Gone are the days of one man and one woman being the only definition of what a relationship can look like. Which is great, of course, because as we know, there are a whole lot of ways to show and experience love, most of which transcend traditional (and outdated, tbh) views on gender and sexuality. And while the ever-evolving landscape of relationships is v exciting, it can also get a little confusing, especially since a lot of terms sound similar. Take polygamy vs. polyamory, for example. The romantic labels may look almost 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 everyone involved,” explains Heath Schechinger, PhD, a counseling psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Polygamy refers to being married to multiple spouses at the same time.”
In both cases, there are multiple partners or love interests involved, notes holistic sex educator, coach, and host of The Labia Lounge podcast, Freya Graf. This is where the “poly” prefix—which means “many” in Greek—comes in, she explains.
But despite what they have in common, there are actually a lot of differences between polygamy and polyamory. And since polyamory is becoming more popular in mainstream media and modern dating, it’s important to know what poly partnerships are all about and the ways in which they’re different.
From their histories, to their cultural reception, to how to have a happy and healthy non-monogamous relationship, we reached out to experts for all you need to know about polygamy and polyamory.
So… what’s polyamory, and what’s polygamy?
Since polyamory and polygamy look very similar on paper, it can be hard to remember what they each mean, but the distinction is important because they’re “culturally quite different,” says Schechinger. Essentially:
Polyamory = having multiple *consensual* romantic/intimate relationships at once. It’s an intentional type of non-monogamy conducted in a “loving, considerate, mature, and respectful container with guidelines that all parties involved agree upon and communicate clearly about,” says Graf. The genders and sexual orientations of partners aren’t prescribed.
Polygamy = another form of non-monogamy where one person has multiple spouses. “Polygyny describes when a man has multiple wedded wives, and polyandry refers to a woman having wedded husbands,” explains Schechinger. Typically, polygamy refers to cisgender heterosexual men being married to multiple cisgender women.
Furthermore, polygamy—which is illegal in the United States—was (and sometimes can still be) practiced by some cultures and religions hundreds of years ago, including in Islam and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Polyamory has no historical ties to religion.
“Polyamory is rooted in feminism, gender equity, and flat power structures, while polygamy is rooted in religious fundamentalism and complementarianism where men and women are prescribed different but complementary roles and responsibilities in the marriage, family, and religious leadership,” Schechinger explains.
Are polygamy and polyamory the same as open relationships?
Sometimes! Just like how every monogamous relationship is different, so are polygamous and polyamorous relationships. While open relationships are culturally more similar to polyamory than polygamy, the difference typically refers to the emotional component, Graf says.
“In poly setups, there may be multiple long-term, committed, deeply loving and invested relationships, [whereas] in an open relationship there exists a freedom to explore sexually with others but usually involves boundaries about becoming emotionally involved or attached to any lovers outside of the primary couple,” she explains.
So open relationships focus more on the physical side of things and typically don’t involve anything emotional outside of the core relationship, while poly partnerships are usually both physical and emotional. That doesn’t mean 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 both Graf and Schechinger, there are a lot of 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 network of support. And, for some, it’s also about sex.
“For the overwhelming majority, however, being in a consensually non-monogamous relationship is about being honest, meeting other like-minded people, improving the quality of romantic relationships, and getting to know oneself better,” Schechinger explains.
Also, humans aren’t actually naturally wired to be monogamous, notes Graf, so many people “struggle to remain faithful or continue to be satisfied” in one 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 is. According to Graf, this is because polyamory typically isn’t religion-based, and usually stems from a mutual arrangement centered around 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” over the concept of polygamy, says Graf.
On the flip side, Graf says polygamy is often considered sexiest, unethical, and even “barbaric” in western society because it’s “more common for polygamy to mean one man having multiple wives.” In fact, while Schechinger says polygamy is legal in over 50 sovereign states worldwide, in most of them, polygyny (multiple wedded wives) is allowed but polyandry (multiple legal husbands) is illegal.
That said, some cultural traditions and religious practices are deeply ingrained in the people who believe in them, and “we can’t possibly understand it fully from the outside,” says Graf. And while polyamory is starting to become more accepted in our society (and TV), Schechinger notes polyamorous partnerships still face many obstacles, such as a lack of the financial benefits couples receive, barriers that prevent adoption, restrictive healthcare, and career and housing discrimination.
Furthermore, Schechinger says polyamorous couples who *do* want to marry have to fight the laws currently in place to protect against non-consensual polygamy. “Advocates are seeking solutions to maintain the appropriate protections while not discriminating against consenting adults,” he says, but it’s still another hard hurdle polygamous couples experience.
How does a polyamorous relationship work?
Despite the whole “more people are involved” thing, Schechinger says polyamorous relationships aren’t all that different from monogamous relationships. “People in both monogamous and polyamorous relationships highlight the following relationship elements as most important: community and family, sex, love, trust and authenticity, communication, and commitment,” he says.
While all polyamorous relationships are different, Graf says setting clear and consensual conditions and ground rules is the common foundation. Typically, working polyamorous relationships also involve regular check-ins, communication, emotionally involved and ongoing connections (rather than casual sex), and full disclosure when a new person comes onto the scene, she says.
Some polyamorous relationships involve a primary couple that has outside secondary relationships, while other poly relationships are simply one primary relationship that involves more than two people with no outside relationships. There’s no wrong way to poly as long as everyone’s 100 percent on board!
I’m interested in polyamory. What do I do next?
If ethical non-monogamy sounds right for you, both pros say there are quite a few things to consider before opening up your twosome or joining an established relationship. First, it’s a good idea to gather information and learn all 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 this 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 is important to be curious and considerate of your partner’s desires,” he says. “Keep the conversation non-judgmental.”
In fact, while setting ground rules and consistently checking in is essential, Graf’s main piece of advice for anyone wanting to explore polyamory is to work on their communication skills. “Even though your mind understands that polyamory can be natural and great, you’re up against a lifetime of conditioning and socialization,” she says. “It’s big stuff and it’s not for the faint-hearted … It can be the best thing ever, but it’s also hard work!”
So no matter where you fall on the spectrum of monogamy, know that there is a place for you and your partners(s) if you’re willing to do the work it takes to communicate openly and honestly. There are tons of different relationship styles, and understanding them is crucial toward building a more inclusive, less judgmental society where everyone can have exactly the kind of relationship they want and deserve.
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