A Beginner's Guide To Polyamory: How It Works & How To Know If It's For You
Growing up, most of us weren't exposed to polyamory or polyamorous relationships. That's because monogamy is the most common approach to love and relationship, and it's ingrained into the very fabric of society. Maybe your parents have been married for decades, or maybe all the other relationships you witnessed only involved two people. While monogamy might seem like the only way to go, in reality there are so many other ways to approach love. We all have the right to choose, and more and more people are choosing to pursue polyamorous unions.
What is polyamory?
Polyamory is a form of consensual or ethical non-monogamy wherein people may have romantic relationships with multiple people at the same time, says sex and relationship coach Azaria Menezes. "Everyone involved in the polyamorous relationship has consented to the relationship dynamic," she adds.
The word polyamory can be broken down into two parts: poly, which has Greek origins and translates to "many or more than one," and amor, which is Latin and means "love." Together, the word refers to having many loves. Even though the word itself hasn't been around for that long, polyamory has been in practice since the beginning of time, according to Menezes.
"Of course, there are many ways people can structure what their relationships look like, and so there can be many types and structures of polyamory," she tells mbg.
Polyamory vs. polygamy.
While the words sound similar, polyamory and polygamy aren't the same thing. In fact, they're very different, according to Kamela Dolinova, a counselor who works with the polyamorous community.
Like monogamy, Dolinova explains, polygamy has to do with marriage: being married to many people rather than one (mono). But historically, most polygamous cultures have only allowed for one man marrying many women. Women have rarely had the freedom to marry several men or to have relationships with anyone other than their husband.
"Polygamy tends to operate as an oppressive double-standard, often for the purpose of producing many children," she says. "Polyamory, on the other hand, may involve any number of people and a mix of genders, each of whom may or may not be married to anyone."
How does polyamory work?
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to any relationship, and that also applies to polyamorous ones. Everyone does polyamory a little differently. There are no rules set in stone, but the people involved in any given relationship create their own boundaries and agreements. The key is to make sure you are honoring whatever boundaries and agreements were made and openly communicating your desires if they've evolved beyond the original terms.
Here are a few ways polyamory might look:
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"Opening" an existing relationship
Sometimes a couple will "open up" their relationship, Dolinova says, which might mean one or both of them begin to date other people (with each other's mutual consent). It could also sometimes mean a third person dates both of the partners, forming a three-person relationship (also known as a throuple). Alternatively, two couples might choose to become romantically or sexually involved with each other.
The hierarchical approach
Within a polyamorous relationship, some may choose to prioritize one partner above others, making that person their "primary" partner. There's also the option to have multiple primary partners or leave the space for additional relationships that could blossom to primary level, or those who prefer the hierarchical approach might opt to stick with one primary relationship. In this setup, the other partners are considered secondary partners, and they often must accept pre-existing rules or limits on time defined by the primary relationship members.
But while the words primary and secondary have been used for a long time to indicate more hierarchical relationships, many people now find these "oppressive," Dolinova says. Some people instead (or additionally) use the term nesting partners to refer to partners that share a home or living space.
The non-hierarchical approach
A polyamorous relationship can also exist without placing one partner or relationship above others, which is sometimes referred to as relationship anarchy. You don't have to have any primary partners; you could instead choose to have multiple relationships without ranking them. Terms like nesting partners can still be useful to simply indicate partners that you live with without implying a hierarchy.
"Some people practice 'solo polyamory,' where they have several partners but don't live with any of them. You might say there are as many ways to practice polyamory as there are people in such relationships. The only common thread is that all people involved need to know about one another and be willing to communicate," Dolinova explains.
Polyamory terms to know:
- Ethical non-monogamy: This is the umbrella term for consensual relationships where people agree to have more than one romantic or intimate relationship at a time. This means that whoever is involved in this relationship is in the know and agrees to the relationship dynamics.
- Metamour: This is your partner's partner. Metamours may or may not interact with each other, depending on the structure of the relationship.
- Polycule: A polycule is the group of all the people who are somehow connected through the romantic relationships they are in. This doesn't mean that they all have to be dating each other.
- Polysaturated: A term for when a person is polyamorous but not currently open to new partners or relationships.
- Compersion: The word compersion describes the feeling of being happy, turned on, or excited about the idea of your partner being happy, romantically or sexually, with another person.
- Triads and quads: Relationships that involve three people or four people. The triad could also be referred to as a throuple, which means each person is actively dating the other two people in the relationship. A quad could consist of two couples.
- V or vee: A V relationship occurs when two people are both dating a third person, but they're not dating each other. The third person is often referred to as the "hinge."
- Nesting partner: A partner you live with. They may or may not also be considered a "primary partner," meaning that you prioritize them above other relationships.
Is polyamory illegal?
No. Polyamory isn't illegal, but there are limitations for these unions. According to Dolinova, there aren't any laws preventing consenting adults from having more than one loving relationship at a time, but being married to more than one person is indeed illegal in (most of) the United States.
"Some polyamorous people would like for marriage freedoms to be extended so that groups of three or four or more could share the rights and benefits conferred by the legal institution of marriage. Groups who are raising children together would especially benefit from this," she explains. "There can certainly be high social consequences for polyamorous people, though, ranging from not being recognized as a family by a workplace to having children taken away. So, while it's not illegal per se, it does still exist in a kind of social gray area."
Can polyamory be bad or toxic?
Most things can be wonderful for one person and not great for someone else. There's a common misconception that polyamory is naturally toxic or bad, but that isn't the case. Polyamory can be a beautiful way of relating to others, just like any other relationship style. What can make it and/or any other relationship toxic is what happens inside that relationship between the people in it, their actions, and behaviors.
Like any other relationship structure, polyamory can become toxic when there is "dishonesty, unhealthy power dynamics, consistently overstepping boundaries, disregarding others' feelings and agreements, choosing to be in the relationship for the wrong reasons," says Menezes.
Toxic polyamory can be avoided by knowing your limits. "A good rule of thumb to remember is that while love is limitless, time and energy are not. It's important to know what your limits are in terms of how much you can give to each of your partners," Dolinova says. "It's also very important to watch out for one person 'doing polyamory' while not telling their other partners about it. The word polyamory has often been used as a shield for what monogamous culture calls 'cheating.' Remember: If it isn't open and honest, it isn't polyamory."
Can polyamorous people be in monogamous relationships?
Yes, according to Antonia Hall, transpersonal psychologist, sex educator, and author of The Ultimate Guide to a Multi-Orgasmic Life. Human connections are complicated, and our needs and desires can change throughout our lifetime.
"Those people that are truly happy in both polyamorous and monogamous relations are called 'ambiamorous.' Ambiamory is not as discussed but might be worth consideration for more people," she explains. "Polyamorous relationships require the same cultivation of friendship and intimacy as a monogamous relationship, and the desire to become monogamous can happen. But those who have spent years exploring and enjoying polyamory might find monogamy to be a poor fit over time."
How to know if polyamory is right for you:
- You are willing to be completely honest with yourself and others about your desires and actions.
- You have a deep desire to spend time exploring different aspects of yourself with different people, each on their own terms.
- You think you can handle the practical aspects of dating more than one person and are willing to work those out with your partners.
- You often have feelings for many people at the same time.
- The thought of connecting multiple people on an intimate level at the same time sparks joy and doesn't leave you feeling exhausted.
- You often daydream about being in a relationship with more than one person at a time.
- You feel confined by the idea of being with only one person.
- You feel capable of loving and committing to multiple people at the same time.
- You are OK with the idea of your partner having intimate relationships with other people.
- You feel like you could ultimately be your best self in a relationship with multiple people.
- You have done the research and spent time trying to fully understand the dynamics of polyamory.
- You feel like you could bring trust, respect, open communication, accountability, love, and honesty to multiple relationships at the same time.
How to know if polyamory is not right for you:
- You are choosing polyamory in the hopes of fixing a broken monogamous relationship.
- The thought of having to consider, spend time with, and commit to multiple people feels exhausting.
- Anything outside of monogamy feels "unnatural" to you.
- You haven't spent time self-reflecting and understanding your triggers, insecurities, and past trauma relating to love and relationships.
Explaining polyamory to partners.
When it comes to sharing your polyamorous lifestyle with new potential partners, it's important to bring it up early, Hall says. And since polyamory can take quite a few forms, you'll need to let this person know what polyamory means to you.
"Being upfront and honest from the beginning is respectful, can prevent misunderstandings and hurt feelings, and ensures no one is wasting their time and energy," she explains. "Most people in the polyamorous community are adept at communicating their boundaries, limits, and expectations, and that should include a brief, thoughtful way to communicate with potential new partners."
Explaining your desire for a polyamorous relationship to a current partner you're in a monogamous relationship with can be a little more difficult. Asking this person to move away from the familiarity they know in order to make room for others can be tough, but it's not an impossible task. The biggest rule here, according to Dolinova, is being honest without being brutal. She encourages you to find the words to express your wants, fears, and hopes without hurting your partner's feelings in the process.
"One of the cardinal rules: Don't try to open your relationship when things aren't going well. It will definitely not fix it, and, in fact, will undoubtedly make things worse. The time to look at exploring polyamory when you're in a monogamous relationship is when your relationship is healthy, strong, and exciting, and you both want to know what it would be like to have even more love in your lives," she adds.
But what happens if your partner isn't open to accepting your desire for a polyamorous relationship and they are hurt?
"Anecdotally speaking, it's really hard to come back from it when one partner expresses a desire to go outside a monogamous relationship and the other person is really hurt by it," Dolinova tells mbg.
Though not impossible, she says the desire for polyamory doesn't typically fade if it's a sincere desire for a relationship style. That's because the desire for polyamory isn't necessarily about just wanting more lovers; it's often about wanting the freedom to explore loving relationships with multiple people.
That said, sometimes people believe they want polyamory when what's actually happening is that they're dissatisfied with their current relationship and are looking to have their needs met elsewhere. In such cases, opening up this conversation may open dialogue about how to make satisfying changes within your monogamous union.
The bottom line.
Polyamory occurs between individuals who are in consensual romantic or sexual relationships with multiple people at the same time. At the end of the day, both polyamory (and other forms of ENM) and monogamy can birth beautiful, healthy, and enriching relationships for everyone involved. It all comes down to personal desires and preferences.
Open communication and honesty are absolute cornerstones for any healthy relationship, but even more so when it comes to the vulnerability and sharing that polyamory requires. You don't want to be the person who ends up breaking multiple hearts because you decided to enter a new relationship with someone before communicating your desire for polyamory to your long-term monogamous partner.
- The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy
- Polysecure by Jessica Fern
- The Smart Girl's Guide to Polyamory by Dedeker Wilson
- Open Deeply by Kate Loree
- More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert
- Unf*ck Your Polyamory by Dr. Liz Powell and Kevin Patterson
Stephanie Barnes is a freelance writer from Kingston, Jamaica. She studied Information Technology from the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean and spent several years as a front-end/iOS engineer. Her work has been featured at The Huffington Post, Healthline, The Lily, HelloGiggles, Business Insider, and more. She's passionate about all things mental health, technology, and binge-worthy television.