An Introduction to Polyamorous Relationships:

Terms and Concepts

Polyamory, from Greek (poly) and Latin (amor) root words for “many loves,” is an approach to romantic and/or sexual relationships that does not emphasize sexual or romantic fidelity to only one partner at a time (sometimes called monogamy or serial monogamy), but that does emphasize consent and communication between all involved parties. It is often shortened to “poly” within poly communities, and it should not necessarily be equated with polyandry, polygyny, or polygamy. Many monogamous people find non-monogamy to be confusing, complicated, and even threatening.

On the other hand, many poly folk believe that non-monogamy is a normal behavior for human beings (whether due to socialization or biological/evolutionary factors). They argue that it is unreasonable to expect one person to fulfill all of an individual’s social, emotional, and sexual needs throughout the entire course of one’s life. In traditionally monogamous relationships, when an individual senses that her or his partner is not fulfilling her or his every need, there is a tendency to pursue outside relationships covertly or to break up or divorce. The poly perspective instead suggests that we should continue to value those things that each individual brings to our life. This does not mean that poly folk do not also believe that jealousy and possessiveness are not also normal human behaviors. Poly relationships are not free from the normal conflict and insecurity that other relationships can have. However, poly individuals also point out that one person cannot and should not possess another person (despite any tendency to want to do otherwise) and expect fidelity that the other individual is unwilling or unable to offer. Ergo, they purport that consensual non-monogamy can be a more appropriate and healthy approach to personal relationships, even if it is against the values and norms of many societies.

This brief guide is intended to give readers an overview of different types of poly relationships and to define some of the terms that are commonly used in poly communities. It is my hope that readers will realize that there is as much variation in non-monogamous relationship styles as there is in monogamous relationship styles, and that any type of relationship has the potential to function well and make people happy and healthy, as long as everyone involved is honest and willing to communicate

Terms and Concepts about Polygamy/Monogamy

Closed Marriage:

A relationship in which outside sexual and/or romantic relationships are forbidden. Has been proposed as an alternative to “open marriage,” in part to emphasize that both types of marriage require active decisions about external relationships and fidelity.


Compersion is a concept somewhat unique to poly relationships. It means a person is able to delight and find joy in the love that his or her non-monogamous partner(s) feel(s) for others. This is not always an easy emotion to discover and maintain, as people in poly relationships must deal with conflict and jealousy just as people in monogamous relationships do. However, for those who have experienced compersion, they say it can be overwhelming, beautiful, and transformative.


A pair of individuals in a relationship. Single and poly folks have argued that the U.S. culture is couple-centric, meaning that there is an expectation that every adult should be a member of a couple (and ONLY a couple).

Fluid Bonding/Fluid Monogamy:

People in the poly community must be very mindful about the possibility of STD/STI transmissions. They are therefore often very careful about using condoms, dental dams, and other barrier methods of contraception and disease prevention. When a couple (or group) is “fluid bonded,” it means that they have undergone STD/STI testing and have agreed to participate in sex acts without barrier methods only with one another (hence the phrase “fluid monogamy”). This is considered an important step in many poly relationships because it means that those individuals must have a great deal of trust in and concern for their partners. They have an even greater responsibility to make certain that no STDs/STIs are transmitted through accidental sharing of fluids with outside (i.e., non-fluid bonded) partners.

Free Love:

Although this term is associated with the sexual revolution and hippies of the 1960s-70s, it has a much older history and does not necessarily refer to radical promiscuity. Historically, it is a philosophy that the state should not regulate or interfere in personal relationships, whether monogamous or polyamorous. A more modern form of this philosophy can be seen in queer theorists (e.g., Michael Warner’s book The Trouble with Normal) who argue that gay and lesbian individuals should not seek freedom to marry, but should instead embrace freedom from marriage.


In closed marriages, outside sexual and/or romantic relationships are referred to as affairs, infidelity, or adultery. Outside relationships with strong emotional bonds but no sexual behavior can even be referred to as “emotional infidelity.” In non-monogamous relationships, such external relationships are not necessarily seen as negative, even though such relationships still may require the negotiation of ground rules. This is important to mention because it demonstrates that even in supposedly monogamous relationships, non-monogamy occurs.

Serial Monogamy:

The process of having multiple monogamous relationships one after another. Again, poly folk sometimes point to this practice as evidence that human beings are not inherently monogamous, and that the societal ideal of strict monogamy is not upheld in the actual behavior of monogamous individuals.

Variations in Poly Relationships

The easiest way for me to explain typ es of poly relationships is to ask a series of questions that demonstrate the various approaches that people in poly relationships take to conflict, exclusivity, commitment, and so on. This will help to illustrate the types of relationships I want to discuss. Note that members of poly relationships can be men, women, transgender or intersexed, and gay, straight, bisexual or otherwise queer. Individuals in poly relationships don’t necessarily expect their partners to be attracted to the same types of people they are, so combinations of partners can be of any variety. I want to point that out so that the reader does not walk away with the impression that all the relationships I am describing are heterosexual.

1) How much commitment/involvement is expected from each individual?

  • In a relationship model with primary, secondary, and (sometimes) tertiary relationships, each level of relationship is given a different amount of priority. Everyone participating in a poly relationship should be aware of the primary relationship(s) involved in the group. Primary relationships are those that take precedence over others in instances where differences of opinion might arise (sometimes they are distinguished by legal marriage or cohabitation, but not always). Secondary relationships still involve some level of commitment, while tertiary relationships may be casual or short-term in nature. Sometimes, individuals prefer to only have secondary relationships: in a sense, this is like remaining single while having multiple long-term dating partners. On the other hand, some poly folk do not like the idea of designating primary, secondary, or tertiary relationships and prefer instead to think of each relationship as special, unique, and in need of its own contextual understanding.

2) Is the group open or closed?

  • A traditional monogamous marriage is a closed relationship, meaning no one else is permitted to participate in romantic/sexual encounters. There are similar closed models in poly relationships, often called polyfidelity or closed group marriage. In these models, everyone involved is equally committed and faithful to everyone else. In open relationships/group marriages, the individuals involved are free to continue to have sexual or romantic relationships with others outside of that group, although there may be other conditions about these secondary relationships, such as that the primary group approves of the secondary partner.

3) Is one person in the relationship romantically/sexually involved in a relationship with everyone else?

  • Sometimes poly relationships are defined geometrically. For example, imagine a triad (a relationship involving three people). Person A has a relationship with person B and person C. If person B and person C also have a relationship, the three individuals have formed a triangle. If person B and person C only have sexual or romantic relationships with person A, the three individuals have formed a V with person A as the “hinge.”

4) Is recreational/casual sex seen as acceptable?

  • With any of the above types of relationships (except closed relationships), casual sex with outside partners may be permissible if it has been agreed upon. However, in the case of swingers, it is usually the ONLY kind of sex that partners (generally a couple) have with outsiders. If the couple involves one other person, it is called a threesome. If more than one other person are involved, it might be called group sex or an orgy. Some poly folk are offended by comparisons to swingers, seeing it as more of a pastime than a lifelong commitment, and devoid of any emotional connection. (Polyamory does mean many loves, after all, not many sex partners!) Some poly folk also dislike the sexism and homophobia inherent in some swinging communities (for example, when bisexuality is encouraged in women but not in men). However, I wanted to include the practice in this list of concepts because non-polys often confuse poly relationships and swinging as the same practice.

Finally, I want to address four terms that you may have seen used to reference multiple or group marriages: polygamy, bigamy, polygyny, and (rarely) polyandry. Although the terms beginning with poly- share the same root as polyamory, the poly community does generally not use them. The term polygamy refers to the practice of having multiple spouses (with bigamy a specific example of having two spouses), but it is usually used in a legal sense (because polygamy is technically illegal in many places) or in an anthropological sense (from documentations of other cultures’ kinship systems and structures). Polygyny is the form of polygamy in which one man has multiple wives, and polyandry (a much less common practice worldwide) is the form of polygamy in which one woman has multiple husbands. While some poly folk might use these terms, polyamory, with its focus on love, is usually the preferred term.

I hope that this description has demonstrated that there are many types and forms of poly relationships. Given that the variables I discussed in the above questions are not mutually exclusive, the combinations of different types of relationships and the agreements formed by the people involved means there are almost unlimited ways for consensual adults to have relationships with one another. The most important thing for many poly folk is that everyone involved is aware of the situation and the guidelines by which the relationship(s) will operate, respectful and caring toward one another, and open and honest about their feelings. These practices and principles allow people to be, as Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt put it, ethical sluts.

For More Information:


The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt

Polyamory: Roadmaps for the Clueless & Hopeful by Anthony D. Ravenscroft

Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits by Deborah M. Anapol

The Lesbian Polyamory Reader: Open Relationships, Non-Monogamy, and Casual Sex by Marcia Munson and Judith P. Stelboum

The Spectre of Promiscuity: Gay Male and Bisexual Non-monogamies and Polyamories by Christian Klesse


About the Author:

Blaise Astra Parker (M.S., Ph.D., University of Georgia) recently completed her Ph.D. in the lifespan developmental psychology program at the University of Georgia. Her research integrates three broad areas of psychology: identity theory, sexual orientation, and the psychology of the Internet. She is a qualitative researcher, interested primarily in how individuals come to understand themselves sexually. Her master’s thesis examined how bisexual people might use the Internet as a location to explore and enact their sexual identity.

Please note that although Blaise is a student of psychology, she is not trained in therapy or counseling. Therefore, her information or advice should be combined with input from a professional therapist or support group.

Blaise has given presentations at the 2001 Eastern Regional Meeting for the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality and at the First Annual North American Conference on Bisexuality, Gender, and Sexual Diversity, as well as at a number of smaller conferences. She has published a book review in the International Womens Studies Forum and has one forthcoming in the Journal of Sex Research. She is a member of the American Psychological Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. She lives with her life partner and their four cats and likes queer theory very much.

Article: Blaise Astra Parker (M.S., Ph.D., University of Georgia) ©

Related On site links:
Polyamory – The basics of Poly
Polygamy – BDSM Relationships: Is Polygamy Compulsory?
poly_relationships – An Introduction to Polyamorous Relationships
Poly resources – Want to find out more about polyamory? Links also aimed at therapists and health-care professionals who want to learn more about polyamory
Poly bookshelf -what’s on your poly reading list?

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