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What Are Open Relationships And Polyamory – A Comprehensive Guide

Cain Parish

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For people that either don’t enjoy monogamy or want to try something new, the concept of open relationships and polyamory can be very interesting. But what are open relationships? Let’s find out what they mean and how they work.

A polyamorous open relationship of three people holding hands together

Introduction – What Are Open Relationships?

In a world where relationships come in all shapes and sizes, polyamory has emerged as a fascinating and increasingly popular alternative to traditional monogamy. But what is polyamory exactly, and how does it work? In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the depths of polyamory, covering everything from its definition to its advantages, potential challenges, and practical tips for those intrigued by this unique approach to love and connection.

What is Polyamory?

Polyamory, derived from the Greek words “poly” (meaning many) and “amor” (meaning love), is a relationship style characterized by the practice of having multiple romantic or sexual partners simultaneously, with the full knowledge and consent of all parties involved. 

Unlike monogamous relationships, where exclusivity is the norm, polyamorous individuals engage in consensual non-monogamy, allowing them to form deep emotional and romantic bonds with multiple people simultaneously.

Polyamory is not synonymous with casual or promiscuous behaviour. Instead, it emphasizes honesty, open communication, and ethical conduct among all partners. It’s essential to distinguish polyamory from cheating, as polyamorous relationships are built on trust, consent, and ethical guidelines.

Polyamory Versus Other Relationship Styles

Non-monogamy, especially the ethical variety, usually gets a lot of bad press or misrepresentation. There are a number of styles of relationship that typically differ in one or two key characteristics from each other, and alter the entire dynamic as a result. Polyamory is commonly confused with polygamy, open relationships, and cheating. Below are the components that make up each relationship style, and how they differ from one another.

Polyamory

Polyamory Defined: Polyamory, as previously discussed, is a relationship style during which you are free to develop multiple romantic or sexual partners simultaneously, with the full knowledge and consent of all parties involved. It emphasizes honesty, open communication, and ethical conduct among all partners. Polyamorous individuals seek to form deep emotional and romantic bonds with multiple people.

Being in a polyamorous partnership is a very non-traditional way of life. If you’ve only experienced monogamy up until this point, it’ll be very difficult to adjust to the open communication and distinct lack of traditional jealousy. Typically, people that are curious about non-monogamy are brought into a polyamorous couple/group through one or more of the partners. There, you get to experience interesting things like asking one partner for advice on another partner, or dealing with jealousy in a way that doesn’t require exclusivity, just a re-adjusting of priorities.

In all, polyamory is a complete lifestyle adjustment. Most people dating casually or seeking friends with benefits or casual sex will not be suited for polyamory, as it’s a model of relationship just the same as a monogamous one. Polyamory likely takes more work than a single monogamous relationship, due to the balancing act that is usually involved in dealing with multiple relationships with multiple partners, all of which need to coexist.

Key Characteristics:

  • Consent and Communication: Polyamory thrives on consent and open communication. All partners involved are aware of each other and agree to the arrangement.
  • Emotional Depth: Emotional connections are a central aspect of polyamorous relationships, with individuals forming meaningful bonds with multiple partners.
  • Ethical Guidelines: Polyamory operates under ethical guidelines, including honesty, transparency, and respecting boundaries.

Open Relationships

Open Relationships Defined: Open relationships share similarities with polyamory but differ in crucial ways. An open relationship is when a couple or individuals in a committed partnership agree to engage in sexual or romantic activities with other people outside the relationship. Unlike polyamory, open relationships may not necessarily involve forming deep emotional connections with these additional partners.

Open relationships, out of all the non-monogamy options available to people, are likely to be the most commonly found. In large part, this is due to the lack of work required to set one up, in contrast to polyamory, which typically requires a lot of emotional labour and stability.

In contrast, open relationships often act in two separate halves, with your main relationship existing independently of either partner’s dating or sex life, which is entirely removed from the primary. This can be much simpler if your emotional needs are being fulfilled predominantly from your primary relationship, and you or your partner are only seeking sexual satisfaction or a handful of smaller needs from external individuals.

Unfortunately, there is a significant amount of stigma surrounding non-monogamy, particularly open relationships. Many people choose not to believe in their validity, and doubt anyone espousing their open arrangement. This is not helped by some dishonest partners describing their monogamous relationship as open, in order to cheat on their partner with less risk or a socially acceptable facade.

Open relationships tend to be more fluid and potentially temporary than many of their counterparts.

Key Characteristics:

  • Primarily Sexual: Open relationships typically focus on sexual exploration with others while maintaining emotional commitment within the primary partnership.
  • Boundaries and Agreements: Partners in an open relationship set specific boundaries and agreements to maintain trust and prevent misunderstandings.
  • Emphasis on Primary Relationship: The primary relationship remains the core focus, with external partners often serving as a means of sexual satisfaction or variety.

Polygamy

Polygamy Defined: Polygamy is a marriage system where an individual has multiple spouses simultaneously. It is important to note that polygamy can take various forms, including polygyny (one man with multiple wives) and polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands). Polygamous marriages are often based on cultural or religious beliefs.

Polygamy has significant differences from polyamory or other non-monogamous structures due to its foundations in the institute of marriage and relative rigidity compared to other relationship styles. For that reason, outside of openly polygamist communities, it is incredibly rare compared to an open relationship/marriage or polyamory.

For anyone wondering, this is the one that is commonly associated with Mormonism. I have zero experience with this form of relationship structure, and don’t particularly plan to or recommend attempting it, as other types of ethical non-monogamy seem to accomplish a similar goal without the cultural or religious stipulations and associations.

Key Characteristics:

  • Formal Marriages: Polygamous unions typically involve legally or culturally recognized marriages between the individual and multiple spouses.
  • Varied Cultural Practices: Polygamy varies significantly across cultures and can have complex social and legal implications.
  • Not Exclusive: Unlike monogamy, where exclusivity is expected, polygamy openly embraces multiple spouses.

Cheating

Cheating Defined: Cheating, in contrast to polyamory and open relationships, is a breach of trust within a relationship. It occurs when one partner engages in romantic or sexual activities with someone else without the knowledge or consent of their partner. Cheating is generally considered unethical and a betrayal of trust.

It can technically be considered a form of non-monogamy due to it commonly being associated with sexual activities outside the context of a monogamous relationship.

Many people disagree on what activities actually constitute cheating, and the one conclusion to draw from these debates is that there is not a singular correct answer. Cheating occurs when a boundary that was agreed on by an entire relationship is crossed. It can occur in monogamous and non-monogamous contexts, and can definitely involve sexual behaviour, although it doesn’t necessarily have to.

Key Characteristics:

  • Secrecy and Deception: Cheating involves secrecy and deception, as one partner conceals their actions from the other.
  • Harm to the Relationship: Cheating can lead to emotional distress, damage to the relationship, and often results in feelings of betrayal.
  • Lack of Consent: The crucial distinction from polyamory and open relationships is the absence of consent or knowledge from the betrayed partner.

Benefits of Non-Monogamy

Non-monogamy offers a range of benefits for those who choose this relationship style:

  • Diverse Emotional Support: In non-monogamous relationships, individuals can receive emotional support from multiple partners, helping them navigate life’s challenges more effectively.
  • Varied Intimacy: Each relationship can offer a unique form of intimacy, allowing individuals to explore different aspects of their emotional and sexual desires.
  • Reduced Pressure: Unlike monogamy, where one partner is expected to fulfill all emotional and physical needs, polyamory & non-monogamy distribute these responsibilities among multiple partners, reducing pressure and expectations.
  • Enhanced Communication Skills: Successful non-monogamous relationships require open and honest communication, which can improve communication skills in all areas of life.

Challenges of Non-Monogamy

While polyamory can be fulfilling, it also presents its own set of challenges:

  • Jealousy and Insecurity: Dealing with jealousy and insecurity is common in non-monogamous relationships. It requires self-reflection and effective communication to address these emotions.
  • Time Management: Balancing multiple relationships can be time-consuming, requiring careful scheduling and prioritization.
  • Social Stigma: Non-monogamy still faces social stigma and misunderstanding, which can lead to discrimination and judgment from others. In particular, it’s very common for people to reject your relationship as a whole, labelling you a cheater or disregarding the emotional significance that comes from your relationship.
  • Legal and Practical Concerns: In some areas, legal and practical issues can complicate non-monogamous arrangements, especially concerning issues like inheritance and child custody.

F.A.Q.s

Can non-monogamy work for everyone?

Non-monogamy is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It requires open-mindedness, strong communication skills, and a willingness to navigate its unique challenges.

It may not be suitable for everyone, but it can be deeply rewarding for those who embrace it. The fluid nature of these relationships require people to be perhaps more committed and emotionally literate than their monogamous counterparts, at least during the initial period.


How do non-monogamous relationships handle jealousy?

Jealousy is a common emotion in polyamory and other forms of non-monogamy. It’s essential to address it openly and honestly with your partners. Many polyamorous individuals find that jealousy lessens over time as trust and communication grow.

A sense of security doesn’t have to be tied to sexual or romantic exclusivity. In fact, your security, the enemy of jealousy, is an entirely separate entity that can be developed regardless of your relationship dynamic.


Are there rules in polyamorous relationships?

Yes, many polyamorous relationships have guidelines or agreements in place to ensure everyone’s comfort and safety. These rules can vary widely and are often negotiated among all partners involved. It’s still possible to cheat in non-monogamous contexts, as boundaries are just as significant and important as in any type of relationship.


Is polyamory the same as swinging?

No, polyamory and swinging are distinct practices. Polyamory involves forming multiple emotional and romantic connections, while swinging primarily focuses on sexual encounters with others, typically as a couple.


How can I introduce the concept of non-monogamy to my current partner?

Honesty and open communication are key. Choose a time when you can have a calm and private conversation. Be prepared to answer questions and address concerns your partner may have.

It’s entirely possible your partner is not interested in the idea of non-monogamy. If so, have a plan for what to do if your partner shuts the idea down, as is their right to do.

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About

Cain Parish

Cain Parish is the owner of cainparish.com. A prolific writer, educator and relationship coach since 2019, he specializes in dating, relationships, emotional intelligence and social skills. He is also the author and creator of the world’s largest and most comprehensive database for dating and relationship advice, which can be found on his website. His first book, I’m Sorry I Egged Your House, is due to be published in 2024.

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