Words matter: Polyamory vs. open relationship vs. monogamish vs. CNM...
|Vero Romero/ Refinery29|
So I've long feared that if we ever lose our defining word to widespread misuse, such as if it comes to mean plain old screwing around, we will lose not only our ability to google and discover each other, we will lose the growing public understanding of what ethical, honest polyamory is all about. And even our own self-identity.
So last month when someone posted this question on Quora, I answered.
Q. Do the words Polyamory and Promiscuity mean essentially the same for all intents and purposes?
A. No. Polyamory is one type of consensual non-monogamy (CNM to sociologists) — the type in which people have multiple romantic-love relationships with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved.
Other types of CNM include swinging (recreational sex, usually by couples at swing parties) and open relationships (where the additional relationships tend to be more compartmentalized than in polyamory, and often less deep). As the name implies, polyamory means multi-love. Sex is usually an important part of the picture but not always; some poly relationships are platonic.
Polyamorous arrangements may sometimes become group relationships, such as triads, quads, polyfamilies, or more often, looser intimate networks. Whether or not this happens, a defining characteristic of polyamory is an ethic that, to at least some degree, “We’re all in this together,” and that everyone involved needs to display, at minimum, respect and consideration for everyone else. "Open relationship" does not carry this implication.
A recently coined distinction that many find useful is kitchen table poly, suggesting a bunch of lovers and metamours happily gabbing over breakfast, versus parallel poly, in which the relationships are more separate, overlapping common ideas about open relationships.
Consensual non-monogamy itself is one type of non-monogamy in general — a larger category that also includes cheating and, for singles, simply dating around.
[Edited since original post.]
My concern has lessened in recent years. The expanding poly community has held pretty firmly to its defining identity while remaining friendly with the other flavors of CNM, which define themselves as they like. And of course there are many overlaps and partial cases.
And the media? They're often obtuse about matters that are off their beaten path, but they've been surprisingly good about getting this one mostly right.
I'm sure this is because of our community's diligence in representing poly accurately and calling out ignorant misuses of the word when we see them. Thank you, dear people!
So here's a collection of how media have been defining poly and other branches of CNM in the last year or so. They range from sort of okay to spot-on. How would you grade them? This is long; settle in.
● In the feminist Refinery29: Swinger, Monogamish, & 6 Other Words For Open Relationships (May 10, 2019). My grade: A.
When you're taking your first timid steps into the land of open relationships... you'll likely be inundated with a whole new lexicon of terms. ...They each have a different meaning and set of rules attached. So, which word is right for you and your boo's new situation?...
Swinger: A swinger is someone who has multiple sexual relationships outside of their primary romantic relationship(s). Swingers usually don't have emotional connections to people outside of their romantic relationship(s). Some swingers have sex only with close friends (friends-first swinging), and some have sex with strangers or go to swing clubs for the purpose of finding sex with other swingers.
Open relationship: "Open relationship" is sometimes used as an umbrella term to describe any relationship that isn't sexually and/or romantically monogamous, including polyamory. Open relationship is also sometimes used to describe non-monogamous relationships that aren't polyamorous, meaning that people are allowed sexual experiences outside of their relationship but not love or romance.
Monogamish: Sex columnist Dan Savage coined the term "monogamish" to mean "mostly monogamous with a little squish around the edges."...
Polyamorous: The roots of the word "polyamory" literally mean "many love," and that's an accurate description. Polyamorous relationships are different from most other open relationships because it's the intention of partners in a polyamorous relationship not only to have sex outside of their primary partnerships, but also to find love.
There are many variations of polyamorous relationships. Some are poly and closed, meaning that the group has decided not to have sex with or find relationships with anyone else. Some are poly and open, meaning partners in the group could still have outside sex and relationships. Some include just three people, some include many different people. Some can have all partners on equal footing and some consist of a primary relationship with secondary relationships branching out from there.
Ethical Non-monogamy: Ethical or responsible non-monogamy can describe pretty much all open and polyamorous relationships. It is a term that sets these kinds of relationships apart from cheating by demanding that every partner in an ethically non-monogamous relationship know and agree to their partner's outside sexual ventures. ...
Polyfidelity: Polyfidelity is one form of polyamory, and could also be called a closed polyamorous relationship. Polyfidelitous relationships involve more than two people, but don't allow for partners in the relationship to have sex or relationships with people outside of the already established group. ...
Polygamy: The roots of the word polygamy means "many marriage." So, people in a polygamous partnership will have multiple spouses or be one of multiple spouses. ...
Relationship Anarchy: While polyamorous relationships thrive on guidelines and "rules" for the partners involved [Sometimes, sometimes not! –Ed.], relationship anarchists believe that there should be no rules or expectations in any kind of relationship, nor that any one type of relationship holds precedence over another. A relationship anarchist might see a platonic friend as having the same level of importance as a sexual partner, for example. And they wouldn't feel constrained to monogamy, because they believe that everyone should be able to seek relationships spontaneously.
● Earlier on Refinery29, by the same author: What's The Difference Between Polyamory & An Open Relationship? (Jan. 30, 2018). I give this one an A+.
...When consensual non-monogamy started to finally get some screen time in popular shows like Broad City, more and more people were suddenly having conversations about polyamory and open relationships.
...But the show didn't show a polyamorous relationship. Even though both fall under the umbrella of consensual non-monogamy, polyamory and open relationships are two very different things.
For many people, being polyamorous is an important part of their identity, not just a word to describe having multiple sexual or romantic partners at the same time. "Being polyamorous feels hard-wired to their love-lives," says sexuality educator Aida Manduley, MSW. Meanwhile, people in an open relationship don't necessarily think of non-monogamy as part of their identity as much as a personal preference.
...[But] the main difference comes down to commitment. For people in an open relationship, connections made outside of the relationship are usually just about sex. They're not looking for another person to love or build a second relationship with, and they likely wouldn't introduce the people they have sex with to their primary partner. "Open relationships are more likely to have a 'don't ask, don't tell' rule....
Meanwhile, the word "polyamory" literally means "many loves" and that's a good working definition. Instead of just looking for sex outside of their primary partnership, poly people are often looking for love. It's not about having one night stands with your partner's permission, it's about creating deep emotional and romantic bonds with multiple people and forming a tight-knit community. It's more of a culture in that way, says Kate Stewart, a counselor and dating coach who works with polyamorous couples. The poly community in Seattle, where she lives, is incredibly close. "Everyone knows each other, they hang out together, they party together," she says. ...
So, why are the nit-picky differences between these two words so important? Because words have power in creating and finding community. That's also why it's important to have accurate depictions of polyamory on television and in other forms of media, because so many of us begin to understand who we are through what we see. If there's nowhere for polyamorous people to see a love that looks like theirs (or at least, the kind of love they want to have), then it's unlikely that they'll ever find the community they need.
● Says bi poly writer Zachary Zane in Prevention, a health-supplement magazine: What’s the Difference Between Ethical Non-Monogamy, Polyamory, and Open Relationships? (June 11, 2019). I give it a B+.
...People aren’t just in open relationships, they’re in polyamorous, swinging, polyfidelitous, and monogamish relationships too. (And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. ...)
The distinctions [are] necessary to differentiate the important nuances between each type of sexual and romantic connection. ...
Ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term for all types of relationships that aren’t monogamous, meaning it includes every single defined term below. The word “ethical” is thrown in to make it abundantly clear that non-monogamy differs from cheating and lying to your partner. ... [False. "Non-monogamy" means everything that's not monogamy — by definition! — including cheating.]
Open relationship. Most simply, an open relationship is one where you can sleep with folks outside of your primary relationship or marriage. People in open relationships typically keep their relationships with others strictly sexual. They’re not trying to date or fall in love with another person — although that sometimes can happen — which can complicate things. ...
Swinging falls under the larger “open” umbrella, but has more specific guidelines. As Gigi Engle, a certified sex coach and educator, tells Prevention.com: “Swinging is when a committed couple engages in sexual activities with others as a form of recreation. ... It's an activity a couple does together and is usually considered part of their shared sex life.”
Monogamish. ...Relationships that are, for the most part, monogamous, but allow for little acts of sexual indiscretion (with the partner’s knowledge). Folks in monogamish relationships don’t often have sex outside the relationship. When they do, it’s usually when one person is out of town for work. The sexual flings with others are, for lack of a better word, meaningless. ...
Polyamory. ...Those who are in a polyamorous relationship have an intimate, romantic, and/or sexual relationship with more than one person. [People can also] claim the poly label because they want to make it clear that they are open to the idea of loving more than one person at a time — and so too are their partners. ...
With ethical non-monogamy, things can also change over time. What starts as an open relationship can evolve into a polyamorous one. Or, after years of being polyamorous, you and your partner can decide you’d like to go back to being monogamous, or something else entirely. ...
● In Men's Health at your supermarket checkout: Everything to Know About Non-Monogamous Relationships, Including Polyamory, Open Relationships, and More (April 24, 2019). Grade: B-.
By Charlotte Grainger
...It can be hard to get your head around the labels, and how they actually play out in practice. ... Sexologist Stella Anna Sonnenbaum walks Men’s Health through the different types of non-monogamous relationships and what makes them unique.
Open Relationships. ... The term is not as clear-cut as it may sound. In fact, it can actually be applied to a variety of relationship styles, all of which have one oh-so-important thing in common.
“It means that you are not in an exclusive relationship with your partner,” Sonnenbaum explains. “It usually refers to sexuality, so either one or both partners have the option to have sex with other people outside of the relationship.”
...Monogamish partners are mainly monogamous in their sexual choices. However, as the name suggests, they may both be willing to stray from this when the mood takes them. ... “What we say in monogamish relationships is, ‘I choose to be with you. I may have sex with other people, but I choose to put you first.’”
"Swinging" may conjure images of fish bowls filled with car keys, but it doesn't have to be that way. The contemporary incarnation of this relationship choice could mean a range of things, including having a long-term arrangement with another couple. ... [In fact, long-term pairs of swinging couples sometimes become poly quads in all but what they call themselves. –Ed.]
Polyamory. This type of non-monogamous relationship style allows partners the freedom to have multiple romantic and sexual relationships at the same time.
"It could be a couple having romantic and sexual bonds with other people outside of the relationship, but it could also be a single person who has multiple romantic and sexual relationships...,” Sonnenbaum says. Every polyamorous situation is a little bit different. Here, four polyamorous people explain what their love lives are like.
Hierarchical Polyamory. But wait just a minute — what about setting some ground rules here? Well, that’s where hierarchical polyamory comes into play. This next choice means that couples decide which of their relationships is their major focus, i.e. the ‘primary relationship,’ but can still have other relationships outside of that.
Polyfidelity ... may sound a lot like polyamory, [but] while polyamory is considered an "open" relationship style, polyfidelity is "closed," in that the multiple people involved do not have relationships with people outside their group. [Actually, polyfi is almost always considered a subset of polyam, not a separate thing.]
Relationship Anarchy ... throws the rulebook straight out of the window. Yes, relationship anarchy is just that: an entirely open sexual situation. In short, people can have sexual and romantic interactions with whoever they want and ditch the labels. ... [Actually, RA is a developed philosophy that individualizes all relationships, from sexual to birth-family to work-related. See the first bullet item above.]
● On Page Turner's ever-insightful Poly.Land: What’s the Difference Between Polyamory & an Open Relationship? (April 1, 2019). Gets an A+ for combining linguistic precision with real-world flexibility.
Q: I have been thinking of something for the past week or so, and it has been scratching at my mind and I’m not really sure why because I don’t really care about labels. ...
A: When you talk about “open relationships,” there are a couple of ways of looking at it. In one view, “open” is a modifier of relationship, explaining whether the people involved are allowed to have additional partners. So in a certain sense, all relationships are either open or closed.
Polyamory (except for polyfidelity, a form of non-monogamy where people have more than one partner but can’t seek new ones) is a form of relationship that is open.
patchok/ CC BY
So polyamory is a form of open relationship.
However, “open relationship” is also used as a phrase colloquially by some people to describe relationships that are sexually open but not emotionally open.
...But not all people who are saying that they’re in “open relationships” are polyamorous. Which might make it so polyamorous people could find it less helpful to identify themselves as being in an open relationship (although in a technical sense they are, since their relationships aren’t closed). ...
Descriptive Versus Prescriptive Labeling
In general, I take the stance that there isn’t necessarily objectively one right label to use in any given situation. Instead, the right label is a matter of who you’re talking with and what you’re trying to communicate to them. This is known in linguistics as being descriptive about labeling rather than prescriptive. ...
● In The Independent, one of the UK's leading newspapers: What Is Polyamory and How Does It Work? (Nov. 5, 2018). The Independent may excel at government and politics, but this piece gets a C- for klutziness overall. Relevant bits for our purposes here:
By Chelsea Ritschel
...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.
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 [sic] of polyamory is that both individuals know of their partner’s lovers."
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 partner. [The more of this the worse your chances of it working! –Ed.]
“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 [sic].”
How is polyamory different from an open relationship?
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. ... [At least she got that part basically right, though reality is not always so simple.]
● In the Irish Examiner, in Is fidelity old school, as – it appears – open relationships become more common? (Jan. 9, 2019):
...Polyamory in all its ethical-non monogamy shouldn’t be confused with having an open relationship. In the latter, sex with others is part of the package. Falling in love is not. ...
● On a site called The Manual: What Is Polyamory and How Does It Work? (undated, 2019)
...An open relationship tends to have the most rules in order to preserve the core relationship. Rules can range from not sleeping with friends, to restricting queer/pansexual/bisexual people, to only dating people of their gender.
Kitchen table (Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury/Getty)
...Polyamory tends to focus more on romantic relationships, but it can include casual partners. The main schools of polyamory are hierarchical, anarchic, egalitarian, and solo-polyamory. ... [Which the story goes on to describe.]
● On Quora, Michael Rios of Network for a New Culture brought a deeper perspective when answering What is the difference between open marriage, swinging and polyamory? They look the same on the outside. (Nov. 4, 2018)
...Polyamory is really about creating a chosen extended family, without the restrictions of sexual exclusivity. This creates an open field for emotional intimacy with each person who becomes part of your chosen family; and new relationships, whether or not they are sexual, are not seen as a threat to existing relationships.
Most of these relationships are likely to also be sexual partnerships at one time or another. But at any given time, some will have a sexual dimension, others haven’t yet, others never will (and this is known by both persons), and some were sexual partners, but no longer are. ...
● In Women's Health, What's the Difference between a Polyamorous and an Open Relationship? (April 2, 2018). The article merits an A; this is just one bit:
For once, the ambiguity of this overused stock photo is relevant to the story. (Getty)
By Kristin Canning
...While the two share some similar characteristics, they’re very different. “An open relationship is one where one or both partners have a desire for sexual relationships outside of each other, and polyamory is about having intimate, loving relationships with multiple people,” says Renee Divine, L.M.F.T., a sex and relationships therapist in Minneapolis, MN.
Both open and poly relationships are forms of consensual non-monogamy, and technically, polyamory can be a type of open relationship, but expectations tend to be different when it comes to these relationship styles.
Are you looking for more love or more sex? ...
● Carol Queen describes a more realistic (that is, "descriptive") fluidity in the open-vs-poly distinction, as quoted in the Daily Dot: What it takes to make an open relationship work" (July 13, 2018). Overall, grade A. Two pieces of it:
GoodFreePhoto/Creative Commons (CC-BY)
...“An open relationship is basically any relationship that isn’t undergirded by expectations of monogamy and exclusivity,” author and sexologist Carol Queen told the Daily Dot. “They can take many forms, and can range from casual ‘friends with benefits’ connections to solid, lasting (and non-monogamous) relationships.”
...“Some open relationships are more casual, but others are very deep and committed.”
Polyamory, which translates to “loving many” is one way to be open. ... “Polyamory is generally understood to involve people engaged in more than one relationship in a way that’s consensual, negotiated, ongoing to some extent, and honest....”
Queen says some poly folks view various partners as an extended family. “Think a big Thanksgiving dinner full of everyone’s lovers and lovers’ lovers,” she says. “Others keep their other partnerships more separated.”
Regardless of the way a person approaches polyamory, the unifying theme is loving relationships. Polyamorous people aren’t just having casual sex with different people at the same time. Instead, they’re establishing multiple, emotionally invested partnerships with all participants’ full knowledge and consent.
● In the feminist online mag Bustle, Lea Rose Emery explained things this way in her introduction to 13 People On Reddit Share Why They're In An Open Relationship (June 4, 2018). A for clarity.
While open relationships can involve being romantically and emotionally monogamous, with the freedom to explore sexually, polyamory is a type of open relationship that's typically about having long-term, multiple meaningful relationships with people.
According to Poly-Coach, polyamory is often associated with the idea of being "in love" with more than one person, which open relationships aren't always, even if there may be some level of emotional connection. Although Poly-Coach emphasizes that every poly or open relationship will be shaped by the people in that relationship. ...
● Getting your definitions of "open" and "poly" right is crucial when you're dating, but that's only half of it. The other half? Making sure you each understand the other's definitions!
How? Ask. And ask in practical terms; don't be theoretical or you're liable to get book-learning in response. Instead ask, "How do you do poly?" Then listen very carefully. If you hear a deal breaker, be ready to accept that you've just heard a deal breaker.
Elite Daily posted How To Write A Dating App Bio For An Open Relationship That's Fully Transparent (May 7, 2018):
By Annie Foskett
I cohost a podcast about dating. ... I spoke to relationship coach specializing in open relationships Effy Blue, and licensed psychotherapist and dating coach, Shaina Singh, LCSW about the right way to introduce an open relationship when using dating apps. ...
BE CLEAR ABOUT WHAT YOU MEAN BY "OPEN RELATIONSHIP"
While the words are often interchanged, being in an open relationship and being polyamorous can mean two different things. "Open relationships are relationships that are not defined by sexual fidelity where the couple mutually agrees to have sexual relationships beyond the dyad [pair]," explains Blue. "Some people use 'open relationship' and 'polyamory' synonymously. Open relationships being only about sex outside the relationship and polyamory being multiple romantic and loving relationships pursued simultaneously." She adds that it is important to have a conversation to understand what a person means by "open relationship," as there are multiple definitions.
Be honest with a potential partner about exactly what you and your current partner's arrangement is. ... "A good way to handle these initial conversations is to invite potential dating partners to have a conversation about what your open relationship means to you. The key is to invite rather than impose."
If you're new to open relationships, or if you've matched with someone whose bio mentions an open relationship, and you're not sure if you're ready to be in one, take a look at Effy Blue's 7 Tips for Dating In Open Relationships. It's a free download that will help you navigate the language around opening a relationship up on dating apps. ...
● Finally, for completeness of the record, here's an earlier post on media definitions of polyamory that I did a year ago.
I'm not obsessive, oh no, not me.