Polygamy vs Polyamory: What’s the Difference?

What are some common misconceptions about polyamory?
on January 22, 2024
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

Relationship dynamics aren’t always clear-cut, and there are a lot of misconceptions about certain types of relationships — particularly the difference between polyamory and polygamy. 

While the terms may sound similar, and 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.

To understand these different kinds of partnerships, we spoke to Rhian Kivits, a sex and relationship therapist to define these relationship dynamics, and the legality surrounding these issues. 

Key Takeaways
  • Polygamy involves having more than one spouse and is illegal in most Western countries, but it is practiced legally in various cultures and religions. Polyamory, or ethical non-monogamy, involves having multiple romantic or sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all involved, without the legal aspect of marriage.
  • Polygamy's legality varies globally, being legal in some countries and religions but illegal in most Western nations, including the U.S. and U.K. Polyamory, while involving multiple partners, doesn't include group marriage, making it distinct from polygamy in legal terms.
  • Polyamory is gradually becoming more recognized and understood in modern society, despite facing significant stigma. Polygamy, while accepted in certain cultures, is generally less socially acceptable in Western societies due to legal and ethical concerns.

What is the difference between polygamy and polyamory? 

Even though they both involve multiple partners, there are many differences between polygamy and polyamory — most of which revolve around legality concerning group marriages or ‘plural marriage’. 

When you’re entering into any relationship, it’s important to discuss your preferred relationship dynamic with your new partner. This is especially relevant if you’re interested in pursuing an open relationship, or a dynamic that involves multiple partners. 

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. 

For example, in some countries, such as the Middle East, this practice continues among certain Muslim cultures. It also used to be common among fundamentalist Mormons, who are commonly featured in popular reality shows such as Big Love or Sister Wives. 

What does polyamory mean?

Polyamory is a form of non-monogamous relationship where individuals are open to having more than one romantic or sexual relationship at a time, with the knowledge and consent of all parties involved.

Polyamory is based on the idea that one can love multiple people simultaneously and that such relationships can be conducted ethically and openly. While these relationships can thrive with open communication and honesty, it does not involve a group marriage dynamic. 

Key differences between polyamory and polygamy

Structure: Polyamory Involves having multiple romantic or sexual relationships with the consent and knowledge of everyone involved. Polygamy on the other hand refers to being married to more than one person at the same time. It is often structured around religious or cultural practices.
Consent: Polyamory emphasizes the importance of consent and open communication among all partners, while the role of consent in polygamy can vary depending on cultural contexts and individual practices.
Legal recognition: Polyamory is generally not legally recognized or regulated, focusing more on personal relationships rather than legal status. However, polygamy can be legally recognized in certain locations — even though it’s usually illegal.
Relationship dynamics: Polyamory focuses on the possibility of multiple love or romantic relationships, with various forms and dynamics. On the other hand, polygamy is focused on multiple marriages without necessarily emphasizing the romantic aspect of these relationships.
Public perception: While polygamy is not considered socially acceptable, polyamory is becoming more recognized and understood in modern society — even though it still receives significant stigma.

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

No, polyamory is considered more acceptable than polygamy, due to the legality surrounding these relationship dynamics.

Generally speaking, relationships that differ from the traditional structure of monogamy often face a lot of public scrutiny. However, 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.

Although they are both a form of consensual non-monogamy, polyamorous relationships differ from 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.

Why is polygamy illegal but not polyamory?

Polygamy is illegal as it involves multiple marriages, while polyamory does not include any form of group or plural marriage — even though multiple partners are involved. 

In the U.S., polygamous marriages are illegal under federal law, under the Edmunds Act of 1882. Therefore, while 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • 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.
  • 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 she would be referred to as polyandry. Although 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.
  • 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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