What is Polyamory?

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Confused about the difference between polyamory, polygamy, swinging, and more? Check out the definitions below for clarity!

Polyamory

Literally, poly (many) + amor (love). The state or practice of maintaining multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships simultaneously, with the full knowledge and consent of all the people involved.

Polyamory is not necessarily related directly to marriage or polygamy; a person may have no spouse or only one spouse and still be polyamorous. Many people use the term "polyamory" to describe only those relationships in which a person has multiple loving partners; some people have extended the term to include relationships in which a person has multiple sexual partners regardless of the emotional component or degree of commitment between them, though this meaning was not a part of Morning Glory Zell's original intent for the word.

In 1992, when the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary contacted Morning Glory Zell to ask for a formal definition and background of the word; part of her response was:

"The two essential ingredients of the concept of "polyamory" are "more than one" and "loving." That is, it is expected that the people in such relationships have a loving emotional bond, are involved in each other's lives multi-dimensionally, and care for each other. This term is not intended to apply to merely casual recreational sex, anonymous orgies, one-night stands, pick-ups, prostitution, "cheating," serial monogamy, or the popular definition of swinging as "mate-swapping" parties."

Swinging

The practice of having multiple sexual partners outside of an existing romantic relationship, most often with the understanding that the focus of those relationships is primarily sexual rather than romantic or emotionally intimate.

The common perception of swinging is that those who engage in this behavior have sex outside of their existing relationship purely for recreation, and that emotional bonds or emotional intimacy are specifically excluded. This is true in some cases, and, in fact, some swing clubs specifically prohibit people from carrying on friendships or relationships outside the club. However, in practice swinging is much more nuanced, and people who self-identify as swingers can and sometimes do form close emotional relationships with their partners. Many people in both the swinging and polyamorous communities, though not all, see swinging and polyamory as two ends of a continuum, different in degree of intent, focus, and emphasis on romantic and emotional relationships rather than different in kind.

Open Marriage

A marriage whose structures or arrangements permit one or both of the members involved to have outside sexual relationships, outside romantic relationships, or both. The term "open marriage" is a catchall for marriages which are not emotionally or sexually monogamous and may include such activities as polyamory or swinging.

Monogamish

A relationship which is not necessarily sexually fidelitous, but that differs from polyamory in that the outside sexual relationships are seen as primarily sexual rather than romantic, without necessarily having any expectation of continuity, and are viewed as enhancing the primary couple's relationship.

The term was coined by columnist Dan Savage to describe committed relationships that still allow some "outside" sexual dalliances.

Polygamy

The state or practice of having multiple wedded spouses at the same time. Polygyny (multiple women married to one man) is the most common form of polygamy (the obverse being polyandry). Polygyny is associated with many religious and ethnic subcultures, with Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas recording 850 of 1170 societies as being polygynous. Modern religious traditions, including Islam and Fundamentalist Mormonism (FLDS) allow polygyny. For this reason, many people confuse polygamy with polyamory.

Consensual Nonmonogamy

Any relationship which is not sexually and/or emotionally exclusive by the explicit agreement and with the full knowledge of all the parties involved. Consensual nonmonogamy can take several forms, the two most common of which are polyamory and swinging, and it is distinct from cheating in that everyone involved knows about and agrees to the activity.

Consensual nonmonogamy often explicitly spells out the conditions under which it is permissible for one person to take on additional partners, and often includes some form of safer-sex agreement as well.

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