Here's What a Polyamorous Relationship Actually Is—and What It Isn't
Jessamyn Stanley recently talked about the many misconceptions surrounding polyamory. We reached out to experts to learn more about the relationship practice.
Bethany Meyers, Nico Tortorella, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Jessamyn Stanley are all stylish AF, badass entrepreneurs making waves on your social feeds. But they have another thing in common: They all identify as polyamorous.
By now you've likely heard of "polyamory" and "polyamorous relationships." But do you know what they mean? Unless you're also poly, Stanely says you probably don't. In a recent Instagram Story, she said, "Polyamory gets confused with wanting to have sex or needing to have sex with a lot of different people, which is really not what it's about." (Related: How to Have a Healthy Polyamorous Relationship)
So what are polyamorous relationships actually about? To find out, we consulted with sex educators who specialize in ethical non-monogamy. Here, they explain the dynamics of polyamory and dispel some of the most common misconceptions surrounding it.
What's the definition of polyamorous?
Our 'ole friend Merriam Webster says the term "polyamory" refers to folks involved in more than one romantic relationship at a time. While an OK start, sex and polyamory educators say this definition misses one vv vital component: consent.
"Polyamory is an ethically, honestly, and consensually driven relationship structure that allows us to engage in many (poly), loving (amorous) relationships," says pleasure-based sex educator and sex-positivity advocate, Lateef Taylor. "The consent component here is vital." So while there may be multiple intimate and/or sexual relationships happening concurrently, everyone (!!) involved is aware that these are the relationship dynamics in place.
Note: If you've ever been in a committed monogamous relationship and cheated or been cheated on, know that that is not polyamory. "Cheating is a behavior that can happen in any kind of relationship because it's any broach in the agreements or boundaries of the relationship," explains sex educator and licensed psychologist Liz Powell, Psy.D., author of Building Open Relationships: Your Hands-On Guide To Swinging, Polyamory, & Beyond. Translation: Calling yourself "poly" isn't a free pass for you or your partner to hook up with whoever you want.
Polyamorous relationship ≠ open relationship
Many non-monogamous relationship terms are often conflated and confused. Sex and relationships educator Sarah Sloane, who has been teaching sex toy classes at Good Vibrations and Pleasure Chest since 2001, explains that consensual non-monogamy (sometimes called ethical non-monogamy) encapsulates all of these.
Maybe you've heard the word "queer" described as an umbrella term? Well, Sloane says "consensual non-monogamy similarly operates as an umbrella term, too." Under that umbrella are other types of non-monogamous relationships, including polyamorous relationships, as well as swinging, open relationships, throuples, and more.
Wait, so what's the difference between polyamorous and open relationships? "These relationship terms may mean slightly different things to different people," explains Sloane. Typically, though, "when someone uses the phrase 'polyamorous,' they're using it to explain relationships that are emotionally intimate and romantic, as opposed to just sexual," she says. Open relationships, on the other hand, tend to involve having one partner who's your main squeeze/your boo thing/your partner/your honey, and other partners who are ~purely sexual~. Simply put, while open relationships and polyamorous relationships are both practices of ethical non-monogamy, polyamorous relationships typically have wiggle room for more than one emotional connection. (Related: 6 Things Monogamous People Can Learn from Open Relationships)
Just remember: "To find out what someone means when they say they're in a polyamorous relationship, ask them, because it does mean different things to different people," says Sloane.
Some poly relationships have "structure" while others do not
Just as no two monogamous relationships look the same, nor do two polyamorous relationships. "There are so many different ways to have intimate relationships with multiple people, so there are so many ways polyamorous relationships can manifest and play out," says Amy Boyajian, CEO and co-founder of Wild Flower, an online innovative sexual wellness and adult store.
Sloane explains that some folks follow a relationship hierarchy in which partners are considered "primary," "secondary," "tertiary," and so on, based on the level of commitment involved. "Others won't use formal labels, but will arrange the 'importance' of their relationships around who they're living with, have kids with, etc.," she says. On the other hand, some people avoid "ranking" the folks they're woo-ing and being woo-ed by, adds Sloane.
Figuring out a relationship structure (or lack thereof) that works best for you requires understanding yourself and what you need from your relationships, says Boyajian. "You need to deep-think on what you're comfortable with, what your needs are, and then be able to communicate those things to your partners and potential partners."
Folks of any gender, sexuality, and relationship status can be poly
"Anyone who believes in and is committed to having ethical non-monogamous relationships can explore this love style," says Taylor.
BTW, you can also be single and identify as poly. You can even be sleeping with or dating only one person and still identify as poly. "Identifying as poly doesn't mean you always have multiple partners at once," says Boyajian, "It's like being pansexual. You're still pansexual even if you're not currently dating or sleeping with anyone!" (Related: What It Really Means to Be Gender Fluid or Identify As Non-Binary)
No, being poly isn't a "new trend"
Polyamory may seem like something ~all the cool kids are doing~ but it has a rich history. "Indigenous people and queer folks have been doing it for many, many years," says Powell. "And when we call it a 'trend', we erase the history of the variety of folks who have been practicing ethical non-monogamy throughout history, before the white West started doing it."
So why does it seem like it's suddenly something everyone's doing? First off, relax. Not everyone is doing it. While one survey found that about 21 percent of Americans have tried consensual non-monogamy at some point in their life, another source says only 5 percent of folks are currently in a non-monogamous relationship. However, the most recent data is at least two years old, so experts say the percentage may be slightly higher.
Sloane also offers her own hypothesis: "As a society, we may be in a place where we are having more conversations about what constitutes love and relationships," she says. "And the more conversations we have about polyamory, the more people are able to consider it for themselves." (Related: The Surprising Reason Women Want Divorce More Than Men)
Polyamorous dating isn't just about getting laid
There's a misconception that polyamory is about a need or desire to have a lot of sex with a lot of people, Stanley recently shared on Instagram. But "it's really just a lot of radical honesty," she wrote. As Powell explains: "Polyamory isn't about sex, it's about the desire (or practice) of wanting to have multiple loving relationships."
In fact, sometimes sex is never on the table. For instance, folks who identify as asexual (meaning they don't experience a desire to have sex) can be in polyamorous relationships, too, says sex educator Dedeker Winston, author of The Smart Girl's Guide to Polyamory. "For people who are asexual, polyamorous allows them to cultivate relationships around commitment, intimacy, shared values, and shared experiences with a partner or partners, while still allowing that partner to be sexual."
But, of course, sex can be part of it
"Polyamory is about designing an intentional relationship style that works for you, so sex can be a primary driver or just a component," says sex educator and gender researcher Ren Grabert, M.Ed. (BTW: If you're thinking poly=orgies all the time, guess again. Sure, group sex may occasionally be part of it. But that's not a defining feature of polyamorous relationships.)
And when sex is part of it, Boyajian says communication around safe-sex practices and STI status is key. "Are you using protection with all of your partners? Are a group of you exclusive to one another and therefore not using barriers? Are you to use protection with all partners but one, who you're fluid bonded to?" These details should be agreed upon before sexual contact happens and should be an ongoing conversation. (Here's how to ask your partner if they've had an STD test.)
Polyamorous relationships *aren't* for commitment-phobes
There's a misconception that being polyamorous is synonymous with "bad at commitment." That's hogwash. In fact, Taylor says poly requires a ton of commitment—to yourself and to the people you're seeing. "Think about it: Being in a relationship with multiple people requires committing to the folks you're dating or seeing and honoring them and the boundaries of your relationship."
In fact, if you start dating polyamorously specifically because you have a fear of commitment, your relationships will likely fail, says Powell. "What tends to happen is folks end up bringing their commitment-aversion—and the issues that come with it—into multiple relationships, instead of just one." Woof.
If you want to experiment with polyamorous dating, you need to do your research
Maybe you've always wanted to explore polyamory. Maybe Stanely's loving post for her partners after a bike accident ("I'm also feeling so f*cking grateful for my partners and the way in which they held me and each other down last night/this morning") piqued your interest. Or maybe you're just curious for future reference. Whatever the reason, if you—or you and a partner—want to experiment with polyamory, you need to do your research.
Kudos, this article counts. But if you're actually looking to date polyamorously, it's not sufficient. "Doing research on polyamorous relationships, boundaries within that relationship, and what you're looking for from polyamorous dating is vital," says Grabert.
For that, the experts interviewed have the following suggestions:
- Multiamory Podcast
- When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous by Elisabeth Sheff, Ph.D.
- Building Open Relationships: Your Hands-On Guide To Swinging, Polyamory, & Beyond by Liz Powell, Psy.D.
- The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide To Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Freedoms by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton
- More Than Two: A Guide To Ethical Monogamy by Franklin Veaux and Eve Ricket
- The Poly.Land blog
- The SoloPoly blog