What Is Polyamory and How Does It Work?

Polyamory has steadily moved from the margins to mainstream society over the past couple of decades. The rise of the internet has helped this scattered, taboo community connect, grow, and educate others. Personally, nearly six years in this community has provided a wealth of knowledge, but for now, let’s stick to the basics: What is (and isn’t) polyamory and how does it work?

Ethical Non-Monogamy

This umbrella term encompasses everything from polyamory to that conversation you have with your new Tinder beau-ty call about not being exclusive. Generally, however, people throw this term around when their relationships are on the casual end of the spectrum. Ethical non-monogamy is the practice of having multiple romantic/sexual partners who know about each other.

Ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term encompassing non-exclusive dating, open relationships, and polyamory.

Polygamy and polyandry — usually ostracized from the main community due to consent and agency issues — are cultural forms of these relationships where one person acts as a vertex to many other partners who are bound to them by marriage. Vertices aren’t always bad; they occur as vees (only two partners) and are accepted in other relationship structures. The difference lies in how the wives and husbands of these relationships are not allowed the same freedom to explore beyond the vertex partner.

Open Relationships

Many people get their feet wet with ethical non-monogamy by opening up their relationships so one or both partners date or have sex with other people. Swinging technically falls into this category but is strictly sexual and its own vibrant community altogether. An open relationship tends to have the most rules in order to preserve the core relationship. Rules can range from not sleeping with friends to restricting queer/pansexual/bisexual people to only dating people of their gender.

couple bed smile

Too many rules can put pressure on the core relationship and often ignore the sexual and emotional agency of any third parties. Some of these open couples go “unicorn hunting” for those open to threesomes and completely close off the possibility of romantic attachment. Some people don’t mind, but the couples often position unicorns as disposable beings.

However, sometimes these “pairings” can blossom into polyfidelitous relationships. Polyfidelity occurs when multiple people decide to be in an exclusive relationship with each other, most commonly in the form of triads (three partners) or quads (four people). But the more the merrier!

Polyamory

Finally, you have “many loves” (the Latin translation of polyamory). Polyamory tends to focus more on romantic relationships, but it can include casual partners. The main schools of polyamory are hierarchical, anarchic, egalitarian, and solo-polyamory.

Polyamory literally translates to “many loves” and is the practice of being in relationships with more than one partner.

Hierarchical polyamory assigns ranks to different partners: primary, secondary, and tertiary. There’s typically only one primary and this relationship tends to include many financial and social entanglements. Secondary relationships are essentially evolved situationships where the partners are beyond casual. Sometimes they can be as romantic as a primary … without the same access. Tertiary relationships are casual and usually physically-based. Another partner type is a comet, which can fit any of these descriptions, where the couple spends long periods of time apart.

Criticism of hierarchical poly structures rests mostly on the power the primary partner holds over time, resources, and particularly, vetoes. A primary can veto aspects of or even entire relationships their partner holds. This power can lead to secondaries and tertiaries feeling neglected. Sounds like a glorified open relationship, no?

In response, anarchic and egalitarian systems aim to challenge these emotional limitations. Relationship anarchy dismantles all hierarchies in platonic, sexual, and romantic relationships. It’s the least possessive relationship structure since all parties are completely autonomous and do not restrict each other. Anecdotally, however, straight men often use the term to avoid commitment.

couple kitchen breakfast
Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

Egalitarian and/or non-hierarchical polyamory is similar to relationship anarchy. These structures don’t fold platonic relationships into the anarchic ethos, aren’t usually as anti-heteronormativity, and can be conventionally couple-centric.

Finally, solo-polyamory occurs when someone views themselves as their primary. External relationships can have hierarchies or not (usually the latter), but commonly, there is no desire to cohabitate, merge finances, etc. with any partners.

Partner’s partners, known as metamours, help form a network known as a polycule. Metamours can have little to no contact or develop friendships and even romantic/sexual relationships with each other. No matter how involved the members are in each other’s lives, everyone should have a sense of at least who their metamours. It’s a marker of good communication throughout the polycule and a deterrent to jealousy.

What About Jealousy?

Jealousy still happens, especially at first. Jealousy in the early stages of polyamory can be a remnant of the possessiveness of monogamy.

Unlearning societal norms, learning about yourself, and fostering open communication can help uncover boundaries while also pushing them. Sometimes, genuine neglect occurs as partners figure out how to navigate polyamory, but you can only correct this by talking to each other.

couple wine bar date
Astrakan Images/Getty Images

Once you’re a poly veteran, jealousy doesn’t completely release you, but it’s more likely to be defined by an insecurity. Paraphrasing musician, activist, and general badass Kiran Gandhi, jealousy is a sign to your brain that you’re missing something in your life and a call to action to obtain it.

Usually, polyamorous relationships are full of compersion — the joy of knowing that someone else makes a partner happy. Because happiness isn’t meant to be exclusive; it’s always better when shared.

For an even deeper primer on ethical non-monogamy, snag a copy of The Ethical Slut by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton.

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