Polyamory Terms and Concepts


This document discusses in detail the most important terms used by poly folk, along with the concepts behind them. The goal here is only to cover commonly accepted and understood terms specifically related to poly discussions, but to cover these in some depth. This document was created taken (with permission, and some modifications) from Zhahai Stuart's web site. The original version of this list of polyamory terms and concepts formerly lived on the 'Net at http://shell.rmi.net/~hisys/polyterm.htm. However, it appears that address is no longer valid. If anyone discovers the new abode of the original list, please let me know, so I can link to it from here.

Polyamory, Polyamorous. The core concept of polyamory is being involved in or open to multiple loving relationships, in a context of honesty and negotiation. The word roots are poly = multiple, and amor = love (specifically the sexual/romantic kind of love). Not in the roots but very important is the commitment to honesty with all partners, and openly negotiated ground rules. The term was coined in the early 80's by Morning Glory and Oberon Zell.

Monogamy, Monogamous. The core concept of monogamy as used today is of exactly two people in a sexually and romantically exclusive relationship. This relationship is substantially based on exchanged promises of sexual exclusivity - whether or not these promises are kept. A common form today is "serial monogamy", wherein there may be multiple monogamous relationships over time, but the participants are supposed to have no more than one partner at a time.

The roots and earlier meaning of monogamy was "one marriage", referring to a legally and societally recognized marriage. Today it applies to serious relationships with or without legal marriage. Our society now has some space for discrete multiple relationships, but not for multiple marriages (which is often called bigamy).

Note that Polyamory is not the only alternative to monogamy, or the "opposite".

Polyfidelity. A form of polyamory involving a closed group marriage (or marriage-like relationship), in which all adult members are considered primary to each other. Coined in the late 70's by Kerista community, which also included the concept that all adults of compatible sexual orientations ould be sexual with each other, an attribute sometime omitted by others dentifying as polyfidelitous.

Note that that in her 1996 book Lesbian Polyfidelity, author Celeste West uses "polyfidelity" for something pretty much synonymous with polyamory. This usage has not caught on much with the broader poly community, which by then already had the well-established terms polyamory and polyfidelity.

Polygamy, Polygyny, Polyandry. These are anthropological terms, not much used within the poly movement. They refer respectively to multiple marriages in general, marriages of multiple women to one man, and of multiple men to one woman. Polygyny has been much more common among world cultures than polyandry, and many non-anthropologists have used polygamy to refer mainly to polygyny, for example among the Mormons. These have mainly referred to marriages recognized by the culture in question. Consider these terms background info, but not very useful in today's poly subculture.

Poly. Typically a short hand for polyamory. Sometimes used as a catchall to avoid any need to distinguish between varieties of polyamory.

Sex. Is polyamory "about sex."? Yes and no. For most polyamorists, the core attraction is "amor" or "amour" -- love, albeit romantic/erotic love. Mostly the focus is on relationships. However, this definitely can involve sex as well, and it's that aspect which distinguishes polyamory from monogamous couples with close platonic friendships.

Open Marriage, Open Relationship. A form of polyamory relationship in which there may also be other lovers who are not partners in the given relationship. Most commonly, this refers to a primary couple who may have secondary relationships. The term "Open Marriage" was coined by the O'Neils in their 197x book by the same name. The bulk of the book was about expanded options for self fulfillment in a less confining relationship, but one chapter explored the idea of this including having other lovers, and it is this aspect of openness which the term refers to today.

Open and Closed. This has expanded to a more general concept which can be applied to couples or multipartner primary relationships. And open relationship may allow partners to have additional lovers who are not part of this relationship; a closed one requires that members not be lovers with anybody not "inside" it.

Primary and Secondary. These terms are very widespread, very important, and yet also very controversial. Some people try to avoid them entirely, for philosophical reasons. Others use the terms, but not always in quite the same way. There are two major usages. In the more common, a "primary" relationship is marriage like; it typically involves living together, often involves sharing finances or child raising. Life decisions are often made jointly, eg: where to live; jobs or careers to take, build or depart; bearing or adopting children. (See also "Nesting" relationships). Any of these may or may not exist in a given relationship considered primary by those involved. A secondary relationship is one generally not involving these things. Typically it involves living separately, having separate finances, and acting more as a (perhaps very close) friend than as a full partner in major life decisions. In this usage, one could have zero, one, or multiple "primary" relationships, and zero or more secondary relationships. Some people have only secondary relationships by choice or circumstances; some have more than one primary. This usage is a description of the kind of interweaving of lives involved in a particular pairing. It does not necessarily reflect the relative depth of love or understanding.

"Tertiary" is less commonly used. While many people have fairly consistent ideas of the difference between primary (or nesting) relationships and secondary (or non-nesting) ones, the distinction between secondary and tertiary is often more subtle and more idiosyncratic (for those who even use the term). You have to ask what distinction any individual makes, to understand "tertiary".

A somewhat less common usage for primary, secondary and tertiary is for simple ranking. The most involved partner is primary by definition, the less involved is secondary, etc. In this usage, one cannot have two primaries, or a secondary with no primary. Some poly folk tend to avoid these terms entirely because to them it implies a ranking they do not want to endorse, or do not identify with.

Nesting. A nesting relationship means about the same as the more common usage of "primary" - two or more people living together and building a closely shared life. Sometimes used in order to be more directly descriptive, without inadvertant "ranking" baggage. Leads to the obvious alternative of a non-nesting relationship.

Triad, Quad. A triad is a three way relationship, typically referring to a primary relationship. Sometimes foursomes are called quads, and a few people give names to 5 and 6 and so on. Triads are more common than quads, which are much more common than 5-way, etc - so these less common forms don't tend to have as consistently used names.

Vee, Triangle. Three way relationships may be fairly symmetric with all three pairs being fairly equally involved (a triangle); or two of the pairs may be substantially more bonded than the third pair (a vee or V, think of the letter V). These are terms for the ends of a continuum, not binary alternatives. Also, some triads may describe themselves differently in regards to emotional connections and sexual ones, so it's quite possible for example to have a sexual Vee with an emotional triangle. Additionally, often the use of the term "Triad" is synonymous with "Triangle", meaning a three-way relationship which is not a "Vee".

Hinge. In the case of a Vee relationship, or similar dynamics in a more complex relationship, the "person in the middle", more bonded to each end than they are to each other, is sometimes called the hinge. One can imagine the hinge being more widely spread the less connected the others are. Without the hinge, the others would often go their separate ways.

MFM, FMF, FFM, MMF, FFF etc. Sometimes the genders of a triad are given acronymically for a short description of some of the dynamics. If it's a Vee relationship, the hinge is typically in the middle. Obviously extensible to more than three, though less commonly.

Dyad. Just another name for a pair or couple relationship, standalone or as one piece of a larger relationship. Often used as "dyadic".

New Relationship Energy, NRE. The surge of erotic and emotional energy in a relatively new relationship. Over time, relationships change to a more sustainable set of energies, or dissolve. NRE tends to be more overtly exciting by contrast, a factor poly folks need to take into account and compensate for. Term coined in mid 80's by Zhahai Stewart.

Compersion. The positive feelings one gets when a lover is enjoying another relationship. Sometimes called the opposite or flip side of jealousy. May coexist with "jealous" feelings. Coined by either the Kerista community on the US West Coast, or by the Zegg community in Germany.

Cheating, and many other names. The not-uncommon shadow side of monogamy involves making promises of sexual exclusivity but secretly not always keeping them. The dramas involved are part of the monogamous worldviews.

Swinging. Another variant or modification to monogamy, involving sexual exploration in an environment structured to contain it without damage to an otherwise monogamous relationship. Like polyamory, it involves honesty and consent. Unlike polyamory it typically tries to stringently avoid love, romance or relationships outside the existing pair (though friendships are OK), and is engaged in mainly by couples (though some groups allow single women as well; rarely are single men allowed). "Lifestyles" is another term used for this option.

The swinging subculture is generally very different from poly subculture, and almost nobody could fail to notice the difference in conferences, gatherings, parties, magazines, email groups or other manifestations of the two movements. Nevertheless, a few people are involved in both movements, or tend to operate in a grey area "in the middle". Human lives and hearts don't always fit neatly into a set of mutually exclusive boxes.

Responsible non-monogamy. Typically another term for polyamory, favored by Deborah Anapol.

Cowboy. Somebody who figures that these alternative relationships are unstable, and consciously or unconsciously tries to pull one of the partners off into a monogamous relationship with themselves. References "cutting a filly out of the herd".

Parrot. The parrot is a common poly "mascot" or symbol. Punning on "poly wanna X".

Mormons, Church of Latter Day Saints. The Mormons originally practiced a form of polygamy (specifically polygyny - multiple husbands was not OK, only multiple wives). A few renegades still do. This is culturally not part of the polyamorous movement; it's yet anther alternative to monogamy.

Stranger in a Strange Land. A science fiction book by Robert Heinlein (1962) which served as an inspiration to many poly folks before the term "polyamory" was even invented. Not as an exact model, so much as a breaking of the cultural assumptions. Also inspired the neopagan Church of All Worlds, which has been a long term poly hotbed (the term polyamory was coined by two prominent members).

Intimate Network. Sometimes poly folks are embedded in a network of relationships, with friends and lovers and ex lovers and maybe future lovers, who themselves may be friends, lovers, ex and future lovers with each other. Some may be couples, some may be single, some could be in larger groups. Deborah Anapol labeled this an intimate network.


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