Just how much terminology there is. It can be very confusing to figure out what everything means. And to make matters worse, there’s so much overlap between terms I personally identify to some extent with every term I’m going to talk about today. Well, except cheating, but we’ll get into that. My goal with this article is to help you be at least a little less confused about non-monogamous relationship structure terminology. So instead of just reciting by the book definitions, I’m going to be talking about what each term means on a more functional level. Disclaimer. Most of these concepts are not exactly textbook definitions, and I am not some ultimate authority on the terms. You will find a lot of people that have different perspectives than me on what these things mean, and that is okay.
I aim to accurately describe what the communities at large mean when they use these terms. All right, intro done. Let’s get into it. I’ll start with the simplest term that I’ve already used in this article. Non monogamy is an umbrella term. It simply means anything outside the traditional monogamous framework. All other terms fall under this one. You may also hear the phrase ethical non monogamy, but many people believe that this implies that monogamy is not ethical by default. I tend to agree with that, so I just use non monogamy. Here are the terms that fall under non monogamy that I will be talking about in this article.
Polyamory is more my specialty and mostly what my account is about. So I’ll be talking about that word with the most detail. The most widely accepted definition for polyamory is hold on, let me make sure I don’t get this wording wrong. That would be embarrassing. The practice of or desire for romantic relationships with more than one partner at a time, with the informed consent of all partners involved. Are you ready for the first curveball of the article? A large part of the polyamorous community, myself included, take issue with one word in this definition, romantic. A big misconception about polyamory is that it’s all about sex. And while that’s not true, sex is an important component in polyamorous relationships. So I’m going to change the word romantic to intimate. I think this feels more inclusive to both sexual and romantic relationships.
But if sexual relationships are included in the definition of polyamory, how does that make it different from any other form of non monogamy? The most important word in the definition of polyamory isn’t romantic, sexual or intimate. The key word is relationships. What differentiates polyamory is that we are seeking, or at least open to, fully fledged relationships with multiple people. That is the real core of polyamory. Another misconception is that polyamorous are always open to new intimate connections. But that’s not true. Three or more people can decide to be in a closed relationship with each other. This is known as polyfidelity.
For this next part, a couple of quick definitions are necessary. When your partner has another partner that you yourself are not directly intimate with, that person is known as your metamour, and a polycule is simply a group of people linked together by their intimate relationships. Polycule structures can take countless forms, but that’s for another article. I’m sorry, I had to get that in there. There are a few common forms that polyamorous relationships take. One way we classify polyamorous relationships is how the people involved interact with one another. The three main classifications here are kitchen table polyamory, parallel polyamory, and the less common don’t ask, don’t tell.
In kitchen table polyamory, all partners and metamors feel comfortable interacting with each other. To some extent, the polycule feels comfortable hanging around with each other as if they were around a kitchen table. Hence, the name.
Parallel polyamory is when metamors are aware of each other, but they do not interact. Relationships are kept separate, but everyone is still fully informed that the other relationships exist. Metamores generally know who each other are and when their partner is seeing their other partners. They just don’t interact directly.
Don’t ask, don’t tell is when someone is aware that their partner has the freedom to pursue other intimate relationships, but they do not have any information past that. This is less common, and I personally do not recommend it for the vast majority of people, but I have seen some uncommon scenarios where it’s actually worked out.
Another way we classify polyamorous relationships is whether there is a hierarchy. In hierarchical relationships, partners fall into different categories or ranks. The most common terminology is primary and secondary partners, but people use other terms too. These different categories come along with different expectations of time, commitment, privileges, et cetera. Sometimes these differences are very clearly spelled out and agreed upon, and other times primary partners just generally take priority over others.
And you guessed it, in non-hierarchical relationships there is no stated hierarchy of partners. This does not necessarily mean that all partners are treated equally, just that there’s no automatic priority given to some partners over others.
There’s also solo polyamory. In this style, a singular person maintains or is open to having multiple intimate partners without seeking someone to fulfill the commitment level that traditionally comes with a firmly established partner. There is a significant focus on independence. To put it simply, solo polyamorous seed themselves as their own primary partner. Isn’t that just being single? Well, no. Solo polyamorist can absolutely have committed relationships. These relationships just don’t have certain expectations, like living together, commingling finances, having children, things like that. The boundaries vary from person to person.
Alright, I’ve talked a lot about polyamory, but what about other forms of non monogamy? And how are they different from polyamory and each other? The concept of open relationships is very often confused with polyamory and that’s not too surprising considering how similar they can be. The difference is that typically open relationships involve one primary partnership with the ability to have intimacy with others. This very closely resembles a hierarchical polyamorous relationship. But usually in an open relationship any intimate interactions outside the primary two partners are not considered full partner type relationships.
Another difference is that open relationships are usually more sexually motivated than polyamorous ones, but that’s not always the case. On the topic of open relationships, you might have also heard the word monogamish. I would describe this as very similar to an open relationship but less open. Dan Savage, the sex columnist who coined the term, describes it as mostly monogamous with a little squish around the edges. In my opinion, open relationships fall firmly under the category of non monogamy whereas monogamish falls somewhere between monogamy and non monogamy.
Now let’s talk about how swinging fits into the picture. Swinging is the practice of established couples consensually exchanging partners. This is almost entirely for sexual purposes only. The configuration of this exchange can vary. Only one partner from each couple can be together. Both partners can swap but stay separate, or everyone can engage together. The key things that separate swinging from polyamory or open relationships is that it is specifically done by couples with other couples and is almost always transactional to some extent.
Another form of non monogamy is relationship anarchy. In this style, each individual relationship a person has is treated as its own unique experience that is allowed to grow however it comes naturally. RA blurs the lines of traditional distinctions between friends and intimate partners. There are very few, if any, assumptions with any relationship. Each individual relationship, even with friends, is free to pick and choose any level of intimacy that comes organically. Some would say that relationship anarchy falls under polyamory, but that’s debatable and in my opinion, not that important.
Although kink doesn’t automatically fall under non monogamy I feel like it’s worth mentioning kink dynamics can sometimes involve non monogamy. That doesn’t quite fit into any of the categories I’ve described so far. It’s also fairly common for a couple to be monogamous but involve other people specifically within the context of their kinks. The kink and non-monogamous communities tend to be very closely intertwined and very supportive of each other.
All right, let’s talk about cheating. Cheating is an inherently unethical form of non monogamy. It’s difficult to pin down a single definition of cheating because different people have wildly different ideas of what it looks like. But I’ll try to give a definition that anyone can agree with. Looking at my notes again on this one, so I don’t screw it up. Cheating is the act of violating relationship boundaries, rules or agreements without the knowledge and or consent of one’s partner. Or partners are we good. Everyone agrees with that one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say that non monogamy is just cheating. With permission. To that I say, if you have consent to do something, it cannot be cheating. Another common myth is that people in non-monogamous relationships can’t cheat. That’s not true at all. Non-monogamous people have plenty of boundaries, rules and agreements, sometimes more so than a typical monogamous couple. Those things can absolutely be violated within non monogamy, and that’s cheating.
You may have noticed me using words like typically and usually a lot. That’s because everyone is free to make their own boundaries about their own relationships and use whatever labels they feel appropriate to describe those relationships. Everyone is different and unique, and there are always exceptions and edge cases. I personally consider myself a non-hierarchical kitchen table polyamorous, but I relate to a lot of things with relationship anarchy, and occasionally I do engage in swinging. You may be asking yourself, are all these labels really necessary? And it’s a good question. Labels can be messy and confusing and people can use them differently from one another. But they are also very useful for communicating with others about our views and expectations. And that is absolutely essential when forming relationships. Non monogamy is complex, but I think that’s the beauty of it. We have so much freedom to define and conduct our relationships in whatever ways make us feel happy. The goal of non monogamy isn’t to give you a separate rule book from monogamy. The goal is to write your own book. And I think that’s beautiful. If you found this article useful, I am determined to start posting regularly on this site. I’m working on non monogamy book reviews, advice, articles, deeper dives on concepts I described in this article, and more.