A small but growing number of people are discovering—and proving—that monogamy as our culture understands it is not the only way to be happy in successful relationships. It’s just one of many.
An estimated 17.5 million people in the United States practice polyamory and other forms of consensual non-monogamy (CNM)—and fully 20% of Americans say they’ve practiced it at some point.
Less and less taboo with each generation, about 1 in 6 Americans now consider CNM to be an acceptable relationship style—whether or not they choose it for their own life.
And how many of those who still think it’s “not acceptable” simply have a distorted or uninformed image of what consensual non-monogamy really means?
Whatever the reason, the answer of course, is more education more widely available.
Ready? Put on your learning hat. Let’s go for a ride through some important terms and concepts to think about as you deepen your understanding of what’s possible in alternative relationship dynamics.
Try not to get too caught up in any specific terms and definitions—a lot of this vocabulary is still relatively new…and everyone brings their own ideas of what things mean anyway.
The important thing is communication. Open, honest, earnest, empathetic, and ongoing. Talk about what you expect and what you can offer. Discuss boundaries and ideas. Never ever just assume you and your partner(s) are on the same page.
Need help communicating? Try my fun DIY relationship communication guide.
Consensual non-monogamy vs ethical non-monogamy
So many terms—so many different meanings! Let’s start with the basics and zoom in from there.
Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is an umbrella term that encompasses many alternative relationship types. Partners practicing CNM have discussed situations and agreements allowing for sexual and/or romantic interactions with other people.
Ethical non-monogamy (ENM) is often used interchangeably with CNM—but because of nuanced differences in meaning, it’s considered somewhat outdated.
Why? Because the term ethical indicates behaving according to a set of value-based principles—which could be interpreted on an individual, internal basis. It doesn’t indicate agreement or communication.
Whereas the term consensual invites each partner’s perspective into the mindset from the start. It frames the concept itself around empathy and consent—two key elements to making non-monogamy work.
Open relationship is another pretty general term that often—but not always—indicates a committed primary partnership where extradyadic sexual encounters are okay, but forming deeper emotional bonds is discouraged.
Extradyadic: outside the two-person (dyad) partnership.
The term open relationship probably means something slightly different to each person who uses it—so again, clear communication is key.
For some people open relationship could indicate a general agreement based on not feeling confined. For others it could mean a set of guidelines about what is or isn’t acceptable outside the primary relationship. Or it could represent a temporary transition phase from monogamy into some form of polyamory.
An open relationship could also mean something like swinging, where couples play together with others at home or at parties, but may not see other people outside that activity.
What exactly is polyamory?
To get a real answer, you’d have to poll 17.5 million people. But usually the definition of polyamory indicates more than one ongoing relationship including elements of sex, romance, and/or emotional connection.
Within that idea there are innumerable different setups (sensing a theme here?) but below are a few common categories of polyam relationships that coaches and therapists see on a regular basis.
Different types of polyamory
Not to undercut myself here, but remember to absorb each of these polyamory definitions with a grain of salt. Each person will have their own nuanced view of what each term means—especially the ones they identify with. Consider these a starting point.
Primary/secondary is one of the most common expressions of polyamory. Certain partners are viewed as higher priority commitments, while other partners may weigh less in decision-making and emotional connection.
For some people primary is an exclusive title for just one partner—while for others it signifies more about the level of commitment and emotional connection; meaning it’s possible to have more than one partner you consider primary in your life.
One common polyam arrangement that might think along those lines is the triad (aka throuple) where three people all share romantic and/or sexual relationships with each other.
This term can also be extrapolated to quadrad or beyond—whatever form the poly pod chooses to take together. And the pod may be open or closed to other outside partners.
They may or may not be nesting partners who share living space and/or domestic expenses. And they may or may not practice some degree of hierarchy, especially when married partners welcome a third later in the relationship.
Not all polyamory practitioners have a pod, but all of them are part of a polycule—the group of people whose sexual and romantic relationships intersect to some degree, including partners and metamours (your partner’s partners).
For some that may look like a hinge (or V) relationship where their two or more partners are not sexually or romantically involved with each other. And having multiple V partnerships could constitute asterisk polyamory.
Both terms are related to parallel polyamory, where a person has multiple relationships existing independently of each other without much interaction between metamours.
In contrast, some polycules lean more toward kitchen table polyamory, where different partners and metamours interact as friends and/or family, whether or not they share romantic/sexual connections.
And within all that, different polyam relationships may follow primary/secondary structures—or they might practice different degrees of non-hierarchical polyamory, which can range from striving for equal consideration of all partners—all the way to relationship anarchy, which seeks to jettison all traditional labels, definitions, and assumptions, and instead set up each relationship according to its own discussed parameters.
Such freewheelers (and anyone else not operating on assumptions) might use a communication tool like the Relationship Smorgasbord to discuss boundaries and expectations around a multitude of specific aspects of the relationship.
On a slightly different tack is solo poly, where a person chooses to live an independent lifestyle—whether or not they’re in ongoing relationships—instead of letting their life get entwined with a partner’s.
Feeling polysaturated yet? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. In the therapy room, poly clients often tell me they feel overwhelmed with the flood of information and emotion stirred up by the lifestyle.
Which is where finding a poly-informed relationship coach who gets it can really help you navigate the trickier elements of practicing polyamory.
Polyam concepts with a potential dark side
The journey into consensual non-monogamy is full of challenges and obstacles. It can be incredibly rewarding and ripe with self discovery—but it can also take a lot of work to get there.
For one thing, from personal experience I can tell you that the emotions and insecurities related to polyamory can kick up past trauma in unexpected ways—especially the fear of abandonment and inadequacy.
But even for people without acute trauma there’s a lot to unlearn, both culturally and familially.
Not just about how relationships are structured and communicated—think about how jealousy is portrayed and practiced everywhere around you. It’s the number one reason for domestic homicide! And it’s something most of us are taught is just part of love.
Jealousy is far from absent in polyam relationships—to correct a common misconception—but for obvious reasons it’s generally handled differently than in monogamy.
For one thing, jealousy (or its lack) is not upheld as an indicator of love, like it is in most of our cultural narratives and expectations.
In polyamory, jealousy is taken for what it is—a complex emotion connected with several other emotions (like anger, anxiety, apprehension, desperation, defensiveness, despair)—which is sparked by the fear of losing something important we consider ours.
Success in consensual non-monogamy requires unlearning a lot of ingrained ideas about ownership and possessiveness in relationships—which is part of what gives rise to jealousy.
One penis policy (OPP) is an agreement made most often by monogamous heterosexual couples who are opening their relationship for the first time—perhaps when one partner comes out as bisexual and wants to explore that.
It might go something like: “If she gets to sleep with other women, I should get to as well. But no other men. That’s out of bounds. After all, I’m not sleeping with other men…”
OPP is an understandable attempt to avoid difficult feelings of jealousy and cultural disapproval. Our culture teaches straight monogamous men to dread the shame of cuckoldry and fight off would-be suitors at all costs.
So it’s understandable—but most poly-informed therapists caution against such agreements because of the toxic patriarchal implications and the enabling of possessive mindsets.
Equally important, OPP is a way of structurally avoiding jealousy instead of communicating and connecting about it.
Communicating jealousy in poly relationships
Some partners manage jealousy through some form of don't ask, don't tell polyamory where they agree not to share certain (or any) details about their other relationships.
Though it can help ease certain anxieties and might even be a good temporary fix for couples first opening their relationship, don’t ask don’t tell can too easily become another toxic form of avoidance that puts partners in the position of keeping secrets from each other, instead of facing up and talking through difficult emotions like jealousy…which sure sounds a lot like infidelity.
Take it from an experienced poly coach—it’s generally better to rip off the bandaid and face the pain head-on rather than waiting for it to fester. Plus sharing our struggles and difficulties helps our partners feel closer, more connected to our innermost self.
Everyone in a relationship could benefit from openly talking about jealousy—but poly partners in particular have to learn to discuss things like jealousy without it necessarily meaning a request for change in behavior. It’s just about expressing instead of bottling up (which is a sure ticket to explosion) and working through the discomfort together, with empathy.
Disempowering jealousy and unlearning possessiveness in relationships starts with differentiation—which in relationship therapy means upholding the sovereignty and individuality of each partner separate from the relationship itself.
Differentiation is built on empathy, clear boundaries, self-regulation, healthy coping skills, and of course communication.
It doesn’t mean caging emotions behind a grinning facade. It means sharing enough inner vulnerability so your partner can more deeply empathize and see each other’s individual experience as important and valuable, independent of your role in the relationship.
Poly partners with healthy differentiation and communication practices inspect jealousy for its component parts and origins. Why has this feeling come up? What are the specifics you’re worried about? What reassurances can I offer so you know you’re still important and special to me?
Sometimes just knowing our partner knows we’re struggling is enough to ease the emotional burden and remind us we’re not alone.
And sometimes learning more about a partner’s other partner can help build trust and soothe the anxiety of the unknown, relieving the weight of imagined threats and leaving room for self-regulation and healthy coping.
Believe it or not, once you get used to it, knowing your partner has been with someone else (and it’s not a betrayal) can juice your desire for them in a major way—according to multiple clients of mine who describe passionate romps with a partner just returned from a date.
Then beyond that is the ultimate expression of differentiation and empathy:
Compersion is something of a holy grail for polyam people—something to strive for and practice willfully until it feels true.
Sometimes defined as the “opposite of jealousy,” compersion is the positive emotion associated with a partner’s enjoyable experience with another.
It goes against every fiber of our cultural upbringing and calls for a lot of reframing and intention—but what an exciting feeling it is! Positively liberating.
And hey. The thing to remember in your eternal quest for compersion…is that you are a complex and nuanced creature capable of feeling both jealousy and compersion at the same time. It’s not a switch you throw. It’s a cognitive and emotional dance whose steps take time to learn.
Compersion starts with a mindset rooted in deep empathy. It’s the ongoing idea that you’re going to focus on the positives and find joy in the pleasure of someone you love—whether or not you’re the one causing it.
Read more about jealousy & compersion in polyamory.
More education and must-read books on polyamory/non-monogamy
There’s a lot to unlearn on the journey into consensual non-monogamy—but there’s also a lot to learn, some really cool exciting concepts to enhance the experience. The more you know, the better you can play.
Start with these books:
And these podcasts:
Or you can always reach out with any questions!