The Difference Between An Open Relationship and Polyamory

Many of the things we learn about love and relationships comes from people we know as well as the characters on television. When consensual nonmonogamy was finally allowed to air on popular TV shows like Broad City it led to more conversations about polyamory, open relationships and consent.

Many people consider being polyamorous an integral part of their identity. It is not a term to describe multiple romantic or sexual partners. Aida Manduley MSW, sexuality educator and MSW says that polyamory is hard-wired into people’s love lives. People in open relationships don’t consider non-monogamy part of their identity, but rather a personal preference.

Each person’s definition of polyamory 101 or open relationships is unique. Terri Conley, PhD is an associate professor of psychology at Michigan who focuses on sexual behaviour and socialization. It’s most commonly used to describe all forms consensual nonmonogamy, such as polyamory, swinging and the more narrow definition of an open relationship. Open is used to refer to a relationship that has two partners who have granted each other permission to have sex outside their relationship.

Commitment is the key to any relationship. Connections made outside of a relationship with someone in an open relationship are often purely for sex. They aren’t looking to find another partner to love or to build a second relationship with and most likely wouldn’t recommend the people they have sex to their primary partner. This non-monogamy guide states that open relationships are more likely than those with a strict ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. This means that they won’t discuss details of the sex they have with anyone outside their primary relationship, except to ensure everyone is in good sexual hygiene.

However, polyamory literally means “many love” and it’s a useful definition. Poly people don’t just look for sex outside their primary relationship. They also seek love. Polyamory is not about one night stands without your partner’s consent. It’s about building deep emotional and romantic connections with multiple people and creating a close-knit community. Kate Stewart, a counsellor who coaches polyamorous couples, said that it’s more like a culture. She is very close to the poly community of Seattle where she lives. She says that everyone knows each other, and they have fun together. This closeness creates a different dynamic between their relationships than someone who is in an open relationship.

Why are these nit-picky differences so important between the two words? Because words are powerful in creating and finding community. Because we all begin to see ourselves through the images we see, it is important to accurately portray polyamory in television and other media. It’s unlikely that polyamorous couples will ever find the love of their dreams if there is no place for them to look.