What is polyamory and how does it work?

Chelsea Ritschel
·3-min read
This is what it means to be in a polyamorous relationship (Stock)
This is what it means to be in a polyamorous relationship (Stock)

[This article was first published in 2018]

People express love in different ways and no relationship is the same, which is why polyamory and the ability to have a relationship with more than one person has become an increasingly common topic of discussion.

However, although most people have heard the term polyamory, not everyone is clear on the meaning or the logistics of how these non-monogamous relationships work.

Polyamory, which is defined as loving more than one person, is often mistakenly considered the same as an open relationship - which is not always the case.

In reality, polyamorous relationships are unique in that they are comprised of multiple, loving partnerships.

What is a polyamorous relationship?

A polyamorous relationship is a type of non-monogamous relationship that differs from other relationships in that multiple people are involved - not just two.

According to New York City relationship expert and author Susan Winter, a polyamorous relationship is often “characterised by a primary couple that openly (and with mutual consent) engage with other romantic partners. These sexual liaisons may be enacted as a couple, or independently.”

However, even polyamorous relationships differ by couples.

Polyamorous relationships involve multiple partners (Stock)
Polyamorous relationships involve multiple partners (Stock)

For some people, a polyamorous relationship involves being in a relationship with multiple people, but having one main partner. For others, polyamory is the possibility of being in two completely separate relationships.

“The fundamental philosophy of polyamory is that sexual love shouldn’t be confined to the strictures of monogamy, but expressed freely and fully,” Winter told The Independent. “Another tenant of polyamory is that both individuals know of their partner’s lovers."

How does a polyamorous relationship work?

Because polyamorous relationships do not follow the mainstream societal construct of a relationship, the logistics are often cause for confusion to outsiders.

For a polyamorous relationship to be successful, everyone involved must be open and honest about what they want and need out of the union.

While the boundaries in polyamory are different from monogamous relationships, they do still exist - whether by defining who can enter into a relationship or putting limits on how much time can be spent with each.

Maintaining open communication is integral to a polyamorous relationship so that issues do not arise. However, jealousy can still manifest - even if you are open with your partner/partners.

Winter told us: “It’s hard enough to get a relationship right with just one partner. Imagine two or more? The more people involved, the more challenging the tides of emotional experience.

“On one hand, polyamory removes the secrecy and betrayal of trust that surrounds an affair,” she said. “On the other hand, managing compersion (finding joy from a loved one's pleasure in another) is the stumbling block that trips up most polygamists.”

“Polyamory can work if both individuals are completely emotionally and philosophically on board with the concept. Even so, it’s challenging to eradicate the insecurity that sparks jealousy,” Winter said.

How is polyamory different from an open relationship?

Often, polyamory is considered the same as an open relationship - however, that is not necessarily the case, although both are considered non-monogamous.

In polyamorous relationships, it is not completely about sex, whereas an open relationship is typically defined as having outside sexual relationships that do not form into relationships.

With polyamory, the point is to have multiple relationships - as love and emotional connections are the driving forces.

Who enters into a polyamorous relationship?

Anyone can become involved in a polyamorous relationship as long as the knowledge of what doing so entails is understood.

While polyamorous people do tend to be more open, it does not mean that they are automatically involved in sex with multiple people, or that their sexual preferences are fluid.

Actress Tilda Swinton has revealed her and her husband are polyamorous (Getty)
Actress Tilda Swinton has revealed her and her husband are polyamorous (Getty)

To enter into a polyamorous relationship, one must be open about their needs and wants.

Although polyamory means being loved or loving multiple people, “it takes supreme trust, communication and intentional clarity,” according to Winter.