What is polyamory anyway?

A 7 point guide for friends and loved ones of polyamorous people to figure out what polyamory is and how to better support their loved one.

What is polyamory anyway?
Photo by Nik on Unsplash

If you've been directed to this page, it's because someone you know or love wants you to understand what polyamory is and... maybe is a little bit too tired to explain it to you or wants you to understand better.

Don't blame them. Sometimes it can be a lot.

What I will give you here is some of the most frequently asked questions monogamous people often have about polyamory and maybe help make things a little bit easier for your friend or loved one.

Here's what we'll cover:

Now, let's get started.

What is the definition of polyamory?

Polyamory is a practice or lifestyle of having multiple romantic relationships at once and involving the consent and awareness of all parties involved. Many people also like to use the term multiamory instead to refer to the same concept, especially if they dislike mixing Latin and Greek parts of words.

One important thing that even some polyamorous people get wrong: Polyamory is not monogamy with an upgrade. It's just a different way of doing relationships. It's not objectively any better or any worse than monogamy in the same way that being childfree is not any better or worse objectively than having children. Polyamory is not better, it's just different.

So wait? You mean polygamy?

Ehh, not quite. A lot of people have heard of polygamy – it's the Mormons, right? But there are some critical differences between polyamory and polygamy.

Polygamy vs Polyamory

Polygamy is a practice whereby a man has multiple wives and usually the union of the man with those wives is recognised and acknowledged by the state. This usually a practice that is associated with any number of religions, not just Mormonism.

Polygamy historically, just as any form of marriage, has been primarily about wealth distribution and gathering resources rather than about building multiple romantic relationships, however modern practices of polygamy could be more focused on romantic relationships.

Polyamory is specifically about not just one person having the right to have multiple partners but about anyone having the right to have multiple romantic relationships, regardless of gender.

Polyamory is also typically not recognised or acknowledged by the state, though it is important to note that modern polygamous relationships also wouldn't be recognised by many states as multiple marriages or bigamy is outlawed in many countries.

So, if you were wondering about polyamory vs polygamy, those are the two main differences. Many people have their own feelings about the ethics of polygamy given it's history, but I won't go into that here.

How does polyamory work sexually?

Woah, we're feeling a bit bold, aren't we? But hey, this is what a lot of people are dying to know. And, as they say, sex sells.

Let's start with the basics though.

How polyamory "works"

Essentially, polyamory works the same way any other relationship works: through effective communication, co-relating and compatibility. There are all sorts of ways to "do polyamory" and there is no "right" way to go about it. The only important aspect is that all of the people involved are consenting adults.

Think about it this way. Monogamy can only "work" as well as the people in it communicate, right? I'm sure you've got that friend that keeps getting back together with that ex that... well... yeah. Does that "work"? It's all up to interpretation.

But how about we get into the different types of polyamory relationships.

Polyamory relationship styles

Here are a few ways that polyamory "works":

  • open relationships
  • solo polyamory
  • kitchen table polyamory
  • parallel polyamory

What are open relationships?

I'm sure you've heard of this, right? We gotta thank Facebook for truly making some strides in recognition. A bit confusing though so let's break it down.

The difference between open relationships and polyamory is that polyamory is usually specifically about building multiple romantic relationships, whereas open relationships are relationships that have some type of open policy towards sexual interactions with others. Typically, it's a couple that have given each other "permission" to have sexual relations with others, but not necessarily build romantic relationships with others.

Most people are aware of "open relationships" and may apply this label to polyamory even if they aren't technically the same. But a open relationship could be polyamorous – so it's worth me mentioning.

Solo polyamory

This is one you may not have heard of so much.

Solo polyamory is a practice of polyamory where an individual prefers to focus on themselves as a partner and doesn't usually practice co-habitation with any partners or have any set hierarchy of how they prioritise relationships or have a "primary partner".

Likewise, solo polyamorous people may not be interested in what's called the relationship escalator which is a term coined to describe the social script you might have heard in Fight Club: meet, get into a relationship, marry, have kids, picket fence... you get the gist. It's not just solo polyamorous people who can be uninterested in this, but now you know what that is if someone mentions it.

A lot of comet partners may be practicing solo polyamory. A comet partner is someone who comes in and out of an individual's life similar to a comet, in that it's a rare but welcomed and interesting occasion.

You may not feel like this is how you'd want to live, and that's okay! Different strokes for different folks as we say.

Kitchen table polyamory

This is a relatively new term that I've encountered, but definitely describes many polyamorous setups that I have seen.

Kitchen table polyamory is a practice where individuals get along with their metamours and they feel very similar to a family.

A metamour is basically, your partner's partner. Someone you do not date but could be friends with. I hope you like learning new words!

The name comes from the idea of being around a "kitchen table" together. The goal may not necessarily be to live together, but to get along similar to how a family would. Aww, isn't that nice?

Parallel polyamory

This is a little bit more of what it says on the tin, in my opinion anyway.

Parallel polyamory is a practice where people, unlike in kitchen table polyamory, may not meet or interact with their metas – or their partner's partners – at all. It's not about hiding partners from each other, but about practicing in a way where relationships are more or less separated from each other.

Hierarchical polyamory

This is probably one of the more typical styles that people practice.

Hierarchical polyamory is a practice where one often has a primary partner who gets the lion's share of your attention or time or whom you might prioritise in other ways over other partners.

Some people are not too keen on this because they don't feel it's very fair. It could be seen in direct contrast with a term called relationship anarchy.

Relationship anarchy is a practice where you see all relationships as fundamentally equal, regardless of whether or not they are romantic, sexual, friends, family, etc. It's somewhat different to polyamory in that it equalises all relationships.

What about ethical non-monogamy vs polyamory?

I really hope you have your scissors ready because we're about to split some hairs.

Essentially ethical non-monogamy or ENM and polyamory are interchangeable terms. Some people prefer to highlight that non-monogamy is ethical and use the entire term.

Technically the word "non-monogamy" itself could refer to polyamory as well as swinging – which is where a usually married couple go to parties with other married couples and swap partners. Typically swinging doesn't involve romance and is just about sexual experiences, so it wouldn't be "polyamory" and the people who use ENM may not consider it to be ENM either.

I know it's confusing but... hopefully a little less now.

So is polyamory a sexuality?

I'm not the police of how people choose to identify themselves, of course, but typically polyamory is not seen as a sexual orientation in the same way we use the words "straight" or "gay".

However, many people do feel that polyamory is an inherent part of who they are and feel so confined by the typical monogamous style of relationships, that they identify deeply with polyamory as they might a sexual orientation or other identity.

Not everyone who is polyamorous or practices polyamory necessarily feels that way, but many people do and that could include your friend or loved one. If that is the case, then it might be important for you to make this comparison with sexual orientation, even if it's not technically right, if you find yourself asking them "Why can't you just be monogamous?". It might be hard to wrap your head around but some people genuinely just don't feel this is an option for them.

Is polyamory bad for some people?

This is difficult to say. Remember that friend you had that I brought up? The one that keeps going back to their ex? Well... is monogamy "bad" for them?

Polyamory works for many people for a variety of reasons. And just like monogamy, it's difficult to say if it's the style of the relationship that is the problem or if it's the relationship itself.

Think of it like this: If you wanted to move to a big city and you lived in the country, that would be a very different way of living, right? If you were not enjoying your new life in the city, is that because city life is not for you, because you got unlucky and met a bunch of jerks, or because the specific city you picked is hard for you? Hard to say, right?

When people write to me with problems, I try to help them break down if it is polyamory itself that's not right for them or if it's the specific situations of their relationship. Polyamory is a relatively new concept for a lot of people and any time we try something new, anxiety is actually very normal. It can be hard for people to parse regular "I'm trying a new thing" anxiety with "Polyamory isn't for me" anxiety.

But here's the thing. You don't have to worry. Your friend or loved one is capable of figuring this out for themselves just like they likely navigated other relationships and big life decisions themselves. I know it can be a little tricky when your loved one or friend is trying something out that you've never heard of, but have a little faith in them!

There are more resources out there for polyamorous people than ever before (including cough my book The Anxious Person's Guide to Non-Monogamy), and more of them are being written and shared every day. They are not alone.

This really depends on where you are but polyamory is definitely a meme in a lot of places, as demonstrated by one of my favourite comedians, Chris Fleming.

Within a lot of communities, polyamory is generally more popular. While I have yet to see any studies and it's not exactly on the US Census or any other type of poll, I have noticed that polyamory tends to be more popular in communities where attitudes towards sexual freedoms are more free and open.

Generally speaking, polyamory or open relationships are typical within some minority communities, such as LGBTQ communities. I think it is because, when your basic level of sexuality is already seen as "not right" by the society you live in, you begin to also question other aspects of the stereotypical relationship that gets shoved in your face. And also, many LGBTQ people throughout history have not had the ability to just settle down and get married with their loved one monogamously, so non-monogamy became more typical.

So there are any number of reasons why polyamory is more popular in certain communities than others and it varies very much depending on location and community.

How can I support my polyamorous loved one?

It's really nice that you care about your friend or loved one and you really want to help them. While you may not be able to give advice about specific situations, there are still lots of ways you can contribute in a positive way. Remember, polyamorous people are not the Borg and I am not the Borg Queen!

Everyone is an individual so be sure to ask your friend or loved one specifically what you can do for them. After all, communication is key, right?

Things to avoid saying to a polyamorous person

If you've said one of these, please don't worry. This is not about blame or making you feel bad. And trust me, I've seen a lot of polyamorous people say some horrible things about monogamous people.

But, if you'd like to know a little bit more about why these things are so difficult, hopefully this can clear it up a little bit:

  • "I could never do that" - That's okay, but how does this information help the person you're telling it to? No relationship is simple. All of them take work. When you say this, it can sometimes feel like the other person is doing a circus act, when really... they're just doing relationships a little different.
  • "Don't you get jealous?" - Oh boy. Of course. Your friend isn't a robot! But polyamory isn't about becoming a Vulcan unaffected by typical human emotions. Imagine if someone said "Don't you get bored of just sleeping with your partner all the time?" It takes a complicated aspect of relationships and kind of... makes it awkward and weird to talk about. Being monogamous isn't about conquering the monotony of being with the same person and polyamory isn't about conquering jealousy.
  • "Can't you just be monogamous?" - Some people don't feel like this is an option for them, but even if they did... why does that matter? This isn't a choice that hurts anybody. And think about it this way, would you want to be monogamous with a partner who doesn't really want to be monogamous? How would that be good for the other person?
  • "So you're just a sl*t?" – Whoo boy. There's more here to unpack than a viral nine month cruise. But two things are important: People who have no interest in sex can be polyamorous (yes, really!) and even if someone was interested in having more sex... so what? I can't really do anything for you if you seek to control your loved one or friend's sex life but do keep in mind that technically someone who is monogamous but is "dating" around can sleep with more people than someone who is polyamorous.
  • "Does that even work? / Open relationships don't work." – Remember what I said before about your friend who runs back to their ex? You may understand now a little bit more why something like this would be difficult for your friend. They have to now defend their entire relationship style to you even while they may be struggling with their own internal feelings and... it's just a lot to deal with. And now they might worry that, if they do have relationship problems they need to talk about, you're someone who is going to judge polyamory as a whole by the "success" they have. Not a fun thing to feel.
  • "Why aren't you enough for your partner?" – Ouch! That does really hurt, but I do understand why monogamous people default to this thought process. We tend to frame romantic relationships as a competition that you win a partner in by doing all the right things. But think about it this way. If a friend said they wanted a second child, would you say "Isn't your first child enough?". Some of you might think that, but we know that's kind of a rude thing to suggest. Ways to live our life are complicated and we do them for complicated reasons. It's not really about a partner not being "enough".
  • "Monogamy is more natural/normal/evolved." – Boy do I not want to weigh into any kind of debate about what human behaviour is more "natural" than the other. I could tell you to research Bonobos and all of that but instead, I would point out that we drive cars, we have pacemakers, and we don't live "natural" lives any more and while there are ups and downs to this, most of us appreciate the ways our lives are made better by the "unnatural". In terms of "normal", people very much did not used to think being left handed was "normal" and the result of that was pretty awful for those people. So let's have a short reflection about what the concept of "normal" has done to people throughout history who have just been a bit different.

So what should I do instead?

Again, if you've said any of the things above, don't worry. Most of us grow up in monogamous centric cultures that teach us all sorts of things about sex and relationships that don't even work well for monogamous people.

The good thing is, your polyamorous friend or loved one could likely benefit from the same things you would benefit from. Here are a few things to get you started:

  • Listen. Yeah, that's it. I know, it's simple but really a lot of polyamorous people tend to feel like they can't talk to anyone about their relationship and because there is so often a pressure to prove polyamory "works", many polyamorous people feel shame when things aren't going perfectly. Be a source of non-judgemental listening. You don't have to have answers! Just listen.
  • Show initiative. If you want to do more than listen, ask your friend for their recommendations for books to read, podcasts to listen to, or the things they have found useful in learning about polyamory. You don't have to want to be polyamorous to learn about it and taking the initiative to learn more about it shows you care. If you've gotten this far, you're already doing that.
  • More importantly, be honest. If your polyamorous friend or loved one cares about you, they will also care about your feelings and boundaries. You should always secure your own mask before you try and put someone else's on. It's okay if you feel overwhelmed, if you feel like you can't help, or you want to ask your friend or loved one to find another method of getting support. You don't have to be that person. If you reached the end here and you know for sure that you can't be that person, be honest about your boundaries.

What next?

I am but one person (and there is an about section if you have no idea who is writing this) and I can't decide what is best for every polyamorous person. Truly, the best thing you can do to support your friend or loved one is to ask them what would be the best way to support them.

But, if you really have a hankering to learn more words, you can check out my general polyamory FAQ to expand your vocabulary.

And if you want to step into the mind of what your friend or loved one might be experiencing, you can always check out my book, The Anxious Person's Guide to Non-Monogamy.

Otherwise, the rules are the same for polyamorous people as they would be for monogamous people: Be excellent to one another.