Polygamy vs Polyamory: What’s the Difference?

An expert clears up some of the misconceptions about polyamory and polygamy in today’s society
Read time: 10 mins

They may sound similar, and while both polygamy and polyamory involve having more than one partner, that’s where the similarities for these types of romantic relationships end.

Polyamory is the act of having intimate, romantic, or sexual relationships with more than one person at the same time — also known as consensual non-monogamy (CNM) or ethical non-monogamy (ENM). Polygamy, on the other hand, means having more than one spouse, which is against the law in most countries.

Rhian Kivits, a sex and relationship therapist, explains polygamy vs polyamory and the common misconceptions about both relationship terms.

What is a polygamous relationship?

Polygamy means that a person has more than one spouse. 

Data shows that only about 2% of the global population lives in polygamous households as it is against the law in most Western countries (including the U.S. and the U.K.). However, it’s still a legal practice in many cultures, countries, and religions. 

What is the difference between polygamy and polyandry?

“Both polyandry and polygyny are forms of polygamy, but polyandry is where a woman has more than one husband and polygyny is where a man has more than one wife,” explains Kivits.

Although it’s not as common as polygamy in men, a woman can be a polygamist — and if she is married to more than one man and she would be referred to as polyandry. 

Even though this isn’t legal in the U.S. and would be known as bigamy, some countries do allow it. A select number of tribes in Nigeria allow women to have co-husbands, while other tribes in South America and Northern India also allow polyandry. 

Polygamy vs polyamory: Is polygamy more acceptable than polyamory in today's society?

Polyamory means that one or both partners agree to have sexual and/or intimate relationships with different partners. 

Although they are both a form of consensual non-monogamy, polyamorous relationships are different to open relationships, which is when one or more partners have a sexual relationship with someone who isn’t their primary partner. Therefore, while polyamorous people might have open relationships or be swingers, it isn’t the same thing. 

So, what is the difference between polygamy and polyamory? To clear up the confusion, Kivits explains polyamory is more acceptable as this type of relationship style doesn’t involve marriage. 

“This is considered more acceptable than polygamy, certainly in the U.S., where polygamy is not lawful,” she says. 

In the U.S., polygamous marriages are illegal under federal law, under the Edmunds Act of 1882. Therefore, you can arrange to have several romantic partners, you cannot marry more than one of them. 

“Marriage tends to be thought of as a monogamous commitment in today's society. Polyamory isn't associated with marriage per se, although some polyamorous people are married, and so society tends to understand this concept more easily than polygamy.”

What are some common misconceptions about polyamory?

Since polyamory is a very different relationship style to the common form we are used to — it can raise a lot of questions. 

Can polyamorous couples build long-lasting relationships? Do polyamorous couples have primary relationships or partners of any gender? Is polyamory just about open communication? 

Kivits takes us through some of the most common misconceptions when it comes to polyamory relationships:

  1. It's just about sex many polyamorous people will explain they value the diversity of their connections and the freedom polyamory offers them first and foremost. So while they may have multiple sexual partners, it is about much more than that. 
  2. Polyamory is kinky it feels natural to polyamorous people.
  3. Polyamory involves group sex or threesomes this is not always the case and depends upon the relationship dynamics involved.
  4. Polyamory causes problems like jealousy — while this can be a problem, not all polyamorous people feel jealous, and many practice a stance of non-attachment. One study found that those in CNM relationships not only had high levels of trust but also low levels of jealousy.
  5. Polyamory is cheating — cheating isn't polyamory, cheating is cheating. Polyamorous people have their relationships in an open, transparent way. The non-monogamous relationships also tend to involve more communication, normally with a set of relationship rules. A  2017 study showed that they communicate with their partners on a higher level than in monogamous relationships.

Is polyamory the same as hypersexuality?

No, they’re two different things. Hypersexuality — also known as hypersexuality disorder or sexual addiction — is a “preoccupation with sex and usually involves compulsive sexual behavior, while polyamory is about love and relationships,” explains Kivits.

Of course, the two may cross over in some instances, however as most polyamorous relationships rely on high levels of communication and emotional intimacy it’s not as likely.

What is solo poly?

Some people in polyamorous relationships still want to keep their independence and single status — which is known as solo polyamory, or solo poly. Unlike open relationships, someone who is solo poly will still be in a loving relationship with two or more partners, but it will involve an emotional connection, as well as an intimate relationship. The key difference is that someone who is practicing solo polyamory won’t have a primary or anchor partner. 

Are there any health consequences of polyamory?

It’s a common misconception that people in polyamorous relationships are at greater risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but the fact of the matter is that all sexually active people need to look after their sexual health, regardless of what type of relationship they’re in. “This means using condoms to have safe sex and reduce the risk of STIs and to be aware of the risk of pregnancy,” says Kivits. 

People in polyamorous relationships typically have strong communication skills and establish clear boundaries to ensure healthy sexual practices. Given the open nature of these relationships, assumptions are avoided and all parties involved prioritize honest conversation to maintain a satisfying relationship, thus potentially reducing STI risk overall.

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