As the 21st century unravels, non-monogamous relationships will become less and less stigmatized. This is a great achievement in sexual and romantic freedom. There are so many people who have monogamous urges and who are not wired monogamously who can now be free to express their desires. It is no wonder so many who are capable of now expressing these desires freely report such high rates of relationship happiness.
However, despite this greater amount of sexual and romantic freedom, there is still a great amount of confusion surrounding non-monogamy. One of the greatest misconceptions is that all non-monogamy consists of is an excuse to have sex with whoever you want. This misconception is very untrue and is almost entirely attributable to a misunderstanding of terminology.
The two most common terms that most people know in the non-monogamous nomenclature are open-relationships and polyamory. And the biggest misconceptions surrounding non-monogamy are misunderstandings of these two terms. Namely, this misunderstanding is treating these two terms as if they are interchangeable synonyms, the definition of which is, “the ability to have as many sexual partners as possible with no strings attached.”
Both the utilization of these terms as interchangeable synonyms and the above-mentioned definition is false. To understand non-monogamy better, it is crucial to understand the ideas behind open relationships and polyamory and their important differences.
What are open relationships?
An open relationship is a relationship where you and your primary partner have an agreement that you can have other sexual partners. These outside sexual partners are usually referred to as secondary partners. The idea behind open relationships is that you are in a committed romantic relationship with your primary partner and only with your primary partner. Your secondary partners are only sexual partners. These secondary partners are not people who you have a committed romantic relationship with. Indeed, within the context of open relationships, becoming emotionally involved with a secondary partner can be seen as a form of infidelity against a primary partner. In essence, open relationships are an option for couples who are looking for greater sexual variety in their lives, not greater romantic variety. Some in open relationships keep their sexual adventures with secondary partners wholly apart from their primary partners, while others include their primary partners.
What is polyamory
Polyamory is quite different from an open relationship. Where in an open relationship multiple romantic commitments are off the table, in polyamory it is the main event. Within the context of a polyamorous relationship, you can have multiple romantic partners who you are committed to. Likewise, these partners are also people you can have sex with. Hence, it is usually not the case that the terms “primary and secondary partners” are used in the context of polyamorous relationships --even if such a hierarchy does exist. Likewise, there is such a thing as a closed polyamorous relationship. A closed polyamorous relationship is open in the sense that more than two people are involved, but it is closed in the sense that only a select group of people are allowed to participate. Anyone outside of this group is excluded. Usually, in polyamory, there is a lot more sharing of partners involved than in open relationships.
Open relationships and polyamorous relationships do have some important similarities with one another. For instance, neither open relationships nor polyamory are what the uninformed call a “free-for-all.” That is, you can’t just have sex and relationships with whoever you want to in these non-monogamous relationships. Rather, everyone must consent to who is involved in these relationships. To give an example, if you have a primary partner and that partner doesn't approve of a certain secondary partner, sleeping with or becoming emotionally involved with that person is something that is off the table; and if you decide to get involved with this person anyway, your primary partner has every right to leave you on the grounds of infidelity or boundary-crossing. Such boundaries include the decision whether or not you would like to include your primary partner in activities such as sex and romance with your secondary partners. Fundamentally, this will all boil down to honest conversations about your feelings with everyone involved.
Another similarity is that, well… you get to see other people! This is really the crux of all of the misconceptions behind people conflating the terms “open relationship” and “polyamory.” Hopefully, after reading this, these misconceptions have been made more apparent and will contribute to greater accuracy in discussions surrounding non-monogamy.