Polyamory, ethical non-monogamy, open relationships… there are many terms used to describe relationship models that fit under the non-monogamy umbrella. I often hear them thrown around as if they’re interchangeable but it’s important to know that there are some key differences, even though each term means something slightly different to everyone. When it comes to polyamory vs open relationships, here’s my take on what makes them unique from each other.
What is an open relationship?
More Than Two’s ‘polyglossary’ defines an open relationship as ‘any relationship that is not sexually monogamous.’ While this may sound quite broad, there are two key factors to focus on here: it specifically centres on one relationship at its core and refers to sex, not love.
An open relationship is usually (though, not always) built around one couple. We live in a mononormative society, so a two-person romantic relationship is a structure that we’re most familiar with. This couple would see this romantic relationship as the centre of their universe, with other sexual partners as separate but affiliated elements — quite like planets orbiting their sun.
The name ‘open’ relationship also infers that this couple could at some point be closed. Often, they have been monogamous in the past and could opt to do so again in the future. Some couples open and close their relationship from time to time, depending on what’s going on in other parts of their lives.
This couple could ‘play’ (have sex) with other people together or separately or they could be open to both options. While there are no standard open relationship rules, most couples will have agreements about different sexual practices, including safe sex.
The majority of couples in open relationships are happy for their partners to have sex with other people but are usually opposed to them forming any romantic connections outside of the relationship. They are generally sexually open (to varying extents) but romantically exclusive.
Relationship and sex columnist Dan Savage coined the term ‘monogamish’ to describe couples who are not entirely monogamous. Their focus is primarily on their relationship but they are open to one or both partners occasionally having sex with other people. This label is especially relevant to couples who have an open marriage but prefer to keep up the outward appearance of being monogamous.
Swinging is another term that’s often used to describe an open relationship. I usually associate swingers as people who are specifically part of the swinging scene (going to swinger parties and clubs) rather than a couple who sometimes have sex with other people. But I’ve noticed that the way this term is used does tend to vary from country to country and across different age groups.
What is polyamory?
The term polyamory is a combination of the Greek word poly, meaning ‘many’ or ‘several’, and the Latin word amor, which means ‘love.’ This hybrid word is often attributed to Neopagan priestess Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart (yes, you should absolutely Google pictures of her), who used the term ‘poly-amorous’ in her article A Bouquet of Lovers, published in a 1990 copy of Green Egg magazine. However, polyamorous relationships obviously existed long before this word came into use.
Although monogamy sells the idea of everyone having ‘one true love,’ these days the majority of monogamous people will have a series of romantic relationships throughout their life, loving multiple people at different times. For me, polyamory embraces this idea that life is full of many loves and that some of these can occur concurrently.
There are many polyamorous relationship types. Hierarchical polyamory is where two people see each other as their primary partner and any other partners as secondary partners. In contrast to this, there is egalitarian or non-hierarchical polyamory where everyone is treated equally. In this structure, a nesting partner is someone who you live with but that doesn’t mean they have rank or priority over other partners (beyond agreements around your living arrangements).
Solo polyamory differs from the above relationship models as it’s centred on the individual and not a pre-existing or potential partnership. People who are solo poly (like me) aren’t looking to get married, live with or combine finances with another partner and they treat all of their romantic/sexual partners equally.
A polycule is a group of people who are all connected through romantic and/or sexual relationships. Not everyone in this network will necessarily be polyamorous but they will usually practice some form of ethical non-monogamy (although there are people who are monogamous with a non-monogamous partner). My favourite non-binary actor Ezra Miller talked about their love for their polycule in an interview with Playboy in 2018.
Difference between polyamory and open relationships
When considering polyamory vs open relationships, I think the key difference is primarily romantic love. Polyamory focuses on having emotionally engaged, supportive relationships with multiple people, often simultaneously. Open relationships focus on having one core romantic relationship but multiple sexual partners.
Another difference is that many polyamorous relationships aren’t structured around core couples. Aside from hierarchical polyamory, most polyamorous relationships consist of an interconnected network of sexual and romantic partners.
Some people have very successful open relationships. For them, having one person as their romantic partner but multiple sexual partners is a structure that suits them perfectly. Other people start out with this structure, only to discover that while they can control who they have sex with, they can’t control who they fall in love with. This could mean that the open relationship ends but it also could mean that this couple transitions into polyamory or something similar.
Some people have long, enriching polyamorous relationships. For them, the support and love of multiple partners is a beautiful thing. It does require you to do a lot of work on yourself, to deal with your communication style and insecurities in a way that you often don’t have to with one romantic partner. Some people who try polyamory struggle with this and decide it’s too much work for them.
Others try polyamory, only to discover that while they may be polysexual, they are monoromantic (as in, they only want one romantic partner at a time). Thankfully, as you can now see, there are many different ways to explore ethical non-monogamy. There’s no one right way and you just need to keep exploring till you work out what works best for you.
It’s important to remember that everyone does relationships differently and there are no set rules that you or your partners need to follow. Even within my house, my flatmates and I each practice three different forms of non-monogamy and we’re always evolving our ideas and approaches towards it. If you’re new to non-monogamy, then I recommend talking to friends who are already actively living this way, listening to some podcasts and seeing what meet-ups and support groups are in your local area (such as these ones in London).