Gone are the days when a man and a woman were the only definition of what a relationship can look like. Which is great, of course, because as we know there are many ways to show and experience love, most of which transcend traditional (and outdated, frankly) views about gender and sexuality. And while the ever-changing landscape of relationships is exciting, it can also get a little confusing, especially since so many terms sound alike. Take polygamy versus polyamory, for example. Romantic labels may sound nearly identical, but they mean two very different things.
“Polyamory is the state, practice, or orientation of having multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships simultaneously, with the full knowledge and consent of all involved,” explains Heath Schechinger, Ph.D., a counseling psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Polygamy refers to being married to more than one spouse at the same time.”
In either case, there are multiple partners or love interests involved, notes a holistic sex educator, coach and host of The lip salon podcast, Freya Graf. This is where the prefix “poly” comes in, which means “many” in Greek, she explains.
But despite what they have in common, there are actually many differences between polygamy and polyamory. And since polyamory is becoming increasingly popular in mainstream media and modern dating, it’s important to know what poly partnerships are and how they’re different.
From their stories to their cultural reception, to how to have a happy and healthy non-monogamous relationship, we reached out to experts for everything you need to know about polygamy and polyamory.
So… what is polyamory, and what is polygamy?
Since polyamory and polygamy look so similar on paper, it can be hard to remember what they each mean, but the distinction is important because they’re “culturally quite different,” Schechinger says. Essentially:
Polyamory = having several *consensual* romantic/intimate relationships at the same time. It’s an intentional type of non-monogamy conducted in a “loving, considerate, mature, and respectful vessel with guidelines that all parties involved agree on and clearly communicate,” Graf says. The sexes and sexual orientations of the partners are not prescribed.
Polygamy = another form of non-monogamy where a person has multiple spouses. “Polygyny describes when a man has multiple married wives, and polyandry refers to a woman with married husbands,” Schechinger explains. Generally, polygamy refers to heterosexual cisgender men married to multiple cisgender women.
Additionally, polygamy – which is illegal in the United States – was (and sometimes still may be) practiced by certain cultures and religions hundreds of years ago, including in Islam and the Church of Jesus- Christ of Latter Day Saints. Polyamory has no historical connection to religion.
“Polyamory is rooted in feminism, gender equity and flat power structures, while polygamy is rooted in religious fundamentalism and complementarism where men and women are prescribed different roles and responsibilities. but complementary in marriage, family and religious leadership,” says Schechinger.
Are polygamy and polyamory the same as open relationships?
Occasionally! Just as every monogamous relationship is different, so are polygamous and polyamorous relationships. While open relationships are culturally more similar to polyamory than polygamy, the difference usually refers to the emotional component, Graf says.
“In poly setups, there can be multiple long-term, committed, deeply loving, and invested relationships, [whereas] in an open relationship, there is a freedom to explore sexually with others, but that usually comes with limits to getting emotionally involved or getting attached to lovers outside of the main couple,” she explains.
So, open relationships focus more on the physical side of things and usually don’t involve anything emotional outside of the basic relationship, while poly partnerships are usually both physical and emotional. This doesn’t mean that a polyamorous or polygamous family can’t also be open, but being in an open relationship is a separate concept.
What are the benefits of poly relationships?
According to Graf and Schechinger, there are many reasons why someone might want to venture into consensual poly territory. For some, it’s about being more authentic to themselves. For others, it’s about wanting to expand their support network. And, for some, it’s also a question of sex.
“For the overwhelming majority, however, being in a consensual non-monogamous relationship is about being honest, meeting other like-minded people, improving the quality of romantic relationships, and getting to know each other better,” says Schechinger.
Too, humans are not naturally wired to be monogamous, notes Graf, so many people “struggle to stay faithful or continue to be satisfied” in a monogamous relationship. Polyamory allows them to be consensually true to themselves and their desires.
Is polyamory better than polygamy?
Polyamory is more accepted in Western culture than polygamy. According to Graf, this is because polyamory is generally not based on religion and usually stems from a mutual arrangement centered on informed consent. “Polyamory done right involves an incredible amount of respect, mature communication, healthy and clear boundaries, love, and commitment.” It’s easier for modern progressives to accept and understand that” compared to the concept of polygamy, Graf says.
On the other hand, Graf says that polygamy is often considered the sexiest, unethical and even “barbaric” in Western society because it is “more common than polygamy to mean a man has several wives. In fact, while Schechinger claims that polygamy is legal in more than 50 sovereign states around the world, in most of them polygyny (multiple married wives) is permitted but polyandry (multiple legal husbands) is illegal.
That said, some cultural traditions and religious practices are deeply rooted in people who believe in them, and “we can’t fully understand them from the outside,” says Graf. And while polyamory is starting to gain more acceptance in our society (and on TV), Schechinger notes that polyamorous partnerships still face numerous barriers, such as the lack of financial benefits that couples receive, barriers that prevent adoption, restrictive health care, and discrimination in careers and housing.
Additionally, Schechinger says polyamorous couples who *want* to marry must fight the laws currently in place to protect against non-consensual polygamy. “Advocates are looking for solutions to maintain appropriate protections without discriminating against consenting adults,” he says, but it’s yet another difficult experience for polygamous couples.
How does a polyamorous relationship work?
Despite the fact that “more people are involved,” Schechinger says polyamorous relationships aren’t that different from monogamous relationships. “People in monogamous and polyamorous relationships highlight the following relationship elements as the most important: community and family, sex, love, trust and authenticity, communication and commitment,” he says.
While all polyamorous relationships are different, Graf says establishing clear, consensual terms and ground rules is the common foundation. Typically, working polyamorous relationships also involve regular check-ins, communication, ongoing emotionally involved relationships (rather than casual sex), and full disclosure when someone new comes on the scene, she says.
Some polyamorous relationships involve a primary couple who have outside secondary relationships, while other poly relationships are simply a primary relationship that involves more than two people with no outside relationships. There’s no wrong way to do poly as long as everyone agrees 100%!
I’m interested in polyamory. What should I do next?
If ethical non-monogamy is right for you, both pros say there are quite a few things to consider before opening your relationship or joining an established relationship. First, it’s a good idea to gather information and learn everything you can about polyamory. Read books like The ethical slut by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton, talk to licensed sex therapists or mental health professionals and think about Why you want a non-monogamous relationship.
Once you have your bearings, start discussing what that would look like in the context of your relationship, suggests Schechinger. “You and your partner(s) don’t have to be drawn to polyamory for the same reasons, and it’s important to be curious and attentive to your partner’s desires,” he says. “Keep the conversation non-judgmental.”
In fact, while setting ground rules and constantly checking in is key, Graf’s main advice for anyone looking to explore polyamory is to work on their communication skills. “Even though your mind understands that polyamory can be natural and great, you still face a lifetime of conditioning and socialization,” she says. “It’s big and it’s not for the faint-hearted… It might be the best thing, but it’s also hard work!”
So no matter where you fall on the monogamy spectrum, know that there’s a place for you and your partners if you’re willing to put in the work it takes to communicate openly and honestly. There are tons of different relationship styles, and understanding them is crucial to building a more inclusive and less judgmental society where everyone can have exactly the type of relationship they want and deserve.
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