Monogamy? Polyamory? What Are the Different Relationship Styles, and What Do They Mean?

There are as many different ways to have relationships as there are people, and sometimes it can be hard to figure out what someone is talking about. Solo poly with two partners? In a closed throuple? What about an open relationship? Mostly monogamous? Do people still swing? What does it all mean?

While there are a ton of different relationship styles, they largely fall under three umbrellas. Here’s what it means to be monogamous, consensually non-monogamous, and non-consensually non-monogamous.

What Is Monogamy?

Monogamy is a relationship style where the people in the relationship agree to not engage in sexual and romantic relationships outside of each other. Traditionally, it involves only two people. The fact that monogamy has long been considered the default, if not the only, legitimate relationship style is known as compulsory monogamy.

But within monogamy, everyone has a slightly different idea of what the rules are. The answers to whether or not partners can flirt outside the relationship, watch porn, or even talk about how hot you both think the barista is can seem like an obvious yes to some folks, and a just-as-obvious no to others. Where monogamy begins is also up for discussion, with opinions varying on whether it’s after the first few dates, after having a conversation around the nature of the relationship, or after taking a step towards committed partnership as just a few of the possibilities. Many people in monogamous relationships often think that simply deciding to enter the relationship is where the work to define it begins and ends – but just as with any other relationship type, it’s important to discuss expectations.

There are also relationships that are, to borrow Dan Savage’s term, monogamish. These look and operate a lot like monogamy, but with occasional circumstantial exceptions. For instance, monogamish partners might agree to be romantically and sexually monogamous, but leave room for one-night stands on business trips as long as you talk about them, or online-only flirtation with strangers who live in other cities, a list of folks with whom either could sleep if the opportunity arose, or special-occasion threesomes.

What Is Consensual Non-monogamy?

Consensual non-monogamy is the umbrella that covers relationships where everyone involved agrees that the people involved can seek some combination of sexual and/or romantic relationships outside of the one-on-one relationship. Again, definitions vary wildly, but here are a few styles of consensual non-monogamous relationships:

Open relationships often involve a main partnership that gets priority, with each person free to pursue sexual, but not usually romantic, relationships outside of the partnership. But “open relationship” can also be a catch-all for many types of poly relationships, depending on who you ask.

Polyamory often involves being or the potential to be in multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships at the same time. Polyamory can involve a wide range of interactions, commitments, and approaches. For example, solo poly people consider their most important relationship to be with themselves, and relationships with others as important but not something to make big life decisions around. People with primary partnerships often have a co-habitation or marriage-like relationship, and assign any other relationships a little less significance. Others practice non-hierarchical polyamory, which can look like not giving any one relationship more weight than any other. Practices in relationship anarchy encompass a wide range, but are often founded on non-possession and honoring each connection as it comes. Polyfidelity is where multiple people are in a committed, exclusive relationship with each other, such as in a throuple where the three partners only date and have sex with others in the throuple.

Though it might sound surprising given the range of options, sometimes people in consensually non-monogamous relationships mistakenly make the same assumptions that those in monogamous relationships do, namely that agreement on what words to use for relating to each other is the end of the conversation, not the beginning.

What Is Non-consensual Non-monogamy?

Non-consensual non-monogamy is also known as cheating, and believe it or not it can happen in non-monogamous relationships as well as monogamous ones. Regardless of the nature of the consensual relationships, non-consensual non-monogamy involves engaging romantically and/or sexually with one or more people without existing partners’ agreement or knowledge.

To folks familiar with traditional monogamy, any sex or romance with someone who isn’t one partner can look like cheating. But it’s important to remember that cheating is possible in poly relationships, too. Lying about actions or feelings, or breaking relationship agreements, is possible no matter the relationship type.

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