What's the difference between polygamist vs polyamorous relationships? Do the two words mean the same or vastly different concepts? As it turns out, the two terms have many significant differences. It's essential to clear all the misconceptions around them to understand the unique relationships they represent.
This article will cover the most critical differences between polygamy and polyamory, especially regarding their legality, morality, and levels of social acceptance. We'll also tackle the broader world of non-monogamy and its different subtypes.
Polygamist vs Polyamorous: The Important Differences
The words "polygamy" and "polyamory" are often used interchangeably in the popular press, but they have many significant differences. Here are the distinctions everyone needs to make about the two terms:
Is the institution of marriage involved?
As it turns out, polygamy and polyamory are not the same regarding marriage. In a polygamist relationship, the institute of marriage is present, with one or both partners having two or more spouses.
The clue is in the word itself. "Polygamy" is the combination of two words: the Greek "poly," for "many," and "gamos," which means "marriage." Polygamy is a marriage involving more than just two partners.
Meanwhile, marriage isn't involved in a polyamorous relationship. Instead, it's a simple romantic and/or sexual relationship between multiple partners, all following mutually agreed-upon rules and responsibilities.
Again the clue is in the word. "Polyamory" is the combination of the Greek "poly," for many," and the Latin "amor," meaning "love." Marriage isn't a factor in polyamory.
While polygamy and polyamory differ, they share the apparent common ground: multiple partners. And if you're a guy, that means you'd be dating multiple women—good luck!
Many people are entering polygamous and polyamorous relationships for various reasons. Later in this article, we'll discuss what it means to be in a non-monogamous relationship and the challenges involved.
For now, let's talk about the second distinction between polygamist vs polyamorous:
Is it legal in your country?
Regarding legality, polygamy can be legal or illegal, depending on the country it's practiced. The World Pop Review website has a great page on countries where polygamy is legal and whether it is acceptable only under certain conditions (such as the partners' religions).
As it turns out, polygamy is either completely legal, illegal but practiced, or allowed only under certain conditions. If you want to know whether it's safe to practice polygamy where you are, check if your country has laws against it.
To date, it seems less than half of the world's countries allow or tolerate people who practice polygamy. Also, it would seem only 2% of the world's population live in polygamous households, meaning the vast majority of people still prefer monogamous relationships.
So we know polygamy can be a touchy subject in many parts of the world. But what about polyamory? Is it also a taboo topic in most countries?
Fortunately, most countries have no laws banning dating multiple partners. There may be places where it's discouraged, but as it's not illegal, it can still be practiced.
And while polyamorous relationships are an overwhelming minority, it's still on the rise. And it's easy to see why.
The World of Dating Multiple Partners
If you're used to monogamous relationships being the "normal" kind of relationship, then the idea of polyamory may make you uneasy, and that's understandable. Despite the unease, its growing popularity means people are beginning to see its advantages:
The advantages and prevalence of polyamorous relationships
Polyamorous partners and their supporters cite their relationship models' advantages over the standard "one partner for life" model. Here are some of those advantages:
- More social interaction. If you find yourself loving more than one person at a time, and if they all consent to the lifestyle, then polyamory will be a much more satisfying choice for everyone concerned.
- More sexual satisfaction. According to polyamorists, one of the main drawbacks of monogamous relationships is sexual boredom. With multiple partners, there's much less chance of it becoming a problem.
- More support. This could be emotional, financial, and childcare support. Having a more extensive network—such as the one a polyamorous relationship gets you—means you'll get more help when needed.
Of course, as with everything else, non-monogamous relationships have pros and cons. We'll discuss the cons and challenges later in this article. For now, let's get familiar with the wide variety of polyamorous relationships out there…
The Different types of consensual non-monogamy
The prevalence of polyamorous relationships is difficult to accurately judge because, technically, "polyamory" is just one of the many subtypes. The proper umbrella term is "consensual non-monogamy" or "CNM." Here are some of the more common subtypes:
- Polygamy is when a man takes multiple women for his wives (polygyny) or when a woman takes multiple husbands (polyandry). Most of the world's polygamous relationships are of men taking multiple wives.
- Polyamory is when people can openly have more than one sexual or romantic relationship at the same time. Ideally, the relationship has the consent of everyone involved. An emerging variation of polyamory is "polyfidelity," where the relationship is closed to outside partners.
- Open relationships are relationships between a primary couple who are "open" to having sex with other partners. As such, many other subtypes of CNM relationships fall under this description. The most common form of open relationship is when a married or long-term couple takes on a new secondary partner (or partners).
- Group marriage is when several individuals marry each other. Compared to the other types of consensual non-monogamous relationships on this list, group marriage arrangements are relatively rare.
- Monogamish is a recently popularized kind of CNM where couples in monogamous relationships allow each other varying levels of freedom regarding sex with others. For instance, some monogamish couples may only allow one-night stands, while others may limit the amount of contact with outside partners.
- Swinging is one of the more recognized kinds of polyamory these days. Sometimes called "wife-swapping," swinging is when multiple committed couples exchange partners for sex. Thanks to the Internet, it's becoming increasingly prevalent worldwide.
- Relationship anarchy is difficult to define because it tries to defy conventional standards, focusing instead on doing away with any hierarchies in relationships. In relationship anarchy, romantic relationships are no more valuable than sex-only relationships and vice-versa. Likewise, love-based relationships are no more valuable than friendships. Relationship anarchy aims to define each relationship as unique and, therefore, free to make its own rules as it sees fit.
The growing number of consensual non-monogamy subtypes can make defining each type difficult. Still, they all share one condition: the relationship and its rules must be consensually agreed-upon by all partners involved.
For instance, if something is done without the consensus of others, it's considered cheating and a breach of trust. It will wholly depend on the rules set when the relationship starts.
And that brings us to the following important distinction to make:
Polygamy vs. bigamy
Polygamy is generally imagined as a marriage involving at least three people. The most basic example is a relationship where one person is married to two partners. This type of marriage is legal in many parts of the world.
Meanwhile, polygamy is sometimes confused with bigamy. This is when, for instance, an already-married man marries a woman who isn't aware he's already married. This type of marriage isn't legal, underscoring the importance of honesty and full disclosure in a CNM relationship.
The risks and responsibilities of polyamory
As tempting as the idea might be, being in a consensual non-monogamous relationship has drawbacks. Contrary to what some people may think, polyamorous relationships aren't free-for-all.
Here are some of the risks and responsibilities that being in a CNM relationship brings:
- Some forms of consensual non-monogamy are less accepted than polyamory. For instance, open relationships are considered less moral than other types of CNM relationships. Also, swingers are seen as being less responsible with each other. Being in a CNM relationship carries a stigma that's hard to shake once in the open.
- Full disclosure is required. Most types of consensual non-monogamy require their partners, to be honest, and upfront, to the point of divulging one's sexual partners to the others. This may be uncomfortable for those who value their privacy and independence.
- Expect some social confusion. While consensual non-monogamous relationships are becoming more and more commonplace, partners can still encounter some social confusion. For instance, introducing yourselves to strangers can be a challenge.
- You might encounter rejection, especially if your family and friends don't agree with the idea of non-monogamy. If you're used to being seen positively by others, living with the stigma can be a deal-breaker.
- It can lock you out of a popularity-based career. If your career success requires the approval of many people—such as in politics or leadership—then being in a polyamorous relationship might be detrimental to it. This is especially true in parts of the world where people are overwhelmingly monogamous.
- There's the ever-present risk of jealousy. No matter how well-structured and consensual your polyamorous relationship is, there's always a risk you or one of your partners won't take kindly to a new addition to the group. Also, as the relationship continues, feelings may grow to the point of wanting exclusivity and monogamy, throwing another wrench in the works.
- Time management can be a challenge. You'll need to manage your time and energy between your multiple partners. Also, when you get invited to an event and are asked to "bring your partner," which partner do you bring? This "pick one" dilemma tends to crop up at the most inconvenient times in a CNM relationship.
- If you're a woman, it can be less satisfying in the long run. Some studies have shown that women in polygynous relationships (where one man takes multiple wives) are more prone to anxiety, depression, and lower life satisfaction.
So, as exciting as the thought of having multiple partners might be, polyamory can be messy if you're not careful. Talking things over with your partners and setting mutually agreed-upon rules will make things go more smoothly.
Tips and Takeaways
This article just covered the differences between polygamist vs polyamorous relationships. While the two words refer to relationships with multiple partners, only one—polygamy—has marriage as an ingredient.
What's more, polyamory turns out to be only one subtype of consensual non-monogamy. Other types—such as swinging, monogamish, and group marriage—have their own unique aspects. Moreover, each polyamorous relationship tends to set its own rules for the partners.
Knowing these small but essential distinctions is necessary for a productive conversation about polyamory. It's even more critical when you plan to start romantic and/or sexual relationships with more than one person.
Setting good rules involves the following:
- Knowing each partner's thoughts, feelings, values, and expectations for the relationship
- Encouraging the willingness to communicate absolutely anything—no matter how uncomfortable or controversial it might be
- Having the ability to communicate these feelings with each and every partner
- Having the ability to put your heads together and agree on a set of rules that considers everyone's concerns
To find potential partners and supportive groups, you can do the following:
- Meet people for casual relationships first, but remember to do it right. For instance: don't kiss and tell, don't feel guilty, and practice safe sex.
- Find online support groups—see if any of them hold regular parties and meet-ups. It's a fast way to meet like-minded people without too much trouble.
- Use the right dating apps—especially ones that cater to unique tastes. You'll be surprised at how many apps help people find unconventional relationships.
Remember: in a polyamorous relationship, the keyword is consensual. Make sure everyone discusses and agrees on your relationship rules, and you should avoid most of the polyamory's pitfalls. Good luck!