It is great to see more online dating sites offering an option for poly status, – OKCupid, Meet Mindful, Plenty of Fish as of now – inviting more honest, diverse possibilities for relationships from the moment people meet. In the media we are seeing more celebrities being open about their poly identities and we are finally getting some serious discussion on this significant aspect of human relationships. Ideally this cultural tide will invite more nuanced conversations among partners, potential partners, and our communities in general.
But what I am frequently seeing are assumptions about what “poly” means, similar to the quick assumptions we have been conditioned to make about monogamy. Guesses that are not acknowledged as guesses, like – Their poly must be the same as my poly. Their poly must be the same as my next door neighbors’ poly, or the poly I saw on that daytime TV story, or it just means they want to be able to cheat. None of these are helpful assumptions and they actually serve to limit the important conversations we could be having about how to create relationship structures that work for a range of unique individuals.
In my practice as a Sex Therapist, I have worked with a lot of confused people who are trying to navigate what feels like a new world for them. My foundational advice is this : If someone tells you they are poly, consider that just an opening into a series of questions to find out what that means for them. There is no one size fits all definition of poly that you can rely on as a shortcut. And that is a great thing!
Here are just some of the variations. Understanding them might help you be more proactive in your conversations with potential partners or friends who are sharing their poly status with you.
Mono Poly or Solo Poly – Someone who practices responsible non-monogamy openly with partners and does not choose to have commitments or established obligations with any partner. This does not mean that there are no agreements in the moment, for example agreements to practice safer sex practices are still a part of sexual negotiation.
Body Fluid Monogamy – When a person has one primary partner or partners with whom they have established that it is safe to share body fluid, because they share the same STI status, and so they choose to limit sexual activities with others to those that do not involve any body fluid exchange or risk of exchange.
Primary Partner/Co-Primary Partner – This means that someone has a committed relationship with more extensive agreements and emotional engagement with one person (primary partner) or possible with more than one person (co-primaries) while still having other sexual or romantic partners with whom they have more casual relationships. Rules will often be established to protect and privilege the primary relationship bond.
Open Relationship/Open Marriage – This just tells you that the conventional rules of monogamy do not apply. More information will be needed to know that this means for each person.
Monogamish – Current term relating to someone who has a primary committed romantic relationship with some sexual exploration with other partners allowed. Hopefully there will be established understandings of agree upon boundaries but those will vary depending on the people involved.
Poly/Mono Relationship – A relationship in which one person is openly polyamorous and the other is monogamous with unique agreements made between them about limits.
Cellular Family or Closed Polyfidelitous Relationship – Generally denoting a committed bond, sexual, romantic and with long-term implications, amongst more than 2 people in which they may share a home, children, and creation of family. There is a lot of variation in how these relationships may be structured or experienced, for example who is sexual with whom, each person’s commitments to the unit, etc.
Swinging or In the Lifestyle – Frequently relates to established couples who otherwise practice monogamy with times of shared sexual activity with other partners. This is sexual exploration that they engage in together, often with either person being able to veto activities or partners in the moment. Often may involve parallel play while witnessing others, sex with partners in the same room or may involve private sexual interactions with new partners, for example in separate rooms such as a “key party” scenario when partners openly switch partners for the evening.
Group Sex, Play Parties or Adult Buffet – A group of consenting adults, sometimes established as a closed group, sometimes open to new members each time, who meet to engage in sexual play together. Each person is free to choose who to engage with in the moment. Frequently there are group norms about how to communicate interest or limits shared within the group.
Geographical Non-Monogamy or Friends with Benefits – These terms frequently refer to short-term agreements to allow for sex with partners without commitments while waiting for a potential monogamous relationship to be available, for example if someone is living far away from their romantic partner and they have agreed to have other sexual partners until they can be together or friends who agree to be sexual while each are openly looking for a romantic partner. Again, the established rules or understandings between partners can really vary here, open communication can really help.
Fair Warning : Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – While it is true that some people may directly agree to this type of arrangement in which neither person shares any details or maintains openly established boundaries, many times this is a set up for lying by omission. Secrecy can make it impossible to tell what is actually ok with other involved partners, or to create your own boundaries. Be careful before entering into relationship who says this is the way they “do poly”.
So these are just some of the many variations of what “poly” can mean. I hope you can use this information as inspiration to deepen your conversations around what you want from relationship and to stay dedicated to clear expression of what you are available for and to avoiding those easy assumptions. We all deserve the relationships we will thrive in. It is an ongoing gift to be able to work with people who are creating theirs, however they define it.