Once considered a more “niche” or “alternative” lifestyle, polyamory is finally breaking into mainstream cultural conversations, from Washington Post advice columns to movies, TV shows, and celebrity representation. And that’s great news! It means more people are recognizing that some of us can love more than one person at once, and that the many types of polyamorous relationships are just as legitimate as monogamous ones.
It’s estimated that 4 to 5% of people living in the United States are polyamorous—roughly 17 million people in the U.S. However, those numbers will likely increase, as a 2016 YouGov study found that only half of millennials (defined as people under 30 at the time) want a “completely monogamous” relationship.
Despite more visibility around polyamory, there’s still a lot of confusion around what exactly polyamory is, and what the different types of poly relationships are. Being polyamorous means you’re open to the idea of loving multiple people and having multiple romantic relationships simultaneously. (The term “polyamory” comes from the Greek word “poly,” which means many, and the Latin word “amory,” which means love.) Note that polyamory simply means you’re open to the idea of loving more than one person; a person with one partner can still be polyamorous. You can even have zero partners and be polyamorous—that’s called “single poly,” and we talk about it shortly!
What are the different types of polyamory?
The definition of polyamory is broad, but that’s on purpose. There’s no “one way” to be poly, and there are various types of relationship structures and dynamics that fall under the wide-ranging polyamorous umbrella. So, let’s break down some of the more common types of polyamory (and their associated terms).
Example: John lives with his wife, and they each have a boyfriend they see once a week.
“When someone is practicing hierarchical polyamory, there is a prioritization of partners,” explains Rachel Wright, MA, LMFT, licensed psychotherapist and sex educator. Often, the language associated with hierarchical polyamory is “primary partner” and “secondary partner.” So, your primary partner may be the person you live with, share a bank account with, and are even married to. They are your first priority. Then you may have a second partner who you see less often. You don’t necessarily love your secondary partner any less; it’s more about the time and energy you give each partner. That’s partly why some people more recently have opted to use the word “nesting partner” instead of a primary partner. (Also, some people don’t like being called a secondary or even tertiary partner.)
While there are clear upsides to hierarchical polyamory, mainly the increased level of security that comes with being someone’s primary partner, there are a couple of things to keep in mind if you’re practicing this poly style.
“Imposed hierarchies can be toxic and even abusive in some situations if not handled carefully,” warns polyamory educator Leanne Yau. “For example, veto power, where you give your primary partner the option to force a break up between you and your other partners if they feel they are being disruptive to your connection, dislike them, or literally any other reason.” So when practicing hierarchical poly, it’s necessary to have a level of individual autonomy when making your own decisions regarding your other partners.
Example: John has had consistent two partners for a while, but he just hit it off with a new partner and has shifted his schedule to make more time for them.
With non-hierarchical poly, every partner is considered when it comes to making big decisions, and there isn’t a ranking system the same way there is in hierarchical polyamorous dynamics; so there are no primary or secondary partners.
“It doesn’t mean you have to treat everyone equally, but rather, each relationship is allowed to grow organically without any rules imposed on it by a third-party,” Yau says. “Everyone has equal opportunity to negotiate the terms of the relationship without outside influence.”
Kitchen Table Polyamory
Example: John, his husband, and their two boyfriends occasionally go out to dinner together.
Some polyamorous folks enjoy getting to know their partner’s partners (a.k.a. metamours). They want to be friends with them, and in some situations, have an independent relationship with them (platonic or sexual) that extends beyond their shared partner. This is often referred to as “kitchen table” polyamory.
“Kitchen table polyamory is the concept that everyone involved in the polycule (the group of people connected through romantic relationships) or constellation would be open to or even enjoy sitting together at the kitchen table sharing coffee or breaking bread,” Wright says. “Folks who identify with this type of polyamory want to know and be friends with their metamours.”
Example: John has a wife and a girlfriend, but his wife and GF have never met in person.
Now, some folks have no desire to get to know their metamour. While they don’t mind their partner having another partner, it still hurts when they see them interact lovingly with another person. When that’s the case, people may choose to engage in parallel polyamory, which falls on the opposite end of the spectrum as kitchen table poly. “Similar to parallel lines, this is when polyamorous relationships don’t interact,” Wright says.
FYI, parallel polyamory is different from the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that’s sometimes practiced in open relationships, Yau says. In parallel polyamory arrangements, all partners are aware of the other partner(s)’ existence; they just have no desire to meet or hear about one another.
Example: John has a wife and boyfriend who are also in a romantic relationship with one another.
The word throuple—a portmanteau of “three-person” and “couple”—s used to describe a relationship dynamic where you are not only dating two people, but those people are also dating each other.
“A lot of people assume that it’s just three people in one relationship, but it’s more than that,” Yau says. “In order for the throuple to be sustained long-term, the relationships between each pair within the throuple also have to be cultivated and nurtured.”
You can be in an open throuple, meaning that in addition to your two partners, you have other people you’re romantically involved with, or you could be in a closed throuple, where you’re monogamous with your two partners. “There is also a four-person equivalent of this called a quad,” Yau says.
Example: John’s wife and boyfriend aren’t dating anyone else, nor are they seeking any other forms of sexual/romantic relationships.
A closed throuple is a good example of a polyfidelitous relationship.
As Jessica Fern defines in her book Polysecure, polyfidelity is “a romantic or sexual relationship that involves more than two people, but these people are exclusive with each other. This could include a group relationship of three or more people that is closed to any additional outside partners, or it could be a person who has more than one partner and their partners are not dating each other, but they are also closed to additional relationship.”
Example: John has multiple partners who he loves and values, but he lives alone and his biggest focus right now is on his career.
Solo polyamory is defined in two different ways by the solo polyamorous community, explains Yau. “Some people define solo polyamory as the practice of living an independent, single life while having multiple relationships.” So a solo polyamorous person may choose to live alone or with a friend instead of with a romantic partner. While they may not get married or co-parent with a romantic partner, they still form very committed relationships.
“Other people define solo polyamory as the life philosophy of prioritizing yourself and ‘being your own primary partner, and are less strict about what it looks like as a lifestyle,” she says.
Example: John is currently single, but knows that his preferred relationship dynamic is one that is polyamorous with multiple partners.
“Single polyamory is simply a person who is polyamorous but currently has no partners,” Yau says. “They may want to be hierarchical, non-hierarchical, solo, or whatever else; it is not a relationship structure in the same way that the other [terms] are, just a descriptor for a person who is polyamorous but single.”
You might be wondering why someone may identify as a single polyamorist if they’re not in any relationship. The reason is to illustrate to dates and potential future partners that you are someone who is polyamorous. If that person is looking for monogamy, you’re not going to be a fit because even as you begin to fall in love with this person, you will still date and potentially fall in love with other people.
Example: John has multiple partners, friends, and lovers whom he values and loves. He doesn’t treat one relationship more seriously just because they’re romantically/sexually involved.
Last on our list is relationship anarchy (RA), which is kinda a big “fuck you” to any relationship structure. “RA is a life philosophy that promotes the idea of no assumed hierarchy among not just your lovers, but also your friends and other people who are important to you,” Yau says. “Instead of prioritizing your one monogamous romantic partner at the top, you can customize all of your connections with people individually and build a life and support network that works best for you.”
Relationship anarchy does not automatically assume that romance is inherently more valuable, important, and life-affirming than friendships. “It also takes away all the assumptions about what you can and can’t do with certain connections. You could co-parent with your best friend, live separately from your romantic partner, and so on, as long as it works for the people involved,” Yau says.
While relationship anarchy and non-hierarchical polyamory sound similar, that is an important distinction: “Nonhierarchical polyamory is a relationship structure, whereas relationship anarchy is a life philosophy,” Yau says. “Relationship anarchy can look like whatever you want it to.”
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