Polygamy vs. Polyamory: What’s the Difference?

As a poly person, I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked me if I consider myself a sister wife. “Yes, my partner has a wife,” I explain, “but I’m polyamorous, not polygamous.” Usually I’m met with a blank stare, because a lot of people just assume they’re the same thing. Spoiler alert! They’re not.

Here are some of the major differences between polygamy and polyamory.

Polygamy Is…

Divided along Gender Lines

Polygamy can be divided into two subgroups: “polygeny” and “polyandry.” The former is what most of us envision when we think of polygamous relationships—a husband with multiple wives. Polyandry, on the other hand, refers to the practice of a wife having more than one husband.

What’s important to note is that polygamy is for heterosexuals only. And good luck if you’re one of multiple partners and you want to choose a new partner of your own to add to the mix. Either a man can have multiple wives or a wife can have multiple husbands, never both.

Often Religious in Nature

Most polygamous relationships are rooted in religious doctrine. For example, some Mormon sects believe that both God and Jesus had multiple wives, and that this is a solid way to get into Heaven. This explains why Mormons practice polygeny vs. polyandry.

Having multiple wives is also handy when you want to have lots of kids who will go on to follow the same religious footsteps as you and ultimately join you and your many wives in the sweet hereafter.

About Plural Marriage

Polygamy is all about tying the knot, which is why it has been deemed illegal in many parts of the world, and why lots of people feel particularly squirmy about it. These marriages are recognized by the church, not the state, and partners of each husband are often referred to as “sister wives.”

Perhaps you’ve seen the Netflix docuseries 3 Wives, One Husband. It provides a quick glimpse into plural marriage, though I’d be interested to hear how it stacks up against real-life polygamy, beyond the camera. Is it really so dramatic?

Polyamory Is…

Open to All Combinations of Gender and Sexual Orientation

Compared to polygamy, polyamory is much more freewheeling. You can have a girlfriend and a boyfriend, and your girlfriend or boyfriend can have girlfriends and boyfriends. Depending on the number of people you have in your polycule, things can get pretty complicated, but that’s fine.

There are no hard and fast rules about how to structure poly life. It’s all about having the freedom to live as you like with whomever you like, provided you’re not hurting anyone.

About Different Types of Intimate Relationships

Polyamory is not about marriage. Sure, some poly people might choose to have a commitment ceremony where they celebrate their love for one another, but they don’t consider this a legal contract and there are no religious connotations.

In fact, some poly people don’t want to be in committed relationships, or don’t feel the need to define things in such absolute ways. There’s lots of room in the poly lifestyle for different types of loving bonds, from romantic friendships to live-in sexual partners.

Self-Determined

Another defining feature of polyamory is that the rules are determined by none other than those involved, there’s no preordained path to poly bliss. This doesn’t mean that rules aren’t important, but rather that they exist as a result of multiple conversations wherein everyone is heard and given the chance to weigh in.

Polyamory is rooted in a much more democratic and liberal philosophy than polygamy. But when it comes down to it, happiness is happiness. As long as you find joy and love in your relationships and no one’s miserable, what’s the harm?

There is so much more to this topic than one blog post can allow. Please check out this article at Psychology Today if you’re still curious: What Is the Difference Between Polyamory and Polygamy?

If you don’t know the difference between polyamory and polygamy, it’s time you did. Poor polys; they are constantly having to explain the two to friends, families, and outsiders – fending off judgements from the monogamist crowd. Is the problem just because the two words sound the same? It probably doesn’t help.

Polygamists have garnered more of the spotlight when it comes to tv shows and the news, perhaps because polyamorists tend to live a quieter lifestyle that isn’t as recognizable. Some people say many loves, many spouses, what’s the difference. Let me explain:

Partners

Polyamory means many loves. Some of these loves marry and some do not. How polys engage with their various loves can vary: living together, dating only, long-distance relationships, co-parenting, triads, quads, and on and on… Marriage may involve primary partners with thirds and fourth partners, but the ideal of marriage is not a goal for many polys.

Polygamy means many marriages. This lifestyle could even be seen as a form of polyamory. The focus is on commitment to and marriages with multiple partners. This may also include a hierarchy of partners and various living arrangements.

Religion

Polyamory is not based in religion and does not aim for any religious or spiritual goals. Wanting to give and receive love with many others is usually the top reason for practicing polyamory, but as with any lifestyle choice there are always many personal reasons for following this path. Unfortunately, many religious groups don’t condone or understand polyamorists’ point of view.

Polygamy, although not connected by definition to religion, has (in the United States) become tied to fundamental Mormonism. Beliefs include that men who are married to many women will gain spiritual gain in the afterlife.

Roles

Polyamory functions with both men and women in egalitarian relationships. There can (like polygamy) be a one man with multiple female loves, but it’s all based on choice not because of expectation. And these poly groups can often shift over time. Some polys may be involved with a group of only their own gender. Any domination (male or female) comes from adding bdsm to the mix, not because of a predestined gender role.

Polygamy is dominated by men. Although the term “many spouses” is not gender specific, it does refer to many wives who are most often submissive, and not in the bdsm way. These women usually don’t get to choose or approve their partners (sister wives) or make big decisions like how many children they will be raising. And unlike polyamory, the women are not allowed to take on other partners.

Do you have experience in a polygamous or polyamorous relationship? Please share in the comments!

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