What Is Polyamory?

Being in multiple romantic or sexual relationships at once

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Monogamy, having only one sexual or romantic partner, is a long-standing tradition in relationships and marriage. In contrast, polyamory is a practice or desire for more than one romantic, emotional, or sexual partner, with the full knowledge and agreement of all the partners involved. It is known under the umbrella term consensual non-monogamy (CNM), and is distinguished from the practice of open relationships and swinging. According to a 2014 study, 4-5% of participants said they were currently in a CNM relationship, and 20% of single Americans have been in a "poly" (for short) relationship at some point in their lives.

people in bed

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Meaning of Polyamory

“Poly” is the Greek term that means “many,” and "amor" is the Latin root word that means "love”... "many loves." Some CNM people have a primary relationship and engage in causal sexual hookups with others, as in "open" relationships. In polyamorous relationships, partners may begin additional committed, romantic relationships with the consent of their primary partner. Partners in a polyamorous relationship usually agree on a set of conditions like date times and the type of intimacy allowed. Every partnership will have a different set of agreements and understandings. The most important aspect is consent.

Primary vs. Secondary Partners

"Primary" and "secondary" are words used by some polyamorous people to describe the level of importance and commitment of their different partners. A primary partner is the person at the top of the polyamorous structure. People don't always live with their primary partner. A secondary partner or partners are someone who exist outside of your relationship with your primary partner. This may not be someone you live with, but you are emotionally committed to them. 

Relationships with a primary partner and secondary partner can be referred to as a primary relationship and secondary relationship, respectively. Some prefer to use the term "nesting partner" to describe a live-in partner who they share a high level of commitment with. However, a nesting partner is not necessarily a primary partner.

It's important to note that some polyamorous people consider words like "primary" and "secondary" (even "tertiary" and beyond) to be hierarchical and demeaning and not everyone uses them. Some polyamorous individuals prefer equality among partners.

While all poly partnerships differ, people who engage in polyamory believe that monogamy is confining and constrictive. Instead of following society's ideas of loving only one person, polyamorists embrace loving multiple people at the same time. 

Polyamory is on the rise: A poll of 1,300 Americans in 2020 found that millennials are less likely to want a monogamous relationship than older generations. Approximately 43% of millennials stated that some degree of non-monogamy would be ideal for them compared to 25% of baby boomers. In the span of five years, the percentage of adults (overall) who want strictly monogamous relationships decreased from 61% to 56%, and only 43% of millennials said monogamy is their ideal relationship. This demonstrated that the number of people who prefer some type of CNM relationship are rising and that Americans are becoming more accepting of the idea of non-monogamy.


Non-monogamy can be traced back to B.C.E times. For instance, the practice of polygamy was fairly common - where one man had several wives, usually for the purpose of procreation. The wealthy elite often had concubines, who were seen as additional sexual partners, but did not have the status of wives. In many cultures today, the practice of polygamy is still legal, but practiced far less than monogamy.

In the United States, non-monogamous relationships have been resurrected in various American religious sects that allowed plural marriage situations. John Humphrey Noyes founded the Oneida community in 1848, where each man was married to each woman in the group, known as a complex marriage, because each person in the community was meant to be treated equally.

In 1862, Frances Wright started Nashoba, which was a free-love community where Black people and White people were brought together to work and make love with one another. At the same time, Shakers were entirely celibate while Mormons had adopted polygamy as a core doctrine. Eventually, many of these small groups fizzled out, but several remained popular and spread to other parts of the world.

By the 20th century, the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s exploded alongside the feminist movement, the FDA approval of birth control, increased affirmation of the LGBTQ community, and anarchy against the mainstream culture. Polygamy is now illegal in the U.S. while the free love movement and polyamory continues to evolve.

The invention of the internet created a more open environment for polyamory. News, information, and data were available to people who had never heard of the term before, allowing this practice to make its way into mainstream media and the general public. There are now hundreds of polyamorous websites and online communities for those who are interested.

Polyamory Is Not the Same as Polygamy

Polygamy refers to being married to multiple people at the same time, and specifically involves marriage. Polyamory may be practiced by people who are married or people who are not. People engaging in a polyamorous relationship does not necessarily have to marry their secondary partner either.

Polyamory is sometimes also confused with the swinging lifestyle, where people have casual sex with other couples. These types of lifestyles fall under the non-monogamous lifestyle umbrella, but are not the same as polyamory.

How Does Polyamory Work?

Poly relationships may all look different, but they all require honest communication and trust. 

Some people may want their partner to come home to their bed every evening, while others are okay with spending a week apart. Others may want to know (and possibly even date) their partner’s secondary partner, while others may not want to know any details. Often the biggest challenge for polyamorous people is to find a partner who will honor the same ground rules in the relationship.

Establishing boundaries is key in polyamory. People who are interested in polyamory should ask themselves the following questions:

  • How often can you or your primary partner spend time with your secondary partners?
  • Are you interested in knowing your primary partner’s secondary partner?
  • What will your schedules look like? Holidays? Birthdays? What will these events look like now that other partners are involved?
  • Do you want to be open with your friends and family about polyamory?
  • What are some things that are not okay in a polyamorous partnership?
  • What type of safe sex are you and your partners practicing?

Expressing feelings and needs is essential to maintaining a polyamorous relationship. Some people who are in a monogamous relationship can successfully transition their partnership to a polyamorous one, but it all comes down to whether their interest in this arrangement is sincere and both partners are open to change. This process will require small steps, constant communication, and the willingness to admit when the relationship is not working out.


There is a misconception that polyamorists are promiscuous or can’t commit to a partnership, leading to stigmatization of polyamory.

People who come out to friends, family, or coworkers as polyamorous face stigmatization due to their loved ones' misunderstanding of the term. Also, monogamy is more accepted in society. People who practice monogamy find their type of relationship superior to folks who practice polyamory.

The stigma is often rooted in judgment and confusion. Because polyamory still flies under the radar of relationship practices, the public just doesn’t know enough about it. What’s viewed as different is often misunderstood and criticized.

What Is an Open Relationship?

This type of relationship is primarily sexual. An open relationship may have a set of rules or guidelines similar to those in polyamory. Trust, consensuality, and sexual freedom make up an open relationship. An open relationship is often confused with polyamory, and some people may use the terms interchangeably. Polyamory, which is often driven by love and emotional connection, and an open relationship are not the same thing, even though they are both lifestyles that fit under the non-monogamous umbrella.

A Word From Verywell

Everyone expresses love in different ways. Polyamory is a lifestyle choice that rejects the idea that human beings are meant to have one partner for their entire life. It can be a wonderful exploration of love, commitment, and trust, and can be explored later on in a relationship as long as both people agree. It may not suit everyone, but it is an option.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By S. Nicole Lane
S. Nicole Lane is a freelance health journalist focusing on sexual health and LGBTQ wellness. She is also the editorial associate for the Chicago Reader.