What Is Polyamory, And How Do Polyamorous Relationships Work?

In the 21st century, monogamy isn’t necessarily the norm anymore. While open relationships, swinging, and polyamory were once considered somewhat taboo topics, that’s a thing of the past. Today, it's not at all uncommon to see people enjoy different types of non-monogamous relationships. (See: celebs like Willow Smith, Bella Thorne, Kehlani, and Shailene Woodley.)

Now, you may be wondering… what’s the difference between polyamory, polygamy, and an open relationship? For starters, in polyamory, "all members of the relationship or relationships have the consent of their partners to engage with others, though they may choose to remain in only one relationship,” say Tamara Pincus, LCSW, certified sex therapist specializing in polyamorous and LGBTQIA+ clients and co-author of It's Called Polyamory: Coming Out About Your Non-Monogamous Relationships, and Rebecca Rose Vassy, sex, relationship, and body image educator. (BTW, you can still be polyamorous even if and when you’re not currently dating anyone!)

Polygamy, on the other hand, is a marriage between more than two people. It's “usually related to religion and is a male-dominated concept of the man having several wives,” says says Gin Love Thomson, PhD, a relationship expert and self-help memoirist. “Polyamory, on the other hand, is not gender-exclusive.” In the United States, the practice of multiple-wife polygamy is strongly associated with religions like Mormonism, Pincus and Vassy add. Currently, the practice is also illegal in the U.S.: the act of marrying multiple people at once is criminalized in every state, although people are legally allowed to have and even live with more than one non-marital partner.

Meanwhile, open relationships happen when members of a couple agree to have other, external relationships, which can look different depending on the situation. Sometimes, a couple may decide that each party can date other people, or they might just agree to have casual sex with others outside of their relationship. So, polyamory does fall under the open relationship umbrella, but the more technical term is ethical or consensual non-monogamy.