Expert Insights

Polyamory: A Primer on Sharing a Partner

Highlight reel (TL;DR)

  • Polyamory is a form of non-monogamy that involves having multiple intimate relationships.
  • Talking with your partner(s) about any rules or agreements is essential.
  • A challenging but worthwhile and necessary skill for thriving polyamorous relationships is the ability to set boundaries.

As a sex and relationship therapist, people often come to me when considering non-monogamous arrangements such as polyamory. Occasionally I see people who have well-established polyamorous relationships. More often, though, the people who reach out to me are in long-term monogamous relationships and starting to explore non-monogamy but have hit some roadblocks.

My colleague Joli Hamilton, a sex educator and relationship coach for “couples who color outside the lines,” helps people create what she calls “designer relationships.” She says that starting a polyamory journey can feel a lot like skydiving. The people who experience the smoothest journey have taken time to prepare, properly set up their parachutes, and anticipate emergency landings. The people rushing to jump out of the plane might be in for a bumpy ride.

Maybe you’ve landed on this page because you’re hoping to spark a discussion on polyamory with your partner, or maybe you’ve already been approached by your partner about it and want to learn more. 

If you’re curious about polyamory, read on to find out what it is, the rules to consider, and tips for setting yourself up for success. 

What is polyamory? 

Polyamory is a combination of Greek and Latin words meaning many loves. To be polyamorous or poly is to practice a relationship style where the people involved are open to forming multiple sexual, romantic, or intimate bonds with others. 

The word polycule refers to the group of people in a polyamorous relationship.

Types of polyamory

There are several ways to practice this relationship style, including hierarchical and non-hierarchical polyamory. 

People in a hierarchical polyamorous relationship often have a primary partner, followed by secondary partners they sleep with or date. These secondary relationships often involve less commitment and privilege. Someone practicing non-hierarchical polyamory may be in multiple equal partnerships.

However, some poly people don’t believe in labeling. People might call this relationship style relationship anarchy.

A polycule can be open or closed (or polyfidelitous) to additional connections. You also don’t need to be in a relationship to call yourself polyamorous. 

Additionally, people who view polyamory as a sexual orientation or identity—similar to identifying as queer or straight—may be solo poly. This might involve being single or having partners and continuing to live a single lifestyle. If you’re solo poly, you might avoid sharing finances, having kids, or moving in with a partner.

Polygamy vs. polyamory 

When we’re talking polyamory, we’re not talking Sister Wives. But purely based on spelling, I guess I can’t blame people for mixing them up. 

It’s important to differentiate the two, though. Polygamy refers specifically to a man with many wives. Polyamory, on the other hand, refers to love multiplied or a relationship including more than one partner.

Is polyamory an open relationship? 

Okay, stay with me for a moment. Non-monogamy is the umbrella term under which a variety of terms fall. Both polyamorous and open relationships are non-monogamous. But, while polyamory can be a relationship style or identity, an open relationship is only a relationship style. 

To be open requires already being in a relationship. Open relationships are often hierarchical and involve a primary partner. Openness refers to additional sexual connections who are either casual hookups or secondary partners. 

Some people connect with the term monogamish to describe their form of non-monogamy. This means they primarily consider themselves in a relationship with only one partner but have areas that might go against typical expectations of fidelity. For example, the couple may agree that it is okay to sext, have a dance floor make out, or sleep with someone while on vacation.

Polyamory rules to consider 

It’s important to note that many people who are polyamorous don’t like the term “rules,” especially people who identify as relationship anarchists. 

Instead, some prefer discussing relationship agreements, values, or consistent open communication practices. 

In my experience, the couples I work with who are open to setting expectations and preparing before opening their relationship have the most success. It’s vital to have enthusiastic and informed consent from your partner(s) when considering any relationship structure.

Consider the following:

  • How do you want to tackle scheduling for things like time spent together, apart, and with other partners?
  • Will you take a hierarchical or non-hierarchical approach?
  • How much do you want to know about what your partner is doing, and how much would you like to share?
  • Where do you stand on being able to veto each other’s partner choices?
  • What are your safer sex boundaries? Consider the frequency of STI testing, condom use, and birth control.
  • Who’s responsible for caretaking if you’re responsible for children, pets, or aging parents?

Tips for establishing boundaries 

In its most basic form, a boundary describes what’s okay and what’s not okay. Don’t let the simplicity of this concept fool you—setting boundaries is hard. 

In my practice, I also see people jump to setting strict relationship rules in a moment of discomfort to try and create more certainty and control over a situation.

When discussing boundaries with your partner(s), stay on your side of the court. Reflect on your needs and no-go zones. You can’t control someone else. Only you can articulate your limits. 

Consider the following questions to ensure you’re setting boundaries that meet your parameters for a fulfilling relationship:

  • What values of mine am I enacting through these agreements?
  • What do I avoid discussing with my partner(s) that feels important?
  • What assumptions do I have about what polyamory will look like for me? 
  • What do I consider to be sex? 

The final word

As you consider whether or not polyamory is right for you, you may experience a mixture of nerves, fear, excitement, or even a sense of urgency to get started already

I recommend striking a balance between preparation and flexibility. I often talk with my clients about how starting a polyamorous relationship is similar to becoming a parent for the first time. You can read all of the baby books, go to classes, and paint the nursery, but there will always be surprises.

Leave room for the unexpected, ongoing conversations and the understanding that your boundaries and relationship rules will need to grow and change alongside your relationship(s).

If you want to learn more, check out my book designed for non-monogamous newbies: Thriving in Non-Monogamy An Ethical Slut’s Guide: Overcome Jealousy, Enjoy Sex, and Honor Yourself.

Erin Davidson, MA, RCC, CST
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Erin Davidson (she/her) is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Certified Sex Therapist working in private practice in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is a firm believer in the healing power of pleasure and being kinder to ourselves. Erin is the author of two books Break Through the Breakup and Thriving in Non-Monogamy. She is most proud of her new fluffball Marv who recently graduated top of his class in puppy preschool.