Most of us grow up with heteronormative, monogamous ideas of relationships. Monogamy is the common approach to love and relationship, drawn primarily from a Judaeo-Christian tradition, inextricably woven into every aspect of society. Monogamy often seems like the only option because of the perception that it’s the only approach, which, in turn, makes most people naturally opt for monogamy, further perpetuating that idea.
But if you step outside the expectations of society, you will find that relationships and love can occur in numerous configurations and structures. Humans are complex and have complex desires, and romantic, sexual love can co-exist for more than one person at a time. Monogamy is a completely valid expression of romance, love, and relationships, but it’s not the only one. Everyone has the right to choose.
If you’re curious about polyamory, we provide a thorough guide to understand this alternative model of relationships.
What is polyamory?
Polyamory is a form of consensual non-monogamy, wherein an individual may have romantic relationships with multiple people simultaneously. When discussing polyamory, the emphasis must lie on consent — everyone within the polyamorous network must consent to that dynamic of their free will. This model of relationships works on the understanding that romantic love isn’t exclusive, and you can develop romantic love for multiple people at once.
The word “polyamory” comes from two words with Greek and Latin origins — “poly” and “amor.” The word “poly” means more than one, and the word “amor” means love. When put together, polyamory literally means having more than one love. The practice of polyamory has been around since time immemorial in various cultures and subcultures across history. But the concept has been named in recent years as an alternative model to monogamy.
Is polyamory the same as polygamy?
The term polyamory is often confused with polygamy, but they’re not exactly the same. Polyamory is the freedom to engage in multiple romantic relationships simultaneously, whereas polygamy is the freedom to marry multiple people simultaneously. The suffix “amor” refers simply to love, whereas the suffix “gamy” refers to marriage, similar to “monogamy.” When talking about polyamory, there’s a real need to distinguish it from polygamy.
Historically, the act of polygamy was an oppressive double-standard for women.
The term polygamy has long-standing, sexist connotations. Historically, polygamous cultures allowed men to marry more than one woman to produce multiple children. Women weren’t afforded that same right, and their desire to engage in multiple relationships was often punished. Historically, the act of polygamy was an oppressive double-standard for women. That historical context has made it difficult for people to discuss equal variations of polyamory.
Our modern understanding of polyamory is completely different from traditional polygamous relationships. Polyamory allows people of all gender identifies, sexual orientations, ethnicities, and other demographic makeups to engage freely in multiple relationships, provided they have everyone’s consent. As such, far from being gendered, sexist, or oppressive (like historical polygamy), modern notions of polyamory are founded on consent and equality.
How does a polyamorous relationship function?
Everyone is unique, and all relationships are also unique. There are no rules set in stone when it comes to polyamorous relationships because everyone creates their own meanings. The goal isn’t to create another set of rigid standards for people to box themselves into, but rather to liberate people to create their own agreements, as long as it’s done with everyone’s consent and free will. However, the following are some common formulations for polyamorous relationships.
An existing couple might “open up” their relationships to other participants. In this model, the two partners may see other people individually or together, according to the terms of their relationship. The specific nature of the relationship depends on the terms that both partners agree upon mutually. The following are some of the common variations:
- Sexually open relationships, but emotionally closed relationships
- Emotionally open relationships with independent partners
- Both partners find the same additional sexual/ romantic partners
- Both partners are completely open and communicative about their relationships
- Both partners are silent about their relationships
- Inviting a third (or fourth or fifth) partner into the relationship
- Other forms based on agreed terms
Hierarchical polyamorous relationships are those with a hierarchy of primary, secondary, and tertiary partners. The relationship might start with one couple and then gradually expand to include other participants. The individuals involved in this may also have multiple primary partners or secondary partners. Some people believe hierarchical relationships are oppressive, and they choose to use the term “nesting partners” to indicate those who share a living space and those who don’t.
Anarchical relationships, also known as non-hierarchical relationships, are those where one partner isn’t given more importance than the other. Everyone involved in this dynamic is equally important, or the levels of affection and importance between different partners may shift and change naturally, just the way your feelings for different friends and family members may shift over time. Non-hierarchical relationships are often seen as more equitable.
Solo polyamory refers to individuals who may have several partners without living or “nesting” with any of them. People often confuse solo polyamory with someone unwilling to commit, but that’s a fairly oppressive approach. Everyone has the right to determine how much they’re willing to commit, with whom, and when, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to live solo while dating multiple people, provided there’s complete clarity for everyone.
Polyamory is a completely valid and emotionally healthy choice for individuals to make. If you feel unfulfilled by a monogamous relationship and genuinely believe you develop emotional, romantic ties with multiple people, you can pursue that path openly. If you believe you can bring trust, honesty, and accountability to multiple relationships simultaneously, go for it!