What Is Polyamory? Experts Explain the Multi-Person Relationships

What Is Polyamory? Experts Explain the Multi-Person Relationships

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When you close your eyes and picture a romantic relationship, what comes to mind? No matter the age, gender, sexuality, and race of the partner(s) you’re imagining, there’s probably one similarity between your idea and most everyone else’s: It’s a couple—meaning two people. You might not even know what the words polyamorous and polyamory mean, but they describe a different kind of relationship that’s completely valid, too.

Although monogamy might be the norm, it’s far from the only relationship style. Polyamory, a form of consensual non-monogamy, allows people to pursue multiple romantic partners at once, and unlike cheating, everyone involved is aware of the arrangement, which is key.

Despite what romcoms and the marriage-industrial complex may suggest, polyamorous relationships are very much normal—and they’re on the rise. Up to a fifth of adult relationships are non-monogamous to some degree, per a 2020 YouGov poll. Another YouGov poll reveals that 25% of Americans are interested in some sort of open relationship. It’s also backed up with plenty of historical precedents; in fact, monogamy, as we know it today, has only been around for about 1,000 years.

But what does polyamory mean? How are these relationships structured? And how do you know if polyamory is right for you? Here’s everything you’ve ever wanted to know about polyamory, and exploring polyamorous relationships, according to experts.

What is polyamory?

Polyamory is a philosophy that “allows people to have multiple loving connections simultaneously,” explains Leanne Yau, a polyamory educator and founder of the blog Poly Philia. (The word literally comes from the Greek root “poly,” meaning “many,” and the Latin root “amory,” meaning “love.”)

“The crucial thing is that it must be practiced with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved,” Yau says. This distinguishes polyamory from cheating, which occurs when one or more parties in a relationship are unaware of non-monogamous actions by another.

Polyamory falls under the umbrella of ethical non-monogamy, a term that encompasses all the various relationship styles that are consensually non-exclusive, whether sexually, romantically, or both, explains Tamara Pincus, L.I.C.S.W., C.S.T., author of the book It’s Called “Polyamory” and founder of the practice Tamara Pincus and Associates. (Others include open relationships, swinging, and “monogamish” arrangements.) All relationships exist on a spectrum of total romantic and sexual exclusivity to complete non-exclusivity, Yau says; polyamory can fall anywhere beyond traditional monogamy.

These kinds of relationships are more common than you might think, and they’re becoming even more so: One-third of Americans say their ideal relationship isn’t completely monogamous, per that 2020 YouGov poll. In 2016, YouGov found that 61% of Americans wanted completely monogamous relationships; in 2020, the number fell to 56%. Young people say they’re more likely to pursue non-monogamy, too, meaning these arrangements will likely become more popular.

“Polyamory very much focuses on emotional and romantic connection, whereas other types of non-monogamy are more like casual and sexual endeavors,” Yau explains. “That’s a crucial difference between them.” That’s not to say that sex isn’t a factor in poly relationships—it’s a crucial part of expressing love between many kinds of people—but it’s not the end-all-be-all for many polyamorous people.

“Quite a lot of members of the asexual community really value polyamory for this reason,” Yau says. “It allows for them to have a purely romantic relationship with someone who has sexual needs that can be met outside of the relationship.”

What are the main types of polyamorous relationships?

Most polyamorous arrangements are part of a network of people who are connected romantically or sexually. “Not everyone has to date everyone; in fact, most people don’t date their partners’ partners because everyone has different types and tastes,” Yau notes. Poly relationships can take endless shapes, but they often fall into four main categories, she explains:

Hierarchical Polyamory

Hierarchical polyamory involves partners who consider each other their first priority. Each is free to pursue secondary romantic relationships outside, Yau says, but there are often ground rules or limitations to how far the other relationships can progress. These secondary partners outside of the core relationship are often referred to as metamours.

Non-Hierarchical Polyamory

This polyamorous arrangement is similar to the first one, but without a couple at its center. “Everyone has the voice and the right to negotiate the relationship with their partner,” Yau explains, “rather than having to defer to a primary couple.” These two forms make up the vast majority of polyamorous relationships, she says.

Solo Polyamory

A relatively new term, solo polyamory refers to an individual who has multiple romantic relationships but doesn’t have any of the conditional markers of commitment—like a joint bank account, a shared living space, or a marriage—with someone else. In the world of polyamory, it’s almost like being single: “They very much value their independence and their autonomy,” Yau notes, “but still want to experience romantic connection.”

Parallel Polyamory

In this type of polyamorous relationship, there is a couple at the center who both date people outside of the relationship, but may never have their partners meet each other, says Joy Berkheimer, polyamorous therapist and relationship therapist. All partners are aware of the other partner(s)’ existence; they just have no desire to meet or hear about one another.

Kitchen Table Polyamory

In contrast to parallel poly, kitchen table polyamory means that all parties of the relationship come together to discuss relationship agreements, even if they are not all dating each other, explains Berkheimer. This situation is unique in that partners’ partners have a close-knit relationship, where theoretically, they could all come together at a kitchen table and feel comfortable together.

V or Hinge Polyamory

This dynamic has one person who dates two people and the other two only date the one person at the center, and no one dates outside the group explains Berkheimer. The middle partner is often referred to as “the hinge.” This is not a throuple, though—it’s one person at the center who has two partners.


Also known as closed polyamory or poly-monogamy, this kind of relationship involves three or more people in an exclusive relationship; anyone outside is off-limits. Some arrangements involve everyone in the relationship dating each other, while others take the form of one person having multiple partners who are monogamous with them. This is the rarest type of poly relationship, Pincus says.

paper craft with heart pattern on pink background
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What should you know before starting a polyamorous relationship?

Polyamory can unlock a completely new way of viewing your partner(s) and yourself—but it’s not an arrangement to rush into.

If you’ve found yourself romantically attracted to multiple people at the same time, you likely have a predisposition to polyamory, Yau says. Another giveaway: “I find a lot of people used to be serial monogamists, in the sense that they would fall in love with other people while they were still in a relationship,” she says. Instead of breaking off those connections, they can pursue a few at once.

But there’s a distinction, Yau notes, between the desire for polyamory and the capacity to practice it. “A lot of people are polyamorous in theory,” she says. But in practice, many people don’t have the time or energy. “It’s not less commitment; it’s the same amount of commitment that you’d put into a monogamous relationship, but double or triple,” she explains, “which is why most people max out at about two or three partners.”

It’s also important to note that feelings of jealousy will most likely pop up at some point, Pincus says. It’s definitely not limited to polyamorous relationships—monogamous people also experience plenty of jealousy surrounding people like friends and exes, for example—and it’s not a sign that you’re somehow “bad” at polyamory, Yau explains.

The key, Pincus says, is communication about any insecurities or issues that pop up. “I don’t think that everybody is happy all the time in polyamory,” she explains, or in any relationship, for that matter. “If you’re dating more people, it’s more likely that someone’s grandmother is sick or somebody’s kid is having trouble in school—you do have more exposure to possible adverse events.”

You should also consider whether you feel comfortable granting your partners the same freedom to seek romance and sex outside of the traditional monogamous couple, which is where most people struggle with polyamory. But it’s still very much worth giving polyamory a shot if you think you’re capable of these kinds of relationships—even if you’re currently in a monogamous relationship.

What are some myths about polyamory?

Polyamory isn’t cheating; everyone involved is aware and consenting of the multiple relationships that are occurring. (It’s also not polygamy, or the practice of marrying multiple spouses.) Cheating can still occur in polyamorous relationships, says Berkheimer. “It happens when an agreement is broken, so it’s not an escape from being aligned with doing what you said you would do.”

On the flip side, polyamory also isn’t a lack of love or commitment to a partner; just like monogamous relationships, poly ones grow, break up, and stand the test of time, Yau notes. “Commitment, to me, and I think to the vast majority of non-monogamous people,” she says, “is less about what you keep out of the relationship; it’s more about what you let in.” The fact is you have to be very committed to checking in with several people’s needs, personalities, and communicating on a regular basis to keep up your relationships, says Berkheimer.

Polyamory also isn’t a sex addiction or a never-ending quest for sexual gratification. “To be honest, most of the time, polyamorous people spend more time communicating about their relationships than doing anything sexual at all,” Yau explains. “It’s more of a focus on emotional connection rather than sex.” (In fact, Pincus notes that there’s a joke in the community that poly people have “a kink for communication.”)

It’s also a myth that you cannot practice polyamory if you experience jealousy. Jealousy is a normal emotion and everyone experiences it, Berkheimer says. “Healthy adults incorporate tools to be introspective and manage their emotions as well as address any toxic issues in their relationships. You can still maintain polyamorous relationships and probably learn more about yourself than you would have otherwise.”

How can you ask your current partner to explore polyamory?

There are plenty of reasons to stop practicing monogamy: “Some people have a sexual fantasy they want to try, or they genuinely want to see their partner have their needs met by other people, because they can’t meet it themselves,” Yau explains. “Maybe they want to experience falling in love again, and they can’t do that with their existing partner, because they already did that 10-odd years ago.”

Testing out polyamory can be immensely exciting, but it’s critical that you go about it the right way if you have a monogamous partner. “You want to start by telling them that you’re curious about this, and see how they react,” recommends Pincus, who devotes a chapter to coming out as poly in her book.

“If you’re scared to say ‘I want to do this,’ sometimes it’s easier to be like, ‘So, I know these poly people. What do you think about that?” she advises. That way, you can test the waters without putting yourself or your relationship on the line.

“Do not act on your feelings before you tell your partner,” Pincus warns. “Oftentimes what happens is you decide you’re interested in polyamory and you start falling for someone.” The further things progress, either emotionally or physically, the harder it is to participate in honest communication about your desires.

“It’s a really scary conversation to have, to tell your partner, ‘I have feelings for somebody else,’ or, ‘I’d like to explore the possibility of dating other people,’” she acknowledges. “But it’s much less scary than, ‘I slept with somebody else. Sorry about that!”

The best way to explore the possibility of a polyamorous relationship with your partner is to gauge their spectrum of desires, adds Berkheimer. “Using a guide like Designer Relationships that speaks to a full range of possibilities gives your partner the option to express fully their enthusiastic yes’s and emphatic no’s, without feeling pigeon-holed into a poly pressured conversation.”

In the end, polyamory is growing in popularity for a reason. “Having multiple close, intimate relationships really provides an opportunity for a kind of support that we don’t tend to find in the rest of the world these days,” Pincus says. “Polyamory can help people build closeness with a lot of people. … It’s a lot of emotional work, and it’s worth it.”

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