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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Open relationships vs. polyamory

So I'll start off with my answer to a question that pops up pretty often, and is asked by both veterans and new polypeople, to wit: "What's the difference between an open relationship, and a poly one?"

One way of looking at it is that 'poly' can describe the mindset and 'open relationship' can describes the factual arrangement, like "lovers" and "married".

If you make a big Venn Diagram (remember those from high school logic classes, with the interlocking rings like a partial Olympic logo?) where the two circles are polyamory and open relationships, they're pretty close to overlapping, but there are parts of each that exclude the other, and I'd be willing to bet that the "open relationship" part is slightly larger. For example, people can be single, yet honestly describe themselves as polyamorous; others can be in an open, non-monogogamous relationship, but not be honest with their partner/s about what they're doing and with whom, hence not polyamorous. There's bound to be a good amount of disagreement with me on this, but I firmly believe one of the principal hallmarks of poly involves open and honest communication - and while poly offers a ton of leeway in defining the terms of your relationship, it generally doesn't extend to situations where information is hidden, or one or more partners cheat (by acting outside the predetermined rules, whatever they might be).

In addition, many people have "hookup buddies" with whom they have no emotional connection beyond that required for casual sex from time to time. There's debate over whether or not that qualifies as polyamory, which by its literary definition seems to require some degree of "amory", or emotional bond - but I'll say those relationships count as poly, as long as everyone involved knows and consents.


I tend to fall into the camp that says people who have sex outside a loving relationship aren't poly. For some people, sex and love are very different things (one of my ex's comes to mind...but that's another story). Just like if you're in a kink relationship for play, you might not consider yourself poly because that's play, not love.

I feel that a lot of people prefer the term "open relationship" to describe their own version of what is in fact polyamory. Facebook, for example, uses it as a relationship option, so that tells me it's more mainstream. I think it has a positive connotation (i.e. open and honest) and maybe the word "polyamory" squicks out some people because of associations with "polygamy".

I like your thought that poly is the mindset and open relationship is the product that results. You might be a monogamous person who happens to be in an open relationship (I was, for a while until I came out as poly). And at the same time, you might be a poly person who is in a mono relationship because you've agreed to follow those rules. The difference will probably be that poly people reserve the right to renegotiate those rules at some point in the future, whereas mono people tend to understand those rules to be set in stone.

So can we say that "love" is to "sex" what "poly" is to "open relationship"? That works, unless you're one of those freaky-deaky people who has sex just for fun :P


  1. Another good discussion! I will only add the term I personally like to use that is a friend with benefits. This how I started my own experience with different ways to relate with people in my life back in college, dating a guy but occasionally having sex with some of my friends whom I was and I still am super close. People who knows me very well and that having sex brought a special touch to our relationship and it is awesome that after 20 years we are so connected and I know that they are there for me and I am there for them. Now that I identify as poly I want to have more of this so I tend to think in poly terms because the honesty factor and love, in my case this person has to be a friend prior to having sex or at least feeling really connected so I don’t think of it as a swinging although I respect very much my swinger friends, but it is not my thing.
    Thank you for your tips,

  2. Hope it's alright to post comments and thoughts still. This was a clear discussion and I am glad I found it. Saying polyamory is more a mindset and open relationship is the type of relationship that can come out of it- really makes sense to me and helps clear up some of my confusion. I'm still kind of confused on what I would call myself, I think I may be poly-but I thought you had to be truly "in love" with multiple people to be poly- and I've only been deeply and what I call "truly" in love with one person, however like Anon who posted first, I feel deeply connected to some of my friends and have had intimate relationships with them, both knowing from the beginning we were not going steady, but single people spending time together.

    But I couldn't be intimate with someone I barely knew..only people I have strong feelings for like Anon, whatever those feelings are. And when it comes to actual intercourse, I only am with one person at a time, and not sure if I could or would want to ever change that.

    And I don't mean being truly "in love" is more valid than having special love FOR someone-they are both valid just different- but for me, I kind of wish I could have that 'in love" feeling for just makes my social/ relationship life complicated and confusing, trying to figure out my feelings and the polyamory thing. Because I think I want an open relationship, but am not sure yet. I may just want to stay how things are, be a single woman but be involved with whomever I choose to love and who chooses to be in that type of "relationship" with me. It's definently more than sex, it's about connecting with people emotionally.

  3. I'm terribly sorry, Claudia for just referring to you as "Anon" ..I didn't notice you signed your name.