What's The Difference Between Polyamory And Open Relationships?

If you've been active in the dating scene, you've probably spotted the phrase 'ethically non-monogamous' in a few Bumble bios lately. Ethical non-monogamy is a popular dating and relationship term that encompasses a number of "non-traditional" styles of relationship and approaches to dating, including polyamory, swingers, relationship anarchy, as well as open relationships, per Freddie. And while all of these relationships fall under the heading of ethical non-monogamy, they are not synonymous with one another. Though open relationships of all kinds are nothing new, it seems more and more people are interested in exploring their options. A 2021 study revealed that one in nine Americans have been in a polyamorous relationship, and one in six would be open to trying one at some point (via Newsweek).

To people who've never considered non-monogamy, the idea of having multiple emotional and sexual relationships might seem confusing. Just the number of relationship labels can be a lot to process. "In practice, it can look like a range of things," Georgia Grace, a certified sex coach and educator tells Vogue Australia. "For some people, being ethically non-monogamous is about wanting to have sex with multiple people. For others, it's about having romantic connections, or it might be about intimacy, or a range of other reasons." Whatever the motivation behind opening things up, the common thread between these types of ethically non-monogamous relationships is that all partners are aware of the open relationship dynamic and fully consent to their partner(s) becoming romantically, sexually, and/or emotionally involved with other people.

What is polyamory?

Polyamory is a non-monogamous approach to love and dating in which people are open to multiple romantic relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners involved. This type of open relationship isn't just about having more sex with more people, it's about opening yourself up to the abundance of love and committed relationships that life has to offer. "It's honestly not that much different from being in any relationship, for me at least. Each relationship is separate from the other, and each has their great parts and less than great parts, just like any relationship," one polyamorous woman shares with Refinery29. It's important to point out that being polyamorous isn't necessarily the same as being in an open relationship.

With open relationships, the focus is placed more heavily on having a sexual relationship outside of a marriage or relationship, while polyamory tends to place more emphasis on exploring intimate or romantic relationships with more than one person at a time. And within the polyamory community itself, there are many different sub-groups that each have their own structure and relationship hierarchies; a few of these being solo polyamory, polyfidelity, hierarchical polyamory, and non-hierarchical polyamory, just to name a few (via PureWow). "There are no right or wrong ways to do polyamory and non-monogamy in general. It's really about what works for you," says sex therapist Rachel Wright tells Them. "While there are these types of polyamorous relationships, it doesn't mean they are the only ways to do it."

What is an open relationship?

Open relationships refer to any type of romantic relationship (dating, marriage, etc.) in which one or both parties aren't exclusively sexually involved with each other or are open to exploring sexually together. Some people consider open relationships to be a type of polyamory, but more often the term "open relationship" is used to describe committed or otherwise closed partners that are open to other sexual connections. "When we think of an open relationship, a lot of people assume it's a free-for-all. But the truth is that open relationships often have tons of structure — it's just structure that the spouses have created together, tailored to their specific needs, rather than a blind acceptance of the normative structure that defines monogamous marriages," sex educator Wendasha Jenkins Hall, Ph.D. tells Cosmopolitan.

There are a number of reasons why previously monogamous couples might explore a new relationship style -– what's important is that both parties are happy with the arrangement. "Any time a couple decides to do anything of importance in their relationship, they need to make sure that they're creating a win-win situation for both people," couples and family therapist Gabrielle Usatynski tells Katie Couric Media. "This is what we call true mutuality. It's good for me and good for you, and if it's not good for one person, it's not good for either, because we sink or swim together." Whatever the reason for exploring new sexual boundaries with your partner, trust and open communication are the key to any successful open relationship.

Is opening up your relationship right for you?

If you're considering opening up your relationship but don't know if it's right for you, it might be helpful to see what the experts have to say. For starters, you'll want to decide and discuss the boundaries that both you and your partner have. While it may feel scary and intimidating to express your desires and show your vulnerable side, it's important to take your time and be honest with your partner. "The key is communication. These relationship styles are all about being upfront and honest about what you want and what your needs and boundaries are. The most successful ones are those where people are on the same page," sex and relationships therapist Renee Divine, L.M.F.T., tells Women's Health.

If this sounds like an arrangement that you and your partner can manage, you might want to consider taking the leap. Open relationships of all kinds are a chance to explore your desires and widen your worldview on what love looks like. And remember, this should be a light and fun adventure for everyone involved –- so keep the communication open and fun as you figure things out. "No matter where on the spectrum couples decide to land, opening up your relationship will involve trial, error, and flexibility," sex and dating coach Tennesha Wood tells TZR. "Open relationships can change and evolve and it's important that couples openly communicate at every stage of the process and allow room for change."