Polyamory 101: Know the Basics

Posted: 1/09/2021

The number of Americans who say that they would prefer a non-monogamous relationship is growing. According to a poll by YouGov, monogamy had a 5% drop in preference between 2016 and 2020. Non-monogamy is clearly getting some more coverage, too, in mainstream media as well as blogs. However, the information hasn’t always been very accurate, especially when it comes to defining and adequately representing one of the main types of non-monogamy: polyamory.

Can we really blame the media, though? Even if you have been practicing a polyamorous lifestyle for awhile, you still might find yourself struggling to define it to curious friends, as was the case for me for longer than I care to admit.

Maybe poly is difficult to explain for many people because the way it looks in practice contains as much variety as there are personalities in this world. It’s much more complicated than some forms of non-monogamy. Even with all the variety, though, polyamory is quite simple in its definition, and can be summed up in a single (albeit long-worded) description.

Start with the definition

The term polyamory comes from the root words Amour, meaning “love,” and Poly, meaning “many”; in contrast, monogamy comes from Mono, meaning “one.” Polyamory is a type of relationship that falls under ethical (or consensual) non-monogamy, in which a person has an intimate relationship with more than one person at a time. It’s also important to know that polyamory exists among all gender identities and sexualities.

The other key factor in the definition of poly is that everyone involved is aware and consents to the polyamory (hence consensual non-monogamy). This ethical part of polyamory sets it far apart from cheating, in which one of the partners is unaware and, therefore, unable to consent to their partner’s other relationship.

Finally, although lots of sex can be a part of polyamory, the focus for many poly people is more on building multiple, mutually beneficial relationships. The idea is that one person cannot fulfill every need or desire.

So, here is the single sentence description, as promised:

Polyamory is the practice of having more than one sexually or emotionally intimate relationships at the same time with the consent of all involved.

Put even more simply, polyamory is relationship-based (not sex-based and not based on sexual orientation or identity). And with that mostly fine-tuned definition, let’s see how the different practices in polyamory still fit within that framework.

Variety abounds (but still fits the basic polyamory description)

Now that you know the basic idea of polyam, see if you can notice how each of the following varieties still fit the description.

Polyamory can be practiced “solo”, meaning that one person does not have a primary relationship. It can also be practiced by a couple, by a triad (which is when three people are in a relationship together), or a quad (four people all in a relationship together), or more. Some triads and quads may all agree to close their relationship to any more intimate partners, and this is still considered a polyamorous relationship due to the fact that more than two people are together.

Some couples might have multiple relationships completely separate from the “primary” relationship, never mixing company with their partner’s “secondary” partners. Other partners might integrate their relationships so that all enjoy dinner nights or family events together.

Some poly partners might have rules that govern how much time each spend together so that no one feels left out. Others may have rules regarding a closed fluid bonding circle (this means that bodily fluids are shared only with those within the circle). Some may have no rules at all.

Obviously, there’s so much more than the aforementioned flavors of polyamory; however, it’s not necessary to list it all here. As mentioned before, as long as a relationship falls within the basic definition, then it is considered a poly one.

Communication is key...

Another important aspect to know about polyamory is that communication is imperative. Polyamory is already complicated enough, so learning to communicate (far beyond the level required by a monogamous relationship, in my experience) helps to keep things at a manageable level. In fact, many poly people discuss any and all expectations even before a first date to make their intentions crystal clear as this prevents any unnecessary misunderstandings later on.

...And knowing thyself is probably unavoidable

Polyamory also requires you to examine your own motives and feelings quite often. Imagine multiple lovers all telling you that you need to learn to be more honest with them; it’s hard to ignore such a consistent message from multiple intimate relationships at once. A successful poly lifestyle requires the ability to be real and honest with yourself as much as with your partners. In fact, I would go so far as to say that polyamory has helped me with personal growth just as much as any self-help book I’ve read.

With the rising awareness of polyamory, a clear definition is more important than ever - the multiple practices within polyamory can become a source of confusion and the level of interpersonal and intrapersonal work required can be an unexpected setback. So, let’s spread the word that within consensual non-monogamy, polyamory is the one that is relationship-based and requires the consent of all involved.