Polyamory vs Open Relationships: What’s the Difference?

What’s the difference between open and polyamorous relationships?

Many people confuse open relationships with polyamory relationships. They may not know the standard definitions or they may have written their own rules. In each relationship, there is usually a primary couple, but it’s how they interact socially and sexually with others that vary between open and poly couples.

Are Open Relationships the Same as Polyamory

Yes and no. Both polyamory and open relationships are approaches or practices of non-monogamy.

Polyamory simply means “many lovers” and can be a broad umbrella of different kinds of relationships. But it has also imply a particular lifestyle complete with consensus and code.

There are lots of discussions, including heated arguments about this in person and online, because polyamory is a vast world of meanings and customs but polyamory as a lifestyle does imply certain adherences such as consent and increasingly, a rejection of non-normative values, including couples who have open relationships but focus emotionally on each other.

Open relationships are relationships where the “door is open” for one or both parties to enjoy “a little something on the side” or to date others. Polyamory means multiple romantic relationships at the same time or being open to that.

The very technical difference would be that when dating in an open relationship, new dates who are not looking for long-term commitments don’t need to know, necessarily, that you are attached. Another difference is that polyamory, especially non-hierarchical polyamory, means that everyone is equal and equally invested.

Hierarchical Polyamory vs Non-Hierarchical Polyamory

Differences Between Open Relationships and Polyamory

Here are some of the main differences between these two relationship types, though remember that each relationship is unique and not all of these may apply.

Open Relationships

  1. Primary couples agree that they are both allowed to have sex outside the relationship.
  2. Details of sexual encounters are often not to be discussed.
  3. Couples are not looking for love in outside relationships.
  4. Outside relationships are not usually long-term.
  5. Casual hookups sometimes occur with friends.
  6. Primaries don’t introduce their hookups to their partner.
  7. There is not always are primary couple but individuals that have many casual partners.

Poly Relationships

  1. Primary couples negotiate whether they want to date separately or together.
  2.  Couples talk about the feelings they have with thirds.
  3. Couples look for love with more than their primary.
  4. Partners seek long lasting deep relationships with others.
  5. Sex is not casual and meaningless.
  6. Primaries meet their partner’s lovers and form bonds with them as well.
  7. There is usually a primary with a deep meaningful relationship.

Polyamory vs Open Relationship: Does it Matter?

As polyamory has become more well-known in recent years, as well as open relationships and other forms of non-monogamy becoming more mainstream, certain misconceptions and misunderstandings of poly lifestyles have taken root. This is partially because there is no single definition that will describe the range of polyamorous relationships that exist in the world.

The conflation of open relationships with polyamory is not quite in keeping with the realities of true polyamorous relationships, particularly the notion that “polyamory” means a committed couple who has casual partners on the side for extra-curricular sexual activities.

In the open relationship or open-marriage model of non-monogamy there is the central and primary relationship, often legally-married with sanctioned side-relationships that are either strictly sexual. These additional relationships are usually significantly more casual, and expected to be treated as secondary relationships of the primary. Truth be told, there are many poly relationships that fit this model, regardless of the larger configuration, be it a vee, a triad, a quad or any other geometric configuration.

Some hard-line polyamorists might bristle at the notion of maintaining a primary relationship that supersedes their secondaries, a configuration which some polyamorists might dismiss as “swingers.” These poly people may insist on their ideologically-pure version of polyamory where “everyone is equal and is equally loved.” While appealing in the abstract, this often fails to take human nature into account.

Just as you might have a number of close friends with whom you share a special bond, there is no shame in having your favorites, and the same can be the case in poly relationships, as long as everyone knows the score and is treated equitably.

Polyamory is what you and your partners make of it, and many long-term triads, quads and the like start off casually and develop organically from there, with the members of the group feeling their way towards a stable equilibrium. While assumptions about hierarchical relationships might annoy the more politically correct polyamorists out there, remember: there’s no singe “right” way to organize your love life.

With openness and honesty you can build the relationship(s) that best suit your needs, labels be damned. It is up to you to define your relationships both to yourself and to the outside world. If you have a primary and secondary relationships or if you live in an everyone’s equal commune, neither is more valid, and neither is demonstrably “better” than another.

You may define your relationship differently from other poly or open couples. That’s okay, what matters most in both poly and open relationships is that primaries and individuals involved discuss and agree on how their relationship is defined.

How do you define your relationship?

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