What Is Polyamory?

Updated: Mar 23

Are you new to polyamory? Have you just heard the term polyamory, and want to learn more? Do you have a friend or family member who identifies as polyamorous, or is in a polyamorous relationship? Are you a mental health clinician with a client who has recently come out as polyamorous? No matter who you are, this introduction to polyamory may help you to develop a better understanding of polyamorous relationships, enable you to explore your relationship options, and have more informed discussions about polyamory with your partner(s), friends, clients, or family members. 


Polyamory is a unique relationship style (or “love style” [1]) involving more than one romantic relationships simultaneously, with full knowledge and consent of all the partners involved. Literally translated, polyamory means “many loves” [2]. Every polyamorous relationship is structured differently, depending on the needs and agreements of the partners involved. However, there are some basic structures and labels that help to organize the types of relationships polyamorous people form.


Vee: A vee relationship looks like the letter “V” – one person, known as the “hinge” partner, is dating two other people. The other two people are not romantically or sexually involved with each other; they are known as “metamours” to one another, as they are dating the same person but not dating each other. However, they may be vague acquaintances or very good friends. For example, Sarah and Matt are both dating Jason. Sarah and Matt are good friends, but they are not romantically or sexually involved with one another. Therefore, Sarah and Matt are metamours, and Jason is the hinge partner.


Triad: A triadic relationship is one in which all three people are romantically and/or sexually involved with one another. A triad may be made up of a combination of people with varying gender identities and sexual orientations. Triads are often formed due to a couple looking for a third partner, but they may come together in a different way. For example, a triad may form when two partners of a hinge partner come together, changing the relationship from a vee to a triad. A triad may also come together when three very close friends decide to form a triad at the same time. Some triads decide to live together or raise children together, forming a polyfamily [3]. An individual involved in a triad may have partners outside of the triad as well, or be involved in multiple triads. Other triads are known as “polyfidelitous,” meaning the individuals do not date outside of the triad.


Quad: A quad involves four people coming together in a romantic relationship. Quads are often (though not always) formed when two couples begin dating each other in some way. For example, Jane and Suzanne are married, and have been together for seven years. Nick and Brandy have been dating for four years. Nick is also dating Jane, and Suzanne is dating Brandy. Jane, Suzanne, Nick, and Brandy are in a quad relationship. Nick and Suzanne are metamours to each other, as are Brandy and Jane.

While these labels are descriptive of the relationships that can form, this list is by no means exhaustive. Every person’s relationship landscape will look different. In addition, there are added layers to the set up of relationships, such as how an individual prioritizes their time, emotional energy, and defines the importance of each relationship.


Hierarchical Polyamory: Individuals who form hierarchies in their relationships place more importance on one relationship above other relationships [3]. Their “primary” partner will most likely be the partner that they live with, share finances with, or co-parent with. The primary partner may be the only person that takes vacations with the individual, or may be the only person that is invited to family events. “Secondary” and “Tertiary” partners may be considered less important, and often aren’t taken into account when big decisions have to be made. For example, in the quad described above, Jane and Suzanne may be primary to one another, while Nick and Brandy may be primary to each other. Therefore, Nick and Jane are secondary partners, as are Suzanne and Brandy.


Non-Hierarchical Polyamory: Individuals who do not form hierarchies in their relationships do not place more importance on one relationship above all others. Each partner is considered and included in decision-making processes when making decisions about living arrangements, time commitments, and finances. Each partner may have the ability to go on vacations with the individual, and may even be considered when making parenting decisions. For example, in the vee relationship above, Jason may consider Sarah and Matt as equally important to him, and if he is offered a new job in a new city, he will talk to both of them and make the decision on whether to take the job with both of them.


Solo Polyamory: A solo polyamorist is someone who engages in multiple relationships, but does not have any desire to be considered part of a couple. A solo polyamorist may not live with or share finances with anyone else, and often does not have the desire to work toward these things. On the flip side, they may live with different partners throughout the year, and prefer a more nomadic lifestyle. They consider their partners when making decisions, but do not allow their partners to dictate their choices. For some, solo polyamory is an option when an individual is in between more intense relationships. For others, solo polyamory is a lifelong pursuit, in which the solo polyamorist is their own primary relationship [2]. This can allow them to make decisions based on what makes themselves and their relationships strong and happy, as opposed to just focusing on the needs of their primary relationship(s). Some people have a misconception about solo polyamory, and believe that solo polyamorists are “afraid of commitment or intimacy.” While some solo polyamorists may avoid too many commitments with their partners, others will have deeply committed and intimate relationships.


Relationship Anarchy: A relationship anarchist differs a bit from other polyamorists, but often still falls on the polyamory spectrum. Relationship anarchy is a relatively new term to refer to individuals who believe that all interpersonal relationships are important, not just those relationships that are romantic [2]. A relationship anarchist might have multiple romantic relationships simultaneously, but may also avoid making special distinctions between relationships that are romantic, sexual, platonic, or familial. They avoid putting relationships into categories and avoid having expectations of their relationships. Instead, they allow their relationships to take any form and have any level of commitment that the participants decide to have. For example, a relationship anarchist would not put their long-term, live-in boyfriend’s needs above the needs of their best female friend by default; rather, they would consider the needs of each person and decide how to best meet those needs for each person.


Again, I would like to stress the fact that this list is not exhaustive. Every person will structure their relationships differently, and may identify with certain aspects of these forms of polyamory, but not others. This list is merely intended to provide a brief overview of how many polyamorous relationships may function and develop, and is a starting point for you to discuss and understand your own relationships, your loved ones’ relationships, or your clients’ relationships

.

No one form of polyamory is “better” or “more functional” than another. This is solely dependent on the individuals involved in each of these relationships. There is always the possibility that someone will be hurt in any relationship, whether that relationship is monogamous or ethically non-monogamous. When engaging in any relationship type, it is important to take into account the needs of each of your partners, their boundaries, and their expectations of the relationship. Honest communication is essential in any relationship, but especially important and essential in every form of polyamory.


For example, if you or your client is in a hierarchical polyamorous relationship, it is imperative to communicate what that is and what that means for the primary and secondary relationships. How much time will you have with each person? Will you leave a date with a secondary partner if your primary partner has a personal emergency? Will you also leave a date with a primary partner if your secondary partner has a personal emergency? Are these agreements flexible, and able to be re-negotiated as you, your partners, and your relationships develop over time?


We are all human. We all make mistakes in relationships, no matter what our love style is. If you are just beginning to navigate the polyamorous world, know that you will make mistakes. Most people have not seen examples of polyamory in mainstream media or in real life; therefore, they do not often have positive role models to look up to like monogamous couples do. However, by educating yourself and learning more about the polyamorous community, you will be able to make more informed decisions about your own relationships.


If you are a mental health clinician, you will hopefully be better able to understand and appreciate the complexity and differences between polyamorous relationships. Polyamory will look different for each of your clients, so it is important to recognize how these differences may or may not affect their functionality or treatment goals. As polyamory becomes a more common love style, mental health clinicians will need to learn more about polyamory to provide ethical therapeutic care for their clients. I hope you found this article helpful in your pursuit of that goal.


-Steph.


[1] Anapol, D. (2010). Polyamory in the 21st century: Love and intimacy with multiple partners. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

[2] Winston, D. (2017). The smart girl’s guide to polyamory: Everything you need to know about open relationships, non-monogamy, and alternative love. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing.

[3] Easton, D., & Hardy, J. W. (2009). The ethical slut: A practical guide to polyamory, open relationships, & other adventures (2nd ed.). Berkely, CA: Celestial Arts.

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