Since there are a lot of terms used by the polyamory and non-monogamy communities that often appear on columns and in my podcast, I thought it might be useful to create an FAQ and/or index for some of these terms.
General relationship definitions
Here are a number of ways to describe polyamory, non-monogamy, and more.
What is polyamory?
Polyamory is an adult relationship style where individuals are, with the full consent of all involved, interested in and/or pursuing multiple relationships, usually romantic, with multiple individuals.
What is non-monogamy?
Non-monogamy is an umbrella term which encompasses "polyamory" while also including other lifestyle setups that don't involving having multiple relationships but do involve having other relationships outside of a "couple" structure such as swinging, DADT relationships, open relationships and other words. Polyamory is part of non-monogamy but not all non-monogamy is polyamory. Depending on how you define it, non-monogamy could also technically include infidelity or cheating.
What is ethical non-monogamy or ENM?
Ethical non-monogamy emphasises that the non-monogamy being practiced involves the consent and awareness of all parties. One could argue that "non-monogamy" itself is already ethical (just like there is no such thing as swimming and non-drowning swimming -- by definition if you are swimming you're not drowning).
But many people feel the need to stress "ethical" since technically "non-monogamy" could include people who have relationships with polyamorous people as well as relationships with people who have Don't Ask, Don't Tell setups which someone who is ethically non-monogamous may object to.
What is an open relationship?
An open relationship is, typically, a romantic relationship within two people that is sexually open. Open relationships are a type of non-monogamy whereby a couple may agree that each of the individuals in the couple are allowed to have sexual relationships with others but retain a primary romantic relationship to each other only.
What is the difference between polyamory and polygamy?
Polygamy has a long historical practice going back decades and typically involves a man having multiple wives. Historically, both monogamous and polygamous marriage within society was not structured or focused on romantic love, but rather the exchange of property (See: The History of Marriage). So, historically, polygamy had a similar function. Today, polygamy is still practiced by individuals in some religions, but as this site is focused on polyamory, I will avoid commenting on that practice. Currently, many countries forbid individuals from being able to marry multiple individuals.
Polyamory, in contrast, is a relatively new word and concept designed to encompass a practice where individuals are free, not bound by gender identity, to establish multiple relationships, typically romantic and sexual, with multiple people. It has no history of being focused on the exchange of property, money and currently, as far as I know, do not have legal recognition anywhere with regards to government recognised marriage.
What is swinging?
Swinging refers to the practice of two individuals within a couple choosing to "swap partners" with others. The idea behind this is more focused on having different sexual experiences than different romantic relationships or experiences, but different practices may vary. Typically "swinging" can happen at events or private parties.
What is consensual non-monogamy?
Similar to "ethical non-monogamy", consensual non-monogamy is way to emphasise that the non-monogamy practices followed by individuals involve adults who are all both aware and consenting. This is to differentiate from practices such as Don't Ask, Don't Tell or infidelity which could be technically considered forms of non-monogamy.
What is solo polyamory?
Solo polyamory or solopoly is practice whereby an individual who is polyamorous specifically chooses not to have any "primary" partners or practice any form of hierarchy. Often this will mean that the solo polyam person involved also does not live with partners and sometimes sees themself as their "primary".
What is hierarchical polyamory?
Hierarchical polyamory involves individuals who choose to have a "primary" partner and other "secondary" partners. Typically, primary partners are partners who live together and share responsibilities such as children or shared property.
Quite often, but not always, hierarchical relationships will involve prioritising the "primary" relationship in terms of individual time, effort and energy. How individuals define their hierarchy can be very individual. Many people feel having any form of hierarchy is not "ethical" but this is up to individual interpretation.
What is relationship anarchy?
Relationship anarchy is a non-hierarchical form of polyamory which emphasises the importance of all relationships in life, not just romantic relationships, being equal. RA is explicitly against any form of hierarchy or preference of one relationship over another.
Here are a number of polyamory associated terms you may come across.
What is a metamor, metamour or meta?
A metamour is the partner of your partner whom you are not dating.
What is a hinge?
A hinge the shared partner between two metamours.
What is compersion?
Compersion is often described as "the opposite of jealousy" where you feel happiness and joy when you hear about your partner dating other people.
What is 'don't ask, don't tell' in polyamory?
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" or DADT polyamory involves an arrangement between a couple where typically one partner has been given permission to "cheat" or to date and have sex with other people outside of the relationship. The other partner who has given permission knows that their partner does this but requests that it be "hidden" from them.
So they typically do not meet or even know about other partners and typically the couple's relationship is prioritised over any other relationships. Some DADT relationships could involve both partners being able to seek other relationships. This differs from typical infidelity because both parties are consenting in some level. Many people still feel DADT is not "ethical".
What is an OPP?
An OPP is a "one penis policy" which is typically where two individuals within a non-monogamous setup, usually a cis woman and a cis man, make a mutual agreement that the cis woman in the couple will only pursue relationships with men.
Typically this policy doesn't really negotiate the possibility of transgender or non-binary individuals and is often seen by many as misogynistic because it assumes that the cis woman in the couple dating other women is not as big of a threat to the couple than her dating a man would be.
The agreement should be mutual but some people feel shoehorned into this type of agreement while others can feel like they have no interest in dating men so such an agreement doesn't bother them and they don't feel it is unethical.
What is a polycule?
A polycule refers to all of the individuals involved within a set of relationships. Envision this as similar to the "COVID bubbles" in a way. All metamours and all active relationships can exist within a polycule.
What is kitchen table polyamory or KTP?
Kitchen table polyamory is a practice of polyamory where the desire is for all of the people involved within relationships to be similar to a family style dynamic or gathering around a kitchen table.
This could vary in size from one connected couple and one metamour to an entire polycule. Individuals practicing KTP may wish for as many people to live together as possible or at least be in close proximity to one another.
What is parallel polyamory?
Somewhat the opposite of "kitchen table polyamory", parallel polyamory is where individuals who practice polyamory, as a general rule, keep their relationships so separate that their metamours may not have even met. This is different to a Don't Ask, Don't Tell setup.
Within parallel polyamory there is no expectation of secrecy or hierarchy but for whatever reason the individuals practicing it either do not want or are not specifically aiming for their metamours to have friendships or relationships with one each other, meet, attend events together or anything like that. Such a thing may occur naturally but parallel polyamory is about an intentional choice to not "cross the streams" of your relationships.
What is "the relationship escalator"?
When I discuss the relationship escalator, I am referring to a social script that is often encouraged within monogamy that many individuals within non-monogamy either seek to emulate or see themselves emulating without realising it.
Please refer to The Relationship Escalator website for more information on this concept and it's creator.
What is a unicorn or unicorn hunter in polyamory?
This concept refers to the desire for a couple what is usually both heterosexual and new to non-monogamy that is interested in dating a bisexual woman together in a triad formation or they seek a bisexual woman who would be able available for threesomes.
Typically "unicorn" is not considered a positive thing because the assumption is that the couple do not prioritise the emotions of the bisexual woman and see her as both non-threatening to their partnership and ultimately disposable if the couple decides to back out of non-monogamy. Some people proudly call themselves "unicorns" and are happy to be involved in a more casual and often sexual way with a couple and feel this is more beneficial to them than other ways of doing non-monogamy.
Couples who date together who specifically seek out bisexual women are often called "unicorn hunters" but this can apply to others outside of a heterosexual dynamic. This is usually a pejorative term which indicates that the individuals involved are inexperienced and practicing an unethical form of polyamory that sees bisexual women as resources, though there may be some people who seek to reclaim the "unicorn hunter" term as something positive.
What is NRE or new relationship energy?
New relationship energy refers to a phenomenon in polyamory where an individual who is in the early stages of forming a new relationship with someone may get swept up in the excitement and emotions of that relationship.
Sometimes NRE involves forgetting about, though unintentionally, other partners but the concept is giving empathy to the fact that this is a common occurance and the person who is caught up in NRE generally isn't intending on neglecting others.
What is a triad?
A triad is a setup where three people all date each other. Usually these relationships aren't conducted in a parallel way and the triad may often do things together.
Many individuals starting out in polyamory aim to have a triad because they feel like such a setup is "safer" while others think a triad is "expert level" polyamory. The nature of the difficulty of a triad relationship will vary form person to person but it is important to understand that the expectation of a triad is that all the individuals involved date each other, rather than being metamours and specifically seeking a person to add to your relationship puts a lot of pressure on that person to feel "the same" about both people.
What does it mean when a couple is seeking "a third"?
Typically a couple that is seeking a third is generally wanting a triad however the issue that typically comes with specifically seeking "a third" is that this implies that the individual who joins the couple is "third" and therefore not prioritised over the couple.
Using this language will typically be met with accusations of unicorn hunting and many people will assume those seeking "a third" are inexperienced or likely to consider "the third" as a disposable element if the couple does not want to continue practicing non-monogamy which is often seen as inevitable.
What is a comet partner?
A comet partner is a somewhat similar situation as solo polyamory but different in that a comet partner will typically be someone who doesn't live with their partners and has a less active role in that person's life, but still has a strong emotional bond or connection with the individuals involved.
Many times people who consider themselves comet partners don't experience a degradation in their feelings for other partners even through longer periods of non-contact so they may not feel the need or the desire to have a more active involvement in the lives of all partners and instead circle around every once in awhile, like a comet.