What Is A Polycule? Understanding Polyamory Relationship Structures
If you're polyamorous or know people who are, perhaps you've heard the term "polycule" float around in passing. The term offers helpful language to refer to the constellation of lovers and lovers' lovers that many polyamorous people live in community with—and a helpful way to organize relationships.
What is a polycule?
A polycule is a network of consensually nonmonogamous relationships that are connected to each other in some way.
The term polycule comes from a cross between poly, meaning "many," and molecule, says licensed sex therapist Lori Lawrenz, Psy.D. "When the various polyamorous relationships are drawn in a diagram form, the construction resembles that of a molecule."
Each person in the network is typically involved in consensual nonmonogamous relationships with other members, although not everyone is necessarily romantically or sexually joined with each other, says AASECT-certified sex therapist Janet Brito, Ph.D., LCSW. Instead, the polycule can function as a kind of family group, in which there are different kinds of bonds between all members—which is important in the context of an amatonormative society.
"An unavoidable aspect of nonmonogamy is that people are engaging in a system of relationships that all impact one another," says Anna Dow, LCSW, a therapist who specializes in consensual nonmonogamy and practices it herself. "Having shared language for that system can add to some people's senses of security and belonging while also offering practical information about how their own relationship dynamics may impact other people."
Types of polycule structures.
Polycules can take a variety of forms. There is no one "right" way to build one. Some polycules contain members who are all sexually and romantically joined, whereas some do not. Here are some common types:
A V relationship, sometimes called a "vee," is one in which one individual is the "hinge," and they have two relationships with people who are not in a relationship with each other. While the two partners who are not in a relationship with one another are not joined through romance or sex, they could see themselves as belonging to the same polycule. Perhaps they might even live together or be close friends.
Triads, also known colloquially as throuples, are three people who are all in a romantic relationship. All three members see one another as equal partners. A triad can be referred to as one's polycule. Alternately, if the triad isn't closed to sex and romance outside of the throuple, then the extra lovers can also be seen as part of the polycule.
Quads work just like triads, but with four people instead of three. These, too, can be seen as polycules, or the extended web of lovers and lovers' lovers can be said to comprise the polycule.
People can also choose to organize their lives around a group of people they don't necessarily share sex and romance with. This can be referred to as a platonic polycule.
Here are some common questions that might come up about polycules and forging new relationships that expand your relationship network.
What is a metamour relationship?
A metamour relationship is the bond between someone and their partner's partner. Often polycules are built around such relationships.
For example, Person A and Person B are both dating Person C, but A and B are not dating each other. This makes Person A and B metamours. If Person A and B get along well and enjoy their time together, they may begin to think of their bond with each other and Person C as a polycule.
What is a unicorn in polyamory?
Unicorns are a hot topic in polyamorous circles. In the context of nonmonogamy, a unicorn is a bisexual woman who is open to or actively searching for a man/woman couple to form a triad with or to have no-strings-attached sex with. The supposed scarcity of such women leads to the name "unicorn."
What is a dragon in polyamory?
A dragon in a polyamorous context is seen to be the male equivalent of a unicorn, says Wardeh C. Hattab, LCSW, whose clinical practice is focused on addressing the needs of people who are historically misunderstood or pathologized in the traditional private practice therapy setting.
However, Hattab clarifies that some people may use unicorn/dragon interchangeably and warn that some people may have "unrealistic expectations of finding and adding a third partner" who fits their exact criteria.
Tips for building and nurturing your own polycule:
Consider if a polycule is best for you.
Even if you are or want to be polyamorous, a polycule-oriented life might not be for you. Within polyamory there is a concept called "kitchen table poly," which means that you try to build relationships where metamours are friendly and sociable with one another—i.e., that you can all sit around the kitchen table and have a good time together. If the thought of being too involved in knowing about your partner's other loves and bonds evokes a lot of jealousy or fear within you, then maybe a polycule isn't for you. Instead, you might want to look into parallel polyamory, wherein a person doesn't know about their partner's other partners—the separate relationships simply run parallel to each other.
Take your time.
Don't rush into trying to artificially force a polycule to take shape. Your partner's partners might not automatically be interested in forming a close bond with you. It can take time to let it organically evolve. "Building a polycule takes time and patience because you're navigating relationships with more than one person, and those people will also be navigating their own relationships," Hattab says. Don't strain your relationship by trying to jump too fast into expanding your network.
There is no end to the tools you can use to help ease the organizational realities of living in a polycule. Hattab notes that they have seen apps that help people nurture their polycules, while others use spreadsheets to track all their relationships and how they spend time with others, or a giant shared Google calendar.
Navigating intimate relationships with more than one person means that it is especially important to be a thoughtful and active listener. Take the time to really understand and respect not just your own boundaries but everyone else's in the polycule.
"You may have heard that the golden rule is to treat others as you want to be treated, but somebody got that all wrong. To build healthy relationships what we really must do is treat others as they want to be treated," says Dow.
Kesiena Boom, M.S., is a sociologist, writer, and poet. She has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Manchester and a master’s degree in Gender Studies from Lund University. Her work has been featured at Slate, Buzzfeed, Vice, Autostraddle, and elsewhere. Her writing focuses on sex, pleasure, queer experience and community, feminist theory and practice, and race and anti-racism.