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What It Means to Be Polyamorous

Original Post Healthline Medically reviewed by Janet Brito, Ph.D., LCSW, CST — By Eleesha Loc

 

Polyamory is a non-monogamous relationship style where people mutually agree to have multiple sexual or romantic relationships. Monogamy, or the practice of having only one romantic or sexual partner, is the most practiced type of relationship in the United States. However, according to statistics published in 2021, roughly 4%–5% of the population practices polyamory.

Polyamory is a form of consensual non-monogamy in which a person is involved with multiple romantic or sexual partners. Although millions of people across the country and around the world are in consensual polyamorous relationships, there’s still a significant misunderstanding of what polyamory means and what these relationships entail and this misunderstanding often leads to stigma, a negative or discriminatory attitude against people in these types of relationships. We’ll share what you need to know about polyamory, including the different types of polyamorous relationships, how to establish healthy boundaries in polyamory, and more.


What does being polyamorous mean? Polyamory is a form of ethical, or consensual, non-monogamy that involves having romantic or sexual relationships with multiple partners at the same time. Ethical, or consensual, non-monogamy describes relationships in which all parties are aware of and consent to practice non-monogamy.


“Folx in polyamorous relationships usually (but not always) engage with their partners both romantically and sexually, with the knowledge and consent of any other partner(s) that they may have,” explains Stephanie M. Sullivan, MS, LMFT, CCTP-II, marriage and family therapist and owner of Attunement, who specializes in polyamorous and consensually non-monogamous relationships.


Consent is crucial in ethical non-monogamy. One of the most important parts of being polyamorous is making sure that you — and any romantic or sexual partners you have — are aware of and consenting to the relationships you have with them and others. Is there a polyamorous flag?


Although there have been various interpretations of the polyamorous flag over the years, the original flag was created in 1995 by Jim Evans. It’s a tricolor flag with a blue band at the top, which signifies honesty and communication between partners. In the middle, a red band represents the love and passion in polyamorous relationships. A black band at the bottom represents the stigma that polyamorous people often face, sometimes leading them to have to hide their relationships. And a gold pi symbol in the flag’s center signifies the value they place on their different emotional attachments.


Polyamorous relationship types Polyamory can look different from person to person, shares Sullivan. “Each relationship is unique and can be designed in any way that feels right to everyone involved,” she explains. However, some common terms are used to describe not only the different types of polyamorous relationships that a person can form but also the different people involved.


Hierarchical Hierarchical polyamory involves a hierarchy system that includes primary and secondary partners. Primary partners take priority over other partners or relationships. This often describes partners who are married, live together, or have families together. Primary partners can form additional secondary relationships, but these relationships do not have the same level of priority that the primary relationship does.


Non-hierarchical Non-hierarchical polyamory doesn’t involve any ranking of partners, which means that every relationship or partner, while unique, is viewed equally. So, someone in this type of polyamorous relationship with multiple partners would consider these partners equal, even if the relationships all function differently.


Polyfidelity Polyfidelity is a type of non-hierarchical polyamory in which there is no ranking of partners. However, in this type of relationship, the partners are all exclusive to one another and are not seeking or open to new relationships. Polyfidelity often includes two common relationship types:

  • Triad: This describes a relationship in which three people are sexually or romantically involved with each other.

  • Quad: This describes a relationship in which four people are in a romantic or sexual relationship together.

Vee Vee, which comes from the letter V, describes a relationship in which one partner has two separate romantic or sexual partners. Unlike a triad, in which all three individuals are in the relationship together, the partners of the shared person in the vee are not involved with one another.


Solo-poly While there’s no set definition for solo-poly, it’s often used to describe multiple types of polyamorous people, such as:

  • those who are single and identify as polyamorous, sometimes called single-poly

  • those who are in casual or committed polyamorous relationships but choose to live alone

  • those who are in polyamorous relationships and don’t live alone but still prioritize themselves or their needs

When someone is solo-poly — whether single, dating, or otherwise — the primary focus of their major life decisions is themselves, rather than the relationship.


Mono-poly Mono-poly relationships describe a type of relationship in which someone who is monogamous is in a relationship with someone who is polyamorous. This is also sometimes called a hybrid relationship. In this type of relationship, the person who is polyamorous may decide to follow any type of polyamorous lifestyle while their monogamous partner does not — but communication and consent with their monogamous partner is still key.


This relationship can be healthy when both partners are getting their needs met, but it can become codependent when taken as a step to save a relationship where one partner has a history of cheating. “Some monogamous folx find that they don’t care to date themselves, but that they don’t mind their partner dating,” explains Sullivan. However, it all comes down to personal preference. “Different polyamorous folx may have different boundaries for themselves when considering dating someone who has only ever been monogamous,” she says.


Poly webs Poly webs, also called poly families or sometimes polycules, describe people who are all connected through polyamorous lifestyles. People who are part of poly webs or families aren’t always necessarily romantically involved with each other — sometimes they’re simply connected through their various partners. Poly webs may sometimes live together or near each other, and they may share household duties as well as date nights. This setup is especially popular in the queer community, where it can serve as a “chosen family” for people estranged from their biological families.


Polyamorous vs. polygamy “Polyamory and polygamy are vastly different,” says Sullivan, clarifying that polyamory involves the idea of navigating and consenting to multiple simultaneous relationships.


“Polyamorous folx encompass a wide range of types of people, with many different religions, backgrounds, political views, and interests,” she continues. Polygamy, on the other hand, is the practice of having multiple spouses. And unlike polyamory, which focuses on being an equitable form of non-monogamy, polygamy isn’t always as such.


“Polygamy often has a religious or cultural motivation to it, and it is often not equitable for everyone involved,” Sullivan explains. For example, polygyny — the most common form of polygamy — involves one man having multiple wives. “This is usually an inequitable relationship, as the wives are not able or allowed to take on other partners, and can have other inequitable aspects to it as well,” she says. Of course, that’s not to say that polygamy can’t be consensual or equitable non-monogamy — but ultimately, polygamy and polyamory are two separate lifestyles that can’t necessarily be compared.


Establishing healthy polyamorous relationship rules and boundaries Like any other consensual relationship, polyamorous relationships work best when partners can establish rules and boundaries that work for everyone. And according to Sullivan, that starts with discussing everything openly and honestly. “There are three main components to consider when doing this in relationships,” she explains. These are:

  1. First, it’s important to identify everyone’s thoughts, feelings, and values.

  2. Second, it’s necessary to be able to communicate those thoughts, feelings, and values with each other.

  3. And third, it’s crucial to be able to communicate these things with an open mind and without judgment.

“These three components are difficult when discussing particularly difficult topics but are important skills for every person in a polyamorous (or monogamous!) relationship,” Sullivan shares. If this is something you find hard in your relationships, there’s no shame in reaching out for help. “If necessary, seeking a poly-friendly therapist or coach can be helpful to build these skills,” she recommends.


It can also be helpful to take an active approach to scheduling and to be realistic when planning your free time. If you and all of your partners are working full-time, it can be difficult to find the time to make everyone a priority. Using a digital calendar that allows you to share or look at your schedules side by side can take some of the work out of planning your week. Again, everything comes back to clear communication and being upfront about what you need.


FAQs around polyamory Whether you’ve been polyamorous your entire life or are just interested in learning more, we’re here to answer some common questions — and clear up some common misconceptions – about polyamory and polyamorous relationships.

Is polyamory a sexuality? Polyamory is not a sexuality. And despite the misconception that only LGBTQIA+ people practice polyamory, it is not associated with any specific sexuality. In fact, people of any sexuality, whether heterosexual, bisexual, asexual, or otherwise, can be in polyamorous relationships.

Is being polyamorous legal? While it’s not illegal to be in a polyamorous relationship, most countries around the world prohibit marrying multiple partners. Because of this, most polyamorous couples don’t have the same legal protections as married couples.

Are poly relationships healthy? Polyamorous relationships can be happy, healthy relationships, just like any other monogamous or non-monogamous relationship. However, because polyamorous relationships involve multiple people, they can sometimes require more honesty, communication, and care.

What does dating a unicorn mean? A “unicorn” is a term that is often used to describe a bisexual or pansexual polyamorous woman who is willing to be in a relationship with an established (usually heterosexual) couple. Generally, the term is seen as derogatory because of the implications of the purely sexual role that the unicorn will play in the relationship.

Can a monogamous person date a poly person? “Someone who is monogamous can date someone who is polyamorous; this is referred to as a mono-poly relationship,” explains Sullivan. In her experience, these relationships are one of the most difficult polyamorous relationship styles to maintain — however, they can work well with the right communication and boundaries. In this blended relationship style, both parties must be extremely communicative about their wants and needs. This also requires excellent self-reflection skills. Seeing a relationship therapist who specializes in polyamorous relationships can be helpful. Learn more about how to find the right therapist for you.

How common is polyamory? Research from 2021 suggests that roughly 4%–5% of people in the United States are currently in romantic non-monogamous relationships, including polyamorous relationships. That same research suggests that over 16% of people may want to try non-monogamy — and up to 10% of people may have tried it at some point in their lives.

How often do open marriages fail? An open marriage is a type of consensual non-monogamy (not necessarily polyamory) in which a couple agrees to engage in relationships with people outside the marriage. While there aren’t many studies on the statistics of open marriage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that roughly 45%Trusted Source of marriages end in divorce — some of which are likely open marriages. Learn more about open relationships.

Is polyamory more ethical than monogamy? While polyamory is sometimes talked about as a more ethical alternative to monogamy or more authentic to human nature, there are no studies that prove this. It’s just as possible for cheating or abuse to happen in polyamorous relationships as in a monogamous one. Polyamory is just as ethical as any other consensual relationship, monogamous or otherwise. This is because a big part of the ethics of polyamory involves consent: “Remember, polyamory is about having honest, consensual, simultaneous relationships,” notes Sullivan. “If your polyamory is not consensual, it is not polyamory.”

How do I know if I’m polyamorous? If you’re interested in exploring a polyamorous lifestyle, Sullivan recommends checking out books about polyamory to learn more. “‘A Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory,’ ‘The Ethical Slut,’ or ‘Polysecure’ might be a good place to start,” she suggests. And if you’re already in an established relationship, communication is key. “If you are in a monogamous relationship and thinking about opening up your relationship, it is important to talk with your partner about this first, and to take things as slowly as you both need,” Sullivan says. Seeing a couple’s therapist can also be a helpful step before opening up a monogamous relationship.


Takeaway

The discussion of polyamory and polyamorous relationship is becoming more prevalent, but there’s still a lot of misunderstanding about polyamorous relationships. Being polyamorous is a form of ethical non-monogamy. It can take many forms, but it usually involves having romantic or sexual (or both) relationships with multiple people. Hierarchy or marriage may or may not be involved.


Consent and open communication are at the heart of polyamory — all partners are aware of the others. By learning more about polyamory and listening to the experiences of people in polyamorous relationships, we can help fight the stigma and become more open-minded about what love looks like for people of all lifestyles.

 


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