What Is Polyamory? Queer Relationship Experts Explain Everything You Need to Know

From increased representation in shows like the Gossip Girl reboot to an uptick in dating groups and communities, there’s seldom been more interest in polyamory. And as more people begin to understand and embrace polyamorous relationships — a 2020 Gallup poll found that 20% of respondents said polyamory is morally acceptable, up from 5% as recently as 2006 — it’s never been a better time to learn more about how polyamory works.

Polyamory is a non-monogamous approach to love and dating in which people are consensually involved with more than one person at a time. At its core, being in a polyamorous relationship means investing in a dating structure that frames love as abundant. The beautiful thing about polyamory is it can take a near-infinite number of forms. There are throuples, comprised of three people who date each other together; solo polyamorists, who may have many lovers without having a primary partner; triads, where one person dates two people who do not date each other; and an infinite number of other ways to practice polyamory.

People who choose to explore polyamory in their own relationships will find more community support and social resources available than ever. Sonalee Rashatwar, a queer sex therapist, social worker, and organizer, says that polyamory is increasingly beginning to feel like an identity. “People are organizing around it, communities are being formed … I’m seeing books being written about folks in polyamorous relationships — entire websites, dating apps that cater to identities like polyamory,” they told Them.

As queer people, many of us have already had to overcome heteronormative and cisnormative relationship scripts. Having already broken down these expectations of what a romantic relationship can look like, queerness and non-monogamy can be deeply intertwined for many. If you want to learn more about queer polyamory, read on.

What is polyamory, and what does it mean to be polyamorous?

Polyamory “literally means many loves,” queer relationships and sex therapist Rachel Wright explains. “It can look different in the way that every relationship looks different, but it includes multiple romantic and sexual relationships with people who are all aware that multiple relationships are occurring.” To be polyamorous is to either be participating in these relationship structures or to be oriented toward doing so.

If it seems difficult to understand how someone might be able to have multiple romantic relationships, think about friendship. We often consider our relationships with our friends to be loving and affectionate, but they aren’t exclusive. That doesn’t mean we don’t value or aren’t committed to our friendships, but they may require different types of engagement or levels of attention. We also often have people we consider to be our best or closest friends. Those types of delineations can exist within polyamory as well, with many people referring to partners as being primary or secondary and so on. Ultimately, no matter the differences between each relationship, all of them still center care, love, and affection.

What is the difference between polyamory, non-monogamy, and an open relationship?

Non-monogamy is the umbrella term that means not exclusively dating or having sex with one person. Polyamory and open relationships can both fall underneath this term, as well as practices like swinging, couples that are mostly monogamous, and more.

An open relationship is a more colloquial term that can refer to several different relationship arrangements in which someone dates or has sex with people outside of their primary partnership. In some arrangements, that means only having sex with other people without developing feelings; in others, it can mean dating and maintaining relationships with other people. Open relationships can be a form of polyamory or only fall under the broader umbrella of non-monogamy, depending on how a couple defines it. However, there is certainly some level of fluidity to these terms and asking questions about what exactly someone means is always helpful.

What relationship structures exist in polyamory? What can a polyamorous relationship look like?

Wright says it’s important to remember that “there are no right or wrong ways to do polyamory and non-monogamy in general. It’s really about what works for you — while there are these types of polyamorous relationships, it doesn’t mean they are the only ways to do it.” Our monogamy-normative society often conditions us to look for rulebooks and blueprints in our relationships; we want to be told the right and best way to do things. But polyamory leaves a little more room to be imaginative. “You get to create the relationships structures that suit you, whether there’s a name for it or not,” says sex therapist Jayda Shuavarnnasri.


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