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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.