Defining Polyamory

Dear PWA columnists:

I’m in a polycule in New York and we realized we mostly all have different ideas about what polyamory actually is and isn’t! Can you tell us, what is the difference between polyamory, an open relationship, and consensual nonmonogamy? For what it’s worth, I think our relationships have been working great without labels.

Signed, Poly-ish?

Thanks for the question! It’s tricky in that none of these terms necessarily has agreed-upon definitions; if you ask 10 different people the definition of polyamory, you’re likely to get 10 different answers.  Back in my pre-Internet days of polyamory lists, the definition of polyamory came up periodically and it varied widely.

I’d say consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is an umbrella term that can be used by anyone who practices it, such as folks who identify as swingers, poly, or swolly [swinger and poly]. Many folks have gravitated toward this CNM or ENM (ethical non-monogamy) language because the words define themselves. A larger question here is “consensual between whom and to what?”  
An Open Relationship is a relationship that is as open as those in it agree.  In other words, it’s a relationship/s that exists between folks, such as “I’m in an open relationship”.  Those words themselves don’t tell you much, “open to what”, but it speaks to something of which you are a part.
Google defines polyamory as:  “the philosophy or state of being in love or romantically involved with more than one person at the same time”.  The key difference here is “philosophy,” meaning that you can be polyamorous and not currently be in any relationship.  Theoretically you can say that CNM/ENM and Open Relationship each incorporate a philosophical state, but the difference is what the relationship looks like inside your mind, vs what the relationship looks like and how it is described to others.

My disclaimer here is “Your Mileage May Vary,” which is exactly why when anyone uses these terms, we must ask them to be defined so we can understand where someone is coming from, and whether or not we agree. Over to you, Leon!

Hi Poly-ish!  As Lee has already given a great overview (I’d never heard of swolly before!) I’ll offer my conviction that there are only two reasons to give a relationship structure a label: to help people IN the relationship understand what it is, and to help people OUTSIDE understand what it is.  And those are very different audiences.

Inside a relationship, all that matters is the scope: the mutually communicated and agreed-upon guidelines, preferences, and expectations. The label is irrelevant, as long as everyone is on the same page and happy with their roles within the whole.

Outside that relationship, however, the description becomes less about how it works, and more about symbolism: how others who hear your label project their own expectations and meanings upon the group and its members.  Ten people who hear a relationship is “poly” might have ten different understandings of what that means, and because they’re usually not privy to the inner workings they fill in the blanks using their own experiences and understandings.

This can lead to misunderstandings, of course, but there’s simply no alternative. Until definitions are universal and codified, one person’s open relationship will always be someone else’s CNM. If you and your partners are on the same page without labels, then the only label that matters is what you tell outsiders.  I’d say make it anything you want, knowing that they’re most likely going to hear whatever they want to anyhow.

Good luck!