A lot of people confuse polyamorous relationships with open relationships, and although both fall under the category of consensual non-monogamy (CNM) or ethical non-monogamy (ENM), they’re fairly different. So, what is the difference between polyamory vs. open relationships?
In an open relationship, you’re free to have sex with other people but stay emotionally committed to only one primary partner. In a polyamorous relationship, you’re committed to loving multiple partners equally.
In a polyamorous relationship, all partners agree that they can have multiple romantic relationships with other people, as long as everybody is kept informed. These connections go beyond the physical, often involving deeper emotional relationships. This may work well for couples who feel they cannot be romantically tied to one person alone.
There are many subtle nuances to these types of relationships. Polyamorous people might fall into one or more of these categories:
Solo polyamory: this is based on the individual rather than any pre-existing relationship. These people treat everyone in their “polycule” (polyamorous group) equally, they don’t have a primary partner.
Polygamy: this Is the practice of having several spouses.
Open and closed polyamorous relationships: in open polyamorous relationships, the couples are happy to bring on new partners. In closed relationships, the group has stopped growing.
Polyamory lets partners explore their romantic connections with more than one person. They may feel less constricted or simply have a lot of love to give.
“It’s unrealistic that a partner can meet all our needs. For some people, polyamorous relationships provide a way to have needs met that otherwise go unmet in the relationship. This can be sexual, intimate, or companionate,” says Dr. Jacqui Gabb, a professor of sociology and intimacy at The Open University and Chief Relationships Officer at Paired.
“Polyamorous relationships can also be an exciting way to bring elements of sexual exploration that may not be possible in your couple partnership. For some, they can liven up what’s become stale in the relationship, rekindling the spark between partners. For others, multiple partners come together rather than fill an empty gap in the dyad. The unifying factor is that the arrangement is consensual. This is why poly relationships are also known as ethical nonmonogamy.”
With open communication and boundaries, there’s no reason why a polyamorous relationship can’t be as healthy and successful as a monogamous one.
Unlike polyamorous relationships, open relationships are less about the emotional connection and more about the physical.
“Open relationships usually begin with one or both partners desiring to pursue outside sexual connections, while still having a sexual and emotional connection with their spouse,” says Michelle Shivers, a licensed family and marriage therapist.
Open relationships rely heavily on setting boundaries and agreeing on what is or isn’t acceptable, or what counts as infidelity.
Again, all partners need to freely consent to the dynamics of an open relationship. They should also acknowledge the fact that this type of relationship may change, and so might the rule and boundaries.
There are many benefits to open relationships, particularly in the bedroom. Couples may feel they want to explore their sexual horizons, whether this is with a same-sex partner or simply a new consensual, sexual style.
Research shows that people in non-monogamous relationships engage in sex significantly more often to seek new experiences, boost their self-esteem, have a specific type of sex (such as anal, kink, or fetish), or experience the thrill of the forbidden.
Some couples may be happy with their emotional connection but for whatever reason no longer express their love sexually — whether because of a lack of physical attraction or mismatched sex drives. Opening up the relationship to other sexual partners can allow them to have their physical needs met.
No two relationship styles are the same, and what may work for you may not be best for somebody else. If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand times: consent, consent, consent. You both need to be on the same page if you’re going to explore these new types of intimate relationships.
Having more than one romantic partner is tricky business, particularly in a traditionally monogamous Western society. If you’ve only ever been exclusive, it might sound daunting to introduce another romantic partner. Before you even start to consider polyamory or open relationships, ask yourself:
Am I simply looking to expand my sexual partners or broaden my sexual relationships?
Am I looking for an emotional connection with a new partner?
It’s important for traditionally monogamous couples not to use these relationships as some kind of power play. Nobody is here to compete — it’s a mutual agreement, whether it’s casual sex or love. Before you start, be honest with each other and talk about your insecurities, boundaries, or desires.
Whether it’s simply to improve your sex life or reinvigorate your emotional intimacy, you have to keep each other informed. It’s also totally fine if you change your mind throughout the process. Perhaps you’ve discovered new sexual experiences you’re not comfortable with, or you find yourself getting jealous.
Open and polyamorous relationships are by no means the end of the road for you as a couple: far from it. Many couples thrive in healthy, open, and loving relationships because, like any traditional monogamous setup, they rely on communication.
You may even find that this promotes your own personal growth. Perhaps you’re polyamorous because your new partner has the same hobbies as you, but you still love your primary partner. Maybe you’re learning more about yourself in the sexual sphere.
Whatever you do, keep talking to your partners, both primary and secondary! Variety is the spice of life, so happy exploring.