The Coffee Break Primer on Polyamory
The author and her community run a number of meetups and discussion groups for the non-monogamous, and we’ve identified the need for a simple guide to bring folks up to speed on the concepts, terms, and common wisdom we sometimes take for granted. This is our best attempt to compile such a guide, with a mind for accessibility and breadth over depth. Feedback is always and greatly appreciated.
Hi! We’re assuming you’re here because you want to learn more about non-monogamy.
We’re also assuming you don’t have all day.
Frankly, making your way through even the best available resources on the matter can be fairly overwhelming, which is why your author wanted to compile this primer as a friendly (but opinionated) overview with jumping-off points to more detailed information, curated for your convenience.
So, whether you’re learning how to support (or even just understand) a loved one who’s come out as polyamorous, doing research before you take the open relationship plunge with a partner, or finding yourself in the midst of a revelation about how you relate to others—this is for you. Read at your leisure, dip into the suggested reading on topics that pique your interest, and most importantly: have fun.
A working definition
Polyamory (“many loves”) means intimate connection with more than one person, ethically and with consent from all involved. That’s it, really—a simpler concept than some make it out to be, though like many things, it’s often easier said than done.
You might see the terms non-monogamy, polyamory, and open relating sometimes used interchangeably. They certainly can be synonymous at times, but when a distinction is made, it tends to be that polyamory specifically refers to multiple romantic relationships, whereas other types of open relationship (swinging, monogamish, etc.) might preclude romance. All are considered forms of non-monogamy.
Further reading: Franklin Veaux’s ridiculously comprehensive map of non-monogamous relationships.
What polyamory is not
A license to cheat. “Cheating” may seem like an odd concept in a multiple partner paradigm, but being intentionally deceitful and violating your relationship agreements, whatever they are, is a universal jerk move.
A way to fix an unhealthy relationship. Patterns of abuse, neglect, disrespect, and codependency don’t magically disappear once you make the decision to open up. If anything, the process can exacerbate those issues, and saddle new partners with the unfair emotional labor of dealing with it. In general, it’s a good idea to make sure all the holes in the boat are patched up before you take on more crew.
Further reading: Abuse in Polyamorous Relationships from Everyday Feminism, and Opening Up’s directory of poly-friendly therapists and relationship counselors.
A way to avoid commitment. Polyamory (or multiamory, if you’re a classical languages pedant) does mean “many loves”, after all. This doesn’t mean all polyamorous relationships have to be “going somewhere” (see: relationship escalator), but neither should you assume that “no strings” is the default, either. In fact, it’s best to avoid any default assumptions, and make sure all relationship configurations are discussed and agreed upon by everyone involved.
Polygamy. They may share a Greek root, but the two are not at all the same, despite common misconceptions. While some might argue that polygamy could be considered a subculture under the polyamorous umbrella, for the purposes of our discussion, we’ll be treating them as entirely separate practices, and emphasize that inequality or sexism in relationship practice has no place in ethical non-monogamy.
Further reading: Polygamy vs Polyamory vs Polygyny vs Polyandry.
Swinging. The swinging lifestyle, as it’s commonly practiced, discourages play partners from forming romantic relationships with one another. Which, as long as everyone’s on board, is totally fine — it’s just not polyamory.
Further reading: Swinging and Polyamory from Loving More
All about sex. Polyamory is about relationships. “Polyamorous people don’t have sex,” the joke goes; “they only talk about it.” While not entirely true, navigating your partners’ boundaries and processing feelings together is really important, and can take more time and energy than you might expect. And when it comes down to it, sexual energy is not even remotely a prerequisite for attachment, intimacy, or commitment: just ask the many asexual people who find a universe of fulfilling connections without the need to wade in those waters.
Further reading: Asexuality and Polyamory from The Body Is Not An Apology.
What polyamory can be
A master course in working on your shit. Put simply, relating to more than one person (and, some would argue, relating to even one person with full authenticity) is nigh impossible without learning deep things about yourself. Your desires and requirements for emotional and physical intimacy, your fears and feelings about your self-worth, your time management skills — all will come to the fore and be tested. (Not to scare you or anything.)
Emotionally and sexually liberating. For some, placing the burden of satisfying the entirety of their romantic and physical needs on a single other person can be a daunting, disappointing, and occasionally exhausting proposition. People are complex, multifaceted creatures, and non-monogamy enables the experience of intimate connections with a variety of personality types too contradictory to exist in any one human.
A life philosophy. The same values that are required to succeed at polyamory — good communication, self-awareness, and mindful relating — are applicable in every kind of relationship, whether with friends, family, coworkers, or monogamous partners.
Politically subversive. You may not think you’re signing up to be a revolutionary or a pioneer, but in a world where the nuclear family is rapidly becoming less relevant, modern polyamory has the potential to move the needle on how people live in groups, raise children, and consume goods and services. (This isn’t to say polyamory is inherently radical — because it’s not — though it can certainly be practiced that way.)
Further reading: Radical Non-Monogamy from Everyday Feminism.
These are the terms and ideas that are used most frequently and with particular importance within the polyamory community.
The principles, in a nutshell
There’s no official guidebook, but this is a valiant attempt to summarize the values at the heart of polyamory. Unsurprisingly, a lot of them are interrelated.
Honesty. With yourself, and with everyone else in your relationship network. The stability and trust necessary to make polyamory really work requires, above all else, a firm commitment to the truth, no matter how challenging or scary it may be.
Self awareness. Our bodies and inner selves speak to us constantly of their fears and desires, requiring only for us to listen. The sometimes mysterious motivations that govern our actions, especially in times of crisis, are almost always discernible with time and practice.
Communication. If honesty is the heart of things, communication is the nervous system. Nearly all manner of conflict can be defused by talking. (While also respecting, of course, that some people need time to organize their thoughts before such discussions.)
Compassion. Putting empathy into action when it’s needed the most, and approaching ourselves, our lovers, and our lovers’ lovers with the intent to build bridges towards understanding and greater intimacy.
Vulnerability. Being willing to share your true self, including your needs and desires, and overcoming the fears of rejection, of criticism, and of pain that arise whenever we wish to be bare before others — literally or metaphorically.
Consent. Asking, rather than taking; offering and listening, rather than giving with assumption. Honoring the autonomy and respecting the vulnerability of others through honesty and compassionate communication.
If these sound like values which can be applied to any relationship, romantic or not, well—you’re right.
Types of non-monogamy
This is a brief overview of some common styles of open relating. Far from exhaustive or mutually exclusive, these labels are merely descriptive, rather than prescriptive — a sampler platter to show the variety of what’s possible.
Hierarchical polyamory. This is the form of polyamory most commonly (and poorly) represented in media, with partners sorted into tiers— “primary”, “secondary”, and so on — and often with privileges and decision-making power concentrated in the higher tiers.
In this model, one’s spouse might have the ability to veto new partners, and their concerns given foremost priority. Moreso than some other types of polyamory, its success depends greatly on how responsibly and kindly it’s practiced. (See: couple privilege.)
Egalitarian polyamory. As a counterpoint to hierarchy, some people prefer all of their partners — regardless of how enmeshed their lives might be — to be on even footing in terms of privilege and power.
In this model, one’s spouse would not necessarily come before another partner, though they may well share important responsibilities with their spouse (such as a mortgage or childrearing) that they don’t with other partners. It’s also less likely for partners using this model to be granted privileged influence over each other’s relationships.
Solo polyamory. Practitioners of solo polyamory find autonomy, independence, and freedom to be an utmost priority in their dating lives (and often their lives in general). They’re usually not looking for nesting or reproductive partners, though they may easily form committed and loving attachments which last a lifetime. Solo polyamory can be considered dating yourself first and foremost, regardless of the other relationships you choose to create.
Relationship anarchy. Despite the radical-sounding name, RA is simply the practice of considering every connection with another person as a unique relationship—one which may or may not defy the assignment of labels, may or may not include intimacy or commitment, and which has the ability to define itself on its own terms. The “maybe friends, maybe lovers” gray area relationships people sometimes find themselves in are no problem to RA, and in fact may be celebrated for exactly the qualities which make them difficult to define.
Further reading: the short instructional manifesto for relationship anarchy by Andie Nordgren.
Open relationship. This approach is the most variable, because it’s the most co-created. Typically, it takes the form of an established couple who have agreed to non-monogamy as an aspect of their partnership, but are “rolling their own” agreements as they go without adopting any formal practices. People who find themselves drawn to this model often prefer the strong interdependence of being deeply partnered with someone, while still having freedom in who they choose to love.
Freeform network. A group of friends or extended community that regularly forms sensual-loving connections within itself, usually without partnership labels or explicit commitment. It’s one of the most common ways polyamory is practiced — often without being recognized as such — and could be seen as a form of communal relationship anarchy, though the individuals in the group may or may not identify as relationship anarchists or even non-monogamous.
No relationships. Active practice of polyamory is not required to hold a polyamorous identity — whether you’re single, in a monogamous or mono-passing relationship, or simply not looking at all.
These are some common types of partnership units. It’s worth mentioning that this list is not even remotely comprehensive.
Triads and quads. A simple extension of the dyad, the science-y term for a couple. It’s a way to recognize the existence of a multi-partner relationship as a unit. Egalitarian status between all partners is strongly assumed.
Vees. Just because two people are dating the same person doesn’t mean they also have to be dating each other. The letter “V” is often used to describe two (or more) people who are connected by a common partner, but not directly connected to each other.
Polyfidelity. Even in non-monogamy, some people choose to close their relationships—be they with three, four, or more—to outside partners. Reasons for doing so certainly vary, though it’s most often to drastically reduce the risk of STIs. In this kind of arrangement, the concept of infidelity is still relevant; it would simply be cheating on a larger number of people.
The relationship escalator
Much like an escalator conveys you upwards without any effort on your part, this concept references the default assumption for courtships to “progress” simply as a factor of time spent together. This is because mainstream society bakes in a lot of expectations about appropriate levels of entanglement within relationships, along with the idea that partnerships which aren’t “going somewhere” (exclusivity, cohabitation, procreation, etc.) are ultimately a waste of everyone’s time.
The alternative? Detaching your relationships from societal expectations about how they’re “supposed” to look allows everyone to show up as themselves, and craft authentic connections, rather than trying to fulfill externally-imposed narratives — even if those narratives suit some people just fine. Commitment, cohabitation, childrearing, physical intimacy, and interdependency are all variables which may be negotiated separately, rather than coming necessarily as part of a package.
In other words, who says that a casual fling going on two years isn’t a successful and committed relationship?
While monogamy works very well for much of society, the fact that it’s practiced so widely compared to other possible forms of relating is less likely due to an inherent superiority, and much more likely due to its near-exclusive representation in practically all forms of media and advertising. This conditioning, present from childhood, greatly affects mainstream societal values around relationships: the kinds of connections it’s possible to form with others, the role of romantic partners, what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate relationship conduct, and so on.
When coming into a polyamorous identity, operating outside of those internalized norms (such as the relationship escalator) can create anxiety, and make one feel lost and unstructured. Fortunately, with time, practice, self-love, and understanding partners, that conditioning can be engaged with mindfully, and unlearned or otherwise managed.
In the polyamorous worldview, jealousy is not considered a single emotion, nor a fixed personality attribute (“I’m just a jealous person”), but an amalgam composed of deeper emotions, like fear — of loneliness, of abandonment, of inattention — as well as situational reactions to instability caused by mistrust or mistreatment.
Addressing jealousy is thus seen as the ultimate self-improvement exercise: learning to integrate a deeply-felt sense of your own intrinsic worth, showing up to your relationships with mindful awareness, and loving yourself enough to break away from the ones that are doing you a disservice.
Freedom from jealousy may be considered an aspiration, but should not be considered an expectation in a relationship, polyamorous or otherwise — and those who manage to relate without jealousy are not “more” polyamorous or “better” at polyamory than others.
Jealousy (and compersion, for that matter) can be contextual, situational, and partner-dependent, and is, more than anything, an opportunity to develop the skill of listening to your body and loving what it has to teach you.
A feeling which could be described as splash-zone happiness: joy felt at your partner intimately connecting with another, for no reason other than seeing them happy. Rather than being defined as the opposite of jealousy, it’s more helpful to view it simply as one of many reactions one could have in response to your partner’s other relationships. It’s an aspiration even for a lot of people who are affirmably poly, and jealousy and compersion can (and often do) easily co-exist in the same moment.
Scarcity and abundance
Perhaps the single biggest thing those who come to polyamory from a monogamous perspective struggle with, understandably, is the prospect of sharing their partner with someone else.
It’s easy to think of a heart like a well, with a limited amount of love inside, and what’s given to others diminishes the total supply. A zero-sum game, in other words. In polyamory, this is often called a scarcity mindset, the surge of fear whenever you dip your bucket into the well of another’s love—because what if (your brain asks) this is the time it comes up dry?
But while it’s true that some people’s hearts seem predisposed to only focus on a certain number of people—nature or nurture, one asks?—the understanding of love itself as practiced in polyamory is as a thing that only grows, rather than shrinks, with use. This concept is called an abundance mindset, the idea that the only thing giving love results in is more hearts being filled with love, and thus able to love more themselves.
However, focusing on one’s capacity to love as the only resource of concern, and then waving that away as a fiction, does all involved a great disservice. Just like jealousy can be a box containing various other complex feelings, what most people consider that capacity is in reality a great many things which are truly limited, and dismissing or underestimating those limits is what actually comprises the majority of friction and conflict in non-monogamy.
Energy, attention, capacity for sex and touch, money, and most of all, time are all very real factors that profoundly impact how people relate. It’s vitally important for everyone involved in a relationship ecosystem to have honest conversations about those topics, with themselves and others, and adjust expectations, set healthy boundaries, and negotiate relationship agreements based on knowledge of those needs and limits.
A metamour, simply put, is your partner’s partner. Different love styles have different approaches to metamour relations, from intentional ignorance of their existence (“don’t ask don’t tell”) to close friendships (sharing childrearing duties and doing brunch on the weekends). Since metamours are their own people and all, it’s considered uncouth to dictate how they should interact, though personal boundaries may certainly be set and hopes may be expressed around said interactions.
Further reading: What’s a metamour? from Solo Poly.
A new-ish term that has recently become popular in some non-monogamy communities. A comet refers to individuals who, due to geographical distance or other factors, have an infrequent presence in your life, but with whom you share a fulfilling connection on the occasions fate happens to bring you together.
New Relationship Energy
Often abbreviated NRE, this refers to the overwhelming “crush” feeling that often marks the start of a new relationship. This period is considered an especially vulnerable time for established partnerships, since few can live up to the temporary pedestal enjoyed by the “new shiny”, and it can be easier to de-prioritize (even unintentionally) your existing commitments in favor of spending a large amount of time and energy getting your new partner established in your life.
This is not to downplay the wonderful feeling of discovering a kindred spirit, or suggest that such a thing can’t be thoroughly enjoyed — it’s merely an opportunity to remain mindful of your other fulfilling relationships.
Whether or not it’s obvious, mainstream society elevates the dyad to a position of legitimacy not shared with other kinds of relationships. Workplace social functions, visitation and custody rights, and, well, all of our society makes moving around in the world much easier in a couple than in most other types of partnership (including, sometimes, not having a partner at all).
This often trickles down, even unintentionally, into expectations about how a “third” partner should “behave” when entering a marriage or deeply-partnered relationship. The risk is treating the new partner(s) like they’re emotionally disposable, as a “secret” which may threaten the social standing of the couple—and thus asked to forego recognition and autonomy—or as less deserving of say-so during relationship negotiations.
Many issues people think they have with polyamory are actually issues with couple privilege, and being treated poorly in the context of a pre-existing power structure.
Unicorns and unicorn hunting
“Unicorn” is a term thrown around non-monogamy circles with a variety of sentiments behind it. In its most benign, abstract form, a unicorn is a person who “fits nicely” into an existing relationship, has a sexual orientation which includes everyone involved, and forms a relationship with all partners equally.
This would (and could) simply be considered a triad, but the recognition of an additional relationship structure (“you are dating us, we are dating you”) often affects the dynamic, whether intentionally or not. At best, it’s a beautiful experience for all involved; at worst, it’s couple privilege in action.
The term “unicorn hunting” has a negative connotation, which refers to couples looking for a third like they’re casting for singers in a 90s boy band. The role comes first — almost certainly with a lot of unspoken expectations attached — and the person who actually fills it is both literally and figuratively secondary.
The use of a mythical term for this person implies their rarity: idealized as magic fairy dust for a relationship, they run the risk of playing unpaid therapist, sex puppet, or both.
This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with being an individual who wants to date a couple, that such relationships can’t be successful, or that one can’t set intentions about the kinds of partners they’re looking for. Really, it all comes down to treating people like people.
Further reading: Poly Living’s breakdown on unicorns.
An honest discussion of open relating would be incomplete without even a brief look at some of the problems that currently exist in the community and among its practitioners. Just as divorce and infidelity shouldn’t be barriers to considering monogamy, these criticisms aren’t reasons against considering polyamory — but going into things with open eyes is usually a good idea.
A diversity issue. Most primers and texts about open relating (including this one) don’t go nearly far enough in discussing the pioneering roles queers and people of color play in fights for diversity of love styles and acceptance for a variety of family structures. Instead, when it even gets coverage, mainstream media depicts polyamory as a white professional’s pastime, yet another game of croquet for existentially bored and pretty 30-somethings to dabble in. (See: the TV show Poly: Married & Dating. Actually, don’t.)
An exercise of privilege. Similar to the issue above — and while noting that having privilege is not necessarily the fault of the privileged — the very ability to engage in identity discovery, attend meetups and play parties, and devote time to balancing multiple relationships is much more difficult and less accessible to those supporting families, working multiple jobs, and making lengthy commutes while trying to survive near the poverty line.
Cherry-picking. Some new practitioners of polyamory are fully on board with the “seeing multiple people” and “working on jealousy” thing, without catching all the other stuff about respecting vulnerability and garnering consent. The risk can be strong-arming partners into an open relationship, and being too afraid to mention the person you’ve had your eye on for six months — and by the way, you’ve got a date with them tonight. And if you’re upset, hey… we’re supposed to be compersive, right?
Don’t be that person. Acting out of fear — in this case, of not getting what you want if you give the other person agency in the decision — goes against the entire philosophy of polyamory.
We’ve just scratched the surface on a lifetime of experiences. If you take one thing away, it should be that every human being is different — and that’s something that should be reckoned with, and also wholeheartedly celebrated. If you take one more thing away, we recommend: be gentle with yourself.
Further reading: Desiderata.
Kimchi Cuddles. The author’s #1 recommended resource. It’s all well and good to read essays and articles, but Tikva Wolf’s lighthearted webcomic series, featuring a cast with a rainbow of love styles, gender expressions, and sexualities, delves into nearly every aspect of open relating in an accessible and humorous fashion.
More Than Two. Franklin Veaux’s best-selling book More Than Two is one of the widely-recommended bibles of polyamory, and the companion website dives into nearly every topic covered in this primer, but in far greater detail. If your goal is to absorb absolutely everything you can about the subject (and you have reading stamina), this should be your next stop.
Everyday Feminism’s articles on polyamory. Seriously, like, all of them. A good start would be their wonderful primer So You Want To Try Polyamory, as well as their articles on abuse in polyamory and coming out to your monogamous partner.
Solo Poly. Aggie Sez’s excellent blog about “life and dating as a free agent” is full of great articles applicable to all sorts of relationship styles, but is a fantastic resource especially for practitioners of solo polyamory.
OKCupid for the Non-Mainstream User. This Chrome extension makes navigating the popular dating site easier for polyamorous folk by putting people’s answers to the non-monogamy questions front-and-center on their profiles. Between this and specifying “strictly non-monogamous” in your profile details, your matches are more likely to be with open relaters.
Tremendous thanks to Amanda, Bridget, Kara, Mari, and Aggie for the edits, advice, and support that made this article possible.
Cover image credit: “Astronaut”, by Joseba Elorza.