Polyamory as a philosophy and lifestyle choice is growing in popularity. Yet, although it’s a term that many of us hear batted about in popular conversation, a lot of us remain unsure about what polyamory actually is in practice. For this reason – and for a better understanding into the concept of polyamory and polyamorous relationships – let’s return to our upbringing.
Growing up, we often idealized our future lives based on what our family and friends showed us, from what we read about in books, and the lifestyles we watched on TV. We grew accustomed to the idea that we can equally love and cherish multiple friends, family members, and children. Yet, in contrast, we also formed the belief that romantic love is reserved for that “One Special Someone.” And that’s fine – if it works. But what if the concept of having one soulmate or romantic partner doesn’t work for everyone?
Within ethical non-monogamy (ENM for short) there are a number of different relationship configurations that can feel tailor-made for peoples’ unique needs. This is why ENM often feels like somewhat of a solution for those of us who don’t necessarily identify with monogamous relationships.
Polyamory is one such relationship configuration within ENM. Initially popularized in the media in the 1990s, polyamory has since been increasingly recognised as an effective alternative to the monogamous lifestyle . If you’d like to learn more about the different types of ENM relationships, check out our ENM Relationship Guide.
Since polyamory has its own unique principles, this page will cover the following aspects:
As we previously stated – some people don’t necessarily buy into the idea that we only have space in our hearts to love one person romantically at a time.
For polyamorous individuals, having loving and committed romantic relationships with multiple people is their personal version of the ideal life.
Polyamory quite literally means as its name states: “poly” is the Greek for “many” and “amor” – the latin for “love.” So, polyamory means “many loves” . Thus, when applied to relationships, it essentially means that we can love multiple people at once.
Polyamorous relationships are ENM at their core, meaning they are fundamentally based on consent from all people involved. So, much like in a monogamous relationship, poly relationships come with set expectations and boundaries – just not the same ones.
Having said that, it means that cheating and betrayal can happen within polyamorous relationships just as much as they can within monogamous ones. Yet, to clarify what cheating and betrayal look like within polyamorous relationships, we may need to outline how fidelity works in polyamory. For this reason, we’ll briefly discuss the concepts of polyfidelity, emotional fidelity, and practical fidelity:
Polyfidelity is actually considered its own type of polyamory, where exclusivity is established between a group of people.
This means that all those involved have established parameters for what is acceptable and what isn’t within the relationship (there’s more information on polyfidelity below) [3,4].
Therefore, in polyfidelity, cheating would be considered any kind of romantic or sexual involvement with someone outside the confines of the relationship.
So, in this way, it’s much like a monogamous relationship’s concept of cheating, but just with more people involved in the core relationship.
Emotional fidelity is just what it sounds like; staying emotionally focused on those in your relationship, how many ever they may be .
This means that while being sexually involved with someone outside the relationship may be OK and agreed to, becoming emotionally involved on a deeper level is not.
Just like in any committed relationship, there may come a time when familial, financial, or legal obligations come into play within polyamory. Practical fidelity involves each partner within the polyamorous relationship outlining the role they play and their commitment to each other in regards to household responsibilities, raising children, and other such similar situations .
When we say that polyamory is a world in and of itself – we mean it. There might not quite be 50 shades of polyamory, but there’s still rather a lot! So, we’ll do our best to outline some of the main types of polyamorous relationships out there.
Let’s start with one of the more established forms of polyamorous relationships. Hierarchical relationships are also known as primary/secondary relationship structures, and are the polyamorous relationships that differentiate partners by priority .
For instance, the primary relationship may consist of a couple of two, where this duo lives together, shares household responsibilities, and maybe even have children . Yet, each partner (or both together) may also enjoy a secondary relationship, and perhaps even tertiary relationships.
In contrast to hierarchical relationships, non-hierarchical relationships do not differentiate partners by priority . This means that all partners within the polyamorous relationship are equally committed to one another, be it in a long-term, stable, and committed relationship – or in a short-term, occasional, or otherwise not-committed relationship.
Don’t let the name throw you off – relationship anarchy is just a sub-type of a non-hierarchical poly relationship. In relationship anarchy, not only is there no differentiation between partners’ roles within the relationship, but there are also no labels. So, technically, there are no partners, spouses, dates, or lovers. There are, however, loving and caring relationships and different levels of intimacy that are shared between different people.
In this type of poly relationship, those involved are generally independent of one another, and may not even know their partner’s metamours – a.k.a. their partners’ partners [6,7]. This means that while two people may be in a committed relationship with one another, they may have equally or differentially committed relationships with others, and that these other relationships are independent of their other relationships.
If this sounds complicated, it may help to think of your friendships: we typically have friends and groups of friends that don’t know each other, yet probably know of each other.
This is, for many, the best way to maintain their freedom. It’s essentially the “lone-wolf” version of polyamory, where a person has relationships with as many people and to whatever degree of commitment they wish – but these connections are completely independent of each other [6,7]. Solo polyamory differs from parallel polyamory in regards to the fact that within parallel polyamory there are often conversations between partners about starting new relationships – however, in solo poly, there is no need to keep anyone else in the loop.
As the name perhaps suggests, kitchen table polyamory is a family-oriented relationship.This is because the people involved share family-style bonds – even between people who are not romantically involved. The name comes from the idea of a family sitting together at the kitchen table. Thus, this type of relationship focuses on family-level intimacy and commitment [6,7].
Also referred to as “birthday party poly,” garden party polyamory is somewhat of a middle ground between kitchen table (close family bond) and parallel poly (totally independent relationships) . Its name comes from the idea of people at a garden party – most of the people there are independent of each other, but they still have some level of connection or platonic relationship with each other’s partners/lovers.
This type of structure – which we touched on above in the topic of fidelity – is when a group of 3 or more people are exclusively involved in an established and committed relationship with one another [3,4]. This means that the people in this group are committed solely to each other, and cannot engage in other romantic relationships of any kind outside the relationship.
Despite the prejudice that people in non-monogamous relationships are unstable or even unfaithful, studies point out that, in reality, people in polyamorous relationships are more likely secure than insecure attachers. Polyamory is all about sharing love and intimacy with multiple people, and secure attachers can do that more easily than insecure attachers.
In the attachment spectrum from avoidant attachment all the way to anxious attachment, avoidant attachers are generally expected to prefer ENM relationships in general. However, not all polyamory relationships can provide avoidant attachers with the freedom they seek, and can actually have just the right level of commitment for an anxious attacher. So, how do we know if a poly relationship is right for us?
People who lean towards attachment anxiety in relationships can find stability and commitment in poly structures, such as polyfidelity – where there’s a higher level of investment into the relationship. Those who lean towards attachment avoidance in relationships can preserve their freedom within a specific level of commitment, such as solo polyamory – avoiding activating intimacy-related attachment triggers.
So, much like an attachment spectrum, polyamory is in its own spectrum too – we just have to figure out where we best fit given our preferences and needs.
If you’d like to learn more about attachment styles and non-monogamous relationships, check out our ENM & Attachment Styles page! Plus, if you don’t know your attachment style yet, check out our Free Attachment Style Quiz!
From the outside looking in, polyamorous relationships may seem complicated because they encompass so many different types of groupings. As we previously mentioned, sometimes, the best way to understand this type of relationship is to think about friendships. In friendships, we usually experience different levels of intimacy – we tell some friends certain details of our lives, but might not discuss the same topics with others. Also, we may feel comfortable inviting one friend out for a late night movie marathon, but might have certain boundaries with another.
Furthermore, one of the most common arguments against polyamory is concerned with how to possibly find the time for so many different people?! If a relationship with one person is difficult enough to time-manage, how can people do this with multiple people? The answer lies in each person’s individual rhythm – such as their daily schedules, how much of their time they need for themselves and can give to others, or how quickly they commit to a relationship. Naturally, having multiple partners or lovers may mean spending less time with each individual person, and that can slow down the progression of a relationship. But this can happen even in monogamous relationships, where each person’s rhythm is slower.
In essence, we’re hoping to show that every relationship is different; what works for some might not work for others.
As we can now tell, polyamory can come in many forms. Whether it’s an exclusive three-person relationship, a no-label one, or don’t ask, don’t tell situation – polyamory clearly has many shades. Given this fact, the rules relative to these types of relationships differ.
Depending on the relationship structure and what it can encompass emotionally and physically, certain rules or habits are often necessary to ensure all people involved are safe and protected. For example, some polyamorists have strict rules about STD testing and wearing protection in all sexual encounters .
Emotional boundaries within polyamory can often seem a bit blurry. This is because – in some polyamorous relationships – partners are open to not only date other people, but to fall in love with them as well . However, this is not true for all polyamorous relationship arrangements, not even necessarily for completely independent structures like solo polyamory.
Furthermore, in some poly agreements, particularly in some hierarchical relationships, a partner can have veto power on who their partner interacts with romantically – including to what level . These agreements help protect each other emotionally, thus, avoiding potential conflict between partners and their metamours.
While some poly relationships are exclusively between a group of partners – such as polyfidelity – others are open to as many partners as they desire. Naturally, there are some boundaries that need to be clearly communicated and established prior to any romantic or sexual interaction.
In a study on the relationship rules and arrangements of polyamory, almost all respondents agreed with their partner that interactions like: holding hands, dancing, kissing, and sexual interactions with or without their partner were all permitted in their relationship configurations . The most prominent physical boundaries mentioned in this study were about STD testing and protection during sexual encounters – both of which are typically paramount in leading a poly lifestyle.
A polyamorous marriage is often confused for polygamy – or when one person is married to multiple others, such as a man with many wives . But at its core, polyamory is essentially different in terms of power dynamics – meaning all partners involved are equal with one another. So, polyamory is in kind of a gray area between legal and illegal; while it isn’t illegal, it isn’t entirely protected legally (yet) .
Beyond the legal conundrum of polyamorous marriages, polyamorists still find ways to express their commitment. Some polyamorists prefer what is referred to as “freedom of contract”, which is when boundaries and expectations are set out early in the relationship.
However, others prefer “freedom from contract”, which entails establishing trust and self-awareness through open communication to develop a stronger bond and commitment . These are in no way actual binding contracts, but, instead, ways of expressing their expectations in their relationship(s).
In this page we’ve highlighted how polyamory means to have many loves. Ultimately, it is the openness to have multiple partners in equal levels of commitment, or to explore various levels of intimacy and connection with others outside one solely committed relationship.
While we’ve shown that cheating and fidelity can have different definitions for different people, these are still important factors to consider in poly relationships. After all, mutual trust and respect are non-negotiable in any healthy relationship, right?
Also, we’ve delved into a few of the different shades of polyamory, under the umbrellas of hierarchical or non-hierarchical relationships, and differing in the priority and types of involvement between partners.
These different configurations work best for those who fit them. In advocating for tailor-made relationships, each person involved within them should feel free to engage with others as they see best rather than just doing what society instilled in them. However, just as monogamy might not be for everyone, neither is polyamory.
The main take-away is that polyamory is a whole world in and of itself. There isn’t one recipe that perfectly encompasses all polyamorous relationship structures. There is only one essential ingredient: love!
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