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Polyamory vs Open Relationship: What's the Difference?

Polyamory vs Open Relationship: What's the Difference?

Love and intimacy can be expressed in many ways. Over the course of a lifetime, there will be many kinds of relationships individuals may encounter or take part in. There are relationships bound by romance and mutual commitment. There are some forged by sexual desires. As the medical, psychological and human understanding of love and relationships continues to evolve, there is also a growing acceptance of non-traditional forms of relationships, like polyamory and open relationships.

Polyamory vs Open Relationship

Polyamory and open relationship are two distinct terms that fall under the umbrella term “consensually non-monogamous” (CNM) relationships. CNM refers to relationships where the persons involved agree to have sexual, emotional or romantic connections with more than one person.

The term “polyamory” describes a relationship involving three or more people who are either emotionally or romantically linked. In contrast, “open relationship” is a term describing a relationship in which the parties are involved only sexually, without any romantic or emotional commitment. Polyamory and open relationships are different from adultery and cheating in significant ways. These relationships require honesty, open communication, and mutually-agreed upon boundaries, with the full consent of every involved party.

What Is Polyamory?

Polyamory, as suggested by the name, is different from monogamy, or serial monogamy, by the number of people in the relationship. In polyamorous relationships, people commit romantically with two or more people at the same time. Serial monogamy is a term that refers to having several romantic partners throughout one’s lifetime, but only one at a time. The central idea of polyamory is that love should be all-inclusive, and that loving one person does not have to mean not loving another.

People may have different reasons for engaging in polyamorous relationships. For one, they may want their emotional needs and sexual desires to be fulfilled by more than one partner. Some people engage in polyamorous relationships because they are in a long-distance relationship with one partner. And at the same time, they want romance with another partner with whom proximity is not a concern. Some people, on the other hand, prefer to be polyamorous because it offers both the stability of a long-term relationship and the excitement of new ones.

What Is an Open Relationship?

In an open relationship there is mutual consent and acceptance from both parties to engage in sexual activities with others. In an open relationship, one person may have what is called the “primary partner”. This is the person to whom they commit to emotionally and sexually. The people in the open relationship may agree to have multiple non-monogamous sexual partners. But the caveat is, there must be no romantic involvement. This is the main difference between an open relationship and polyamory.

Individuals in open relationships can set parameters as they like. However, they must uphold honesty in their relationship. Honesty, in fact, is the single most important value in any open relationship. People who enter open relationships must be honest about their sexual needs. They must also be able to communicate the boundaries they want to observe so they can feel safe and reassured.

“Swinging” is a form of open relationship. It describes relationships in which the people involved, called “swingers,” engage in sexual activities with other people in parties as a form of recreational or social activity. Much like an open relationship, swinging requires setting of boundaries. The degree of involvement and intimacy differs with every sexual encounter.

Why Choose an Open Relationship?

There are many reasons for entering open relationships. An open relationship, for one, is a great avenue for exploring one’s sexuality with another person outside of the relationship. Some people may also engage in open relationships because of a sexual mismatch or incompatibility with their romantic partner. For example, one partner may have a particular kink that the other partner is not aroused by. Or one partner might have no interest in sex, a sexual identity termed asexuality, and the other partner wants to feel sexual satisfaction without losing the romantic connection. Lastly, like in polyamory, some people in an open relationship seek the stability of a long-term romantic relationship while being able to explore their sexuality with new partners.

Polyamory vs Open Relationship: Key Takeaway

Polyamory and open relationships, while unconventional, are different ways to maintain stable, meaningful relationships. Whatever relationship you take part in, remember that for it to work, there must be honesty, respect, trust, and open communication.

Learn more about Sexual Wellness here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Polyamory, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319614326_Polyamory, 18 Jul 2021

Polyamory, https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~geneq/docs/infoSheets/Polyamory.pdf, 18 Jul 2021

Open Relationship Prevalence, Characteristics, and Correlates in a Nationally Representative Sample of Canadian Adults, https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2019.1580667, 18 Jul 2021

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Written by Ira Sagad Updated 3 weeks ago
Fact Checked by Cesar Beltran