of polygamy, the appeal is usually cultural or religious, although this isn’t always the case.
When it comes to polyamory and consensual nonmonogamy in general, there are many reasons why people would want a nonmonogamous relationship.
- You or your partner feel attracted to others while still feeling attracted to each other.
- You or your partner want to love multiple people at the same time.
- One person may not want to have sex, or do certain sex acts or kinks, while the other wants to.
- You might want to experience romantic love or sex with someone of a different gender than your partner.
- The idea of dating multiple people feels liberating and appealing to you.
- You’re interested in experimenting out of curiosity.
Nonmonogamy has multiple benefits. Although it isn’t for everyone, many people find it the most comfortable and freeing relationship style for them.
As you can imagine, there are plenty of popular myths and misconceptions about the above relationship styles — partly because there’s a lot of stigma and media misrepresentation of polyamory and polygamy.
It isn’t a disorder
Being attracted to (and wanting to date) multiple people isn’t a disorder. Some people are able to love multiple people at the same time.
It isn’t a form of cheating
Polyamory isn’t the same as cheating.
The difference between polyamory and cheating is consent. If your partner consents to you having other partners, it isn’t cheating, it’s polyamory.
It’s possible to cheat or break the boundaries of your relationship
That’s not to say that polyamorous people can’t cheat.
Being polyamorous doesn’t mean that “anything goes.” As in every relationship, it’s important to respect your partner’s boundaries. If you overstep those boundaries, it could be considered cheating.
For example, if your partner only consents to you dating people they know, and you date someone they don’t know without telling them, that’s a form of cheating.
It isn’t the same as having an open relationship or swinging
Having an open relationship involves allowing your partner to have sex with other people. Swinging usually involves couples swapping sexual partners.
While polyamorous people might have open relationships or be swingers, it isn’t exactly the same thing.
Many polyamorous people don’t swing or have closed relationships — meaning that someone might have multiple partners, but not date or sleep with anyone outside of the group.
Some polyamorous people might not have sex at all.
Polyamorous relationships aren’t recipes for disaster
All relationships have their challenges — including polyamorous ones. There’s a misconception that polyamorous people are only polyamorous because they can’t commit.
This isn’t true — in fact, they’re open to committing to multiple partners!
It’s worth noting that one 2018 study looked at people who are monogamous and people who are consensually nonmonogamous and found no difference in relationship satisfaction between the two groups.
The majority of people have only ever seen monogamy being practiced.
The truth is that monogamy is only one way to have a relationship. There are plenty of other relationship dynamics out there.
These different types of nonmonogamy may include:
- Monogamish. This is where someone is mostly monogamous but might be open to sex or romantic relationships with others.
- Polyflexible. This is when someone is happy with being in a monogamous or a nonmonogamous relationship. They’re satisfied in both situations.
- Polyfidelity. This is where all partners in a group are equal and agree not to have sexual or romantic relationships outside of the group.
- “Casual” sex. You’ve heard of this one before! Casual sex, where your sexual partners have no expectations about monogamy or exclusivity, can be a form of ethical nonmonogamy because you’re consensually having encounters with multiple people.
- “Casual” dating. Similar to casual sex, this is where you date multiple people while clearly stating that there are no expectations about monogamy.
- Triad. Also called a “throuple,” this is where three people date each other.
- Quad. Like a triad, a quad is a relationship involving four people.
- Vee. Also known as a “V,” this is where one person is dating two people but those two people aren’t dating one another.
- Relationship anarchy. This is less of a relationship structure and more of a philosophy or approach to relationships. This is where the rules and expectations for relationships aren’t determined by assumptions, but by specific agreements with those specific people. For example, two friends might have sex. Although sex isn’t commonly a part of what we call friendship, they might agree that it’s something they want in their relationship.
- Open relationships. This is where a couple has sex with other people (but usually not romantic relationships).
- Unicorns. Sometimes considered an insult, the word “unicorn” is used to describe a person who has sex with couples. This is usually a bisexual or pansexual woman who has sex with a couple that includes one man and one woman. The unicorn isn’t usually considered a part of the couple, but a sexual partner.
- Solo polyamory. This is where someone has intimate relationships with many people but lives an independent life. They might not want to intertwine their lives with a partner — for example, through marriage, living together, having children, moving abroad together, and so on.
There are many other relationship styles. As you can see, the possibilities are really endless.
While some people specifically look for certain relationship styles, others end up in them organically after experimenting and communicating with their partners.
There’s no test to figure out whether polyamory is right for you, but there are a few questions you can ask yourself in order to discover whether it’s worth trying.
- Do you feel that you’re capable of being attracted to more than one person? And if so, what does “attraction” mean to you?
- Do you feel capable of committing to multiple people? What would that commitment look like?
- How do you handle jealousy? Plenty of polyamorous people feel jealous, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. But are you able to process your jealousy and communicate about it with your partner(s)?
- Are you able to organize and prioritize your time well? Having one partner takes time and work, and having multiple partners takes even more time and work. If you’re going to date multiple people, time management will come in handy.
- Consider the idea of loving someone who has another partner (or partners). Would you feel comfortable with that?
Polyamory looks different to different people, and many people adjust their relationship boundaries and expectations based on their needs, desires, and capacity.
There’s a lot of information out there on polyamory, and we recommend you do research before embarking on a polyamorous relationship.
There are resources out there that can help you with:
- understanding different forms of ethical nonmonogamy and choosing the right relationship structure for you
- talking to potential partner(s) in order to set boundaries
- navigating jealousy
- communicating with your partner(s)
- telling your friends and family about your relationship(s)
- managing your time
If you’re interested in polyamory, it’s a good idea to talk to your current partner about it. Be honest and upfront.
It’s common for many people to feel like they’re not “enough” when their partner brings up an interest in nonmonogamy, which is a totally valid feeling.
Emphasize why you’re interested in ethical nonmonogamy. In other words, remind them that it’s not because you don’t love them or aren’t satisfied with them.
You might find it helpful to connect with ethically nonmonogamous people — whether it’s in a platonic, romantic, or sexual way — by joining online and in-person communities.
Connecting with other people who practice ethical nonmonogamy can help you understand it and navigate it better.
There are many resources on polyamory and ethical nonmonogamy. Reading up on ethical nonmonogamy is a great way to learn more about communication, relationship styles, boundaries, and more.
Even if you prefer monogamy, learning about polyamory can be mind-opening.
Some of the most popular books about ethical nonmonogamy available for purchase include:
- “More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory” by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert
- “The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures” by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton
- “Building Open Relationships: Your Hands-On Guide to Swinging, Polyamory, and Beyond!” by Liz Powell
- “Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships” by Tristan Taormino
You might find helpful information on sites like:
If you’re a fan of podcasts, some podcasts about ethical nonmonogamy and polyamory include:
Sian Ferguson is a freelance writer and editor based in Grahamstown, South Africa. Her writing covers issues relating to social justice, cannabis, and health. You can reach out to her on Twitter.