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Polygamy vs polyamory: the world of non-monogamy 

Robyn Exton

Feb 22, 2023

Polygamy vs polyamory: the world of non-monogamy 
  • If you’re swiping left and right on dating apps – ahem, and we hope it’s ours – you’ve probably seen profile descriptions disclosing your potential match’s relationship status.

    When building your profile on HER app, you’ll find a “What are you looking for?” feature which helps manage expectations before you even speak to a match. It does away with the “what are we?” discussion that you dread having three dates in when you have no idea how to label the relationship. 

    We do our best in the app to explain what monogamous relationships, polyamorous relationships, casual relationships, friendships, and other options are, but it’s time we dig deeper. 

    All these relationship labels can be kind of overwhelming, especially if you are struggling to figure out what you want. On the other hand – just like labels for sexualities and gender – these relationship statuses can also be empowering if you know what you’re talking about and if all parties involved are on the same page. 

    We don’t want you to get confused between two very different forms of non-monogamy, though: polyamorous and polygamy. These are not new concepts and have been in practice for many centuries, but it’s time we break down their differences so that you can step into your next conversation with a potential partner, knowing exactly what you’re getting into.

    Polygamy and polyamory are often confused – and how awkward would that be if you went into your first date wanting to explore polyamory and it turns out you’re totally off-base talking about the wrong thing? 

    Putting the nightmare scenario aside (though it’s not that nightmarish, we promise you,) we’ve got you covered. Let’s break down the differences between polyamory, polygamy – and some other offshoots like polyandry and open relationships – and explore their respective misconceptions, merits, and downsides.

    What does polygamy mean?

    You’ve heard of monogamy by now, but what about polygamy? 

    Monogamy is kind of the “standard” in our patriarchal, heteronormative society. It’s pretty straightforward: dating and/or marrying one person and committing to being exclusive with them romantically and sexually for the rest of your lives – or at least until you break up. 

    Polygamy refers to the practice of having multiple spouses at the same time. That’s right; it’s pretty much exclusively talking about marriage. This can be confusing when we use “monogamy” in everyday pop culture to refer to not only marriage but also dating. Kind of a misnomer, right? 

    The thing about polygamy is: it’s a traditional practice in many parts of the world. And unfortunately, the patriarchy is still alive and well in much of the world, as well. So polygamy as a practice can be a slippery slope since it can reinforce a power dynamic that has not historically been a safe place for women in many (but not all) cultures. 

    In many cases of polygamy, the man is the head of the household and has multiple wives. However, some cultures allow for women to have multiple husbands – which is specifically called polyandry. 

    What is polyamory? 

    Okay, maybe you’re not ready for the level of commitment of marriage just yet (or maybe ever!) so let’s shift from talking about marriage to plain old dating. After all, the HER app gives you the option to declare your relationship status and what you’re looking for in potential partners, and while there is no option for polygamy, you can declare that you are looking for polyamorous relationships, since that is more common among our users than polygamy.

    The difference between polygamy and polyamory is this: While polygamy refers to having multiple spouses at the same time, polyamory refers to having or wanting multiple romantic partners at the same time

    Source: Pexels

    If you’re running around queer circles, it’s only a matter of time until you find someone in a polyamorous relationship – or you stumble into one yourself thinking, hey! I like this person, and I’d like to try out polyamory! But it’s important to realize what it really means.

    At HER, we want to empower you to enter your relationships with as much information as possible and, most importantly, have fun while you’re doing it! Polyamory can be beautiful if everyone’s on the same page. So, what are the pages in question? 

    What makes polyamory stand out is the focus on the emotional aspects of relationships between partners and allowing the parties to explore their sexuality. Whether that exploration happens inside or outside of marriage is irrelevant – as long as all parties consent. This allows for safe and consensual exploration without feeling confined to a single partner.

    All of this being said, polyamory can still get a bad rap, especially from people who have personally been in a toxic non-monogamous relationship in the past or witnessed a close friend go through something like that. This is why it’s essential to explore whether polyamory is really something you want and to respect others for whom polyamory actually really works. 

    Overall, it’s worth looking into the general concept of ethical non-monogamy because – as I like to say – if it’s not ethical, and if it’s not consensual, then it’s not polyamory.

    Exploring ethical non-monogamy

    In ethical non-monogamy, everyone knows who is dating who and what the ground rules are. So, this can look like two people dating seriously and who casually have sex with other people, or someone who has multiple serious romantic relationships, or even a married couple who have agreed to open up their marriage.

    A key aspect of ethical non-monogamy is informed consent. This also means that everyone involved should communicate openly and honestly about their boundaries (my favorite word), needs, and expectations in the relationship. A good framework for consent is FRIES (Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific), which you can read more about on Planned Parenthood’s blog post about consent

    Non-ethical non-monogamy, on the other hand, often involves deceit and secrecy and can be harmful to the people involved. Cheating is an example of non-ethical non-monogamy, but there are other ways this kind of practice can develop. Guilting or manipulating your partner into having or not having relationships with others without mutual consent and agreement is another example.

    Are open relationships and polyamory the same thing?

    Looking at people’s profile descriptions on dating apps like HER, you might also see people disclosing that they’re in “open relationships.” 

    Polyamory and open relationships are two different kinds of relationships that can often be confused with one another. While both can mean having multiple partners, there are some key differences between the two.

    We’ve talked about what polyamory means. But what makes an open relationship different is that it is not necessarily open to other romantic relationships and does not necessarily involve emotional connection outside the primary partner. It focuses more on physical intimacy and can involve casual encounters or sexual exploration.

    Source: Pexels

    It’s easy to draw a clear line in the sand in writing. Still, when you’re actually in a healthy relationship and exploring things like polyamory and open relationships, the nature of the relationship between you and your partner(s) must be based on your individual needs, boundaries, and desires. 

    In the end, the best way to determine whether you’re in a polyam relationship or an open relationship is to talk.

    All fifty states and territories currently have laws against legally marrying multiple people. While it’s not prosecuted at the federal level, it’s considered “against public policy” to obtain more than one marriage license. In some jurisdictions, a person can be convicted of a felony for this offense.

    In many Polygamous relationships, couples will aim to circumvent the laws by having one “primary” partner that they will legally marry and having “spiritual” partnerships with the other partners.

    In the case of Polyamory, it is technically legal to have multiple partners as long as you don’t intend to marry more than one legally.

    Source: Pexels

    Polyamory and dating – Things to keep in mind

    Communication, much like in monogamous relationships, is the name of the game. You’ll likely find more success in polyamorous relationships if you are willing and able to be honest and vulnerable. That can be a tall order, we know. But it’s much more sustainable than harboring resentment or hurt feelings. 

    It’s also worth discussing what a non-monogamous relationship ideally looks like for you and your partner(s). Whether it’s ethical non-monogamy, polyamory, polygamy, or casual hookups, you want to be clear about things like cheating, for example. What does cheating look like for you and your partner? Is it possible to cheat at all in your specific relationship?

    I’ve also heard from peers of mine saying something along the lines of “I could never do polyamory; I’m too jealous!” But the truth is: Polyamorous people are not immune to jealousy! In fact, it’s a pretty natural part of the process of dating multiple people. Usually, talking it out can lead to exciting and fun discoveries about how to please your partner in romantic and sexual ways. As I said, communication is the name of the game! 

    Psychologists have extensively studied what makes a happy relationship last a lifetime. Esther Perel, a world-renown psychologist who has studied romantic couples for decades, talks extensively about how the common denominator in happy long-lasting relationships is novelty. This isn’t to say you can’t find novelty in a monogamous relationship, but polyamory allows more flexibility to find new experiences and fresh perspectives outside one specific relationship. 

    If you’re exploring polyamory, you might also discover joy from the novelty of seeing your partner(s) explore other relationships. Compersion is a word that perfectly encapsulates the concept of actually feeling joy for your partner finding love somewhere else. It’s much less talked about than jealousy, and is a wonderful novel emotion when you experience it for the first time.

    Polyamorous partners can evolve together and apart while communicating their needs and acknowledging each other’s growth, which can be a beautiful thing to witness. 

    Relationships are allowed to transform and shift from one to another. It’s okay to go from monogamy to opening your relationship and ultimately deciding to go with polyamory. It’s also totally fine to go the other way from polyamory back to monogamy. 

    Love comes in all shapes and sizes, and non-monogamous relationship systems like open relationships, ethical non-monogamy, polygamy, polyamory are no exception 🙂 

    It’s important to approach these topics when it comes to polyamorous vs. polygamy relationships with an understanding of cultural differences but also call out sexist, patriarchal, and non-consensual practices when we see them. 

    Looking for a polyamorous relationship?

    HER provides a very diverse community of people who may be interested in a polyamorous relationship. Meet an open-minded community of amazing individuals through events, communities, and more!

    Robyn Exton

    Robyn is the CEO & Founder of HER. Find her on Twitter.

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