You don't know the difference between polyamory and polygamy if you don't know which one can get you to jail. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's tiresome to listen to people's opinion about ethical non-monogamy who can't even differentiate these two.

It's not just because they unintentionally accuse me with a crime, but also because not understanding the difference they even may think about ethical non-monogamy as a crime!

cock, farm, village

In this article, we'll discuss

  1. what is polyamory
  2. what does the word "polyamory" mean
  3. what other types of ethical non-monogamy exist
  4. what is swinger
  5. what is an open relationship
  6. what is the meaning of polygamy
  7. conclusion: the difference between polyamory and polygamy
Frequently Asked Questions about polyamory answered by polyamorist at BuzzFeed

What is polyamory?

"Polyamory is the practice of having multiple intimate relationships, whether sexual or just romantic, with the full knowledge and consent of all parties involved. Polyamory is not gender-specific and rejects the idea of exclusivity; anyone can have multiple partners of any gender."
- Psychology Today about the definition of polyamory)

Polyamory is a lifestyle, a very sophisticated philosophy, a practice of very open communication and highly efficient time management among respected partners.

I personally would even say - and forgive me for the big words - polyamory is a form of art. Too much? Yes, maybe.

But at least it's similar to arts as

  • it also needs to be mastered for ages,
  • one gets better in it with time and practice,
  • it is worthless if doesn't become a source of joy and noble feelings,
  • polyamory provokes thinking, reevaluation of your entire belief system
  • thus helps you to be a better self of you through immense inner work.
  • And last but not least: it affects the most vulnerable territory in the whole universe: the human heart.

If you also take into consideration that ALL partners must consent and be respected in every possible manner, you might start to get the idea of why it is so annoying when many people confuse polyamory and ethical non-monogamy with polygamy.

What does the word "polyamory" mean?

"polyamory is wrong" - funny polyamorous meme
So many people use "polyamory" for any kind of non-monogamous sexual activities. While even the word itself concentrates on love instead of lust.

The word itself is a weird combination of the ancient Greek prefix "Poly-" (meaning "multiple") and the Latin "Amor" (meaning romantic love) with a "y" at the end. Fun fact: the word hasn't been with us too long: the Oxford English Dictionary just canonized it in 1999 after (allegedly) Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, a well-known advocate of polyamory invented it less than three decades ago.

Polyamory is strictly about love. Polyamorous people usually don't rule out casual connections, but we are more focused on quality than quantity. Personally I believe that polyamory is the art of giving instead of insatiable craving for more and more to receive. This makes it different from other forms of ethical non-monogamy that I'll introduce you now.

Other forms of ethical non-monogamy

It's such a cliché to say: people are not the same, every single person in the world is different, right? But when we arriving at the relationships between these people we try to uniform them.

swinger, polyamory, open relationship explained in a graph
The three main forms of ethical non-monogamy(source: the TED talk of Jessica O'Reilly)

One of the main concepts of consensual non-monogamy is that there is no "right" way to be in a relationship. The warehouse of relationships is infinite and never runs out of goods. If you open your mind and keep consent and respect on the first place you can form your own, unique type of ethical non-nonmonogamous relationship with your very own rules.

We believe that every single person in the world is unique. But also every single relationship these people form should be unique, too!

Do you want to have more sexual partners but exclusively "no strings attached"? Until they want the same, it's fine.

Do you want to find people to threesomes or foursomes, or even-bigger-numbersomes with together with your partner? Until they happily consent, it's fine, too.

Do you want to let new romantic emotions into your relationship? Play clean and you are good to go!

But also: do you want to be monogamous and exclusive? If your partner likes the idea, too, we'll be happy for you!

As a conclusion: it's pretty hard to put ethical non-monogamous relationships into fachs. Usually we speak about two forms beside polyamory and swinger is what most people imagine when we start to chat about this topic.

swingers in a bed
The swinging lifestyle roots back to the 1950's. Some say that the first swingers were military pilots whose families lived close to each other. They were afraid that they might not return from a mission and formed bonds way beyond the usual family borders.

What is a swinger?

"Swinging, sometimes called wife swapping, husband swapping or partner swapping, is a sexual activity in which both singles and partners in a committed relationship sexually engage with others for recreational purposes." - the definition of swinger on Wikipedia.

Swinger is the most sex-centred form of ethical non-monogamy it's more about reaching one's sexual dreams and boundaries than any other. Swingers tend to rule out romantic emotions and avoid "unnecessary" emotional intimacy. They constrict their practice to sheer sexuality, sometimes they don't even know the real name of their casual partners.

They practice the lifestyle in swinger clubs or private house parties, but there are also many swingers registered on our ethical non-monogamous dating site. Swingers mainly have sex in the forms of threesomes, foursomes and orgies.

Also swingers have unique rules and practices. Some people

  • are keen to kiss, some consider it too intimate
  • are into swapping partners, some just enjoy having sex together but separately
  • are into kink, some are not
  • are open for solo people to join their couple, some only do foursomes
  • want to meet again, some want to disappear.
  • and so on.
A great report from a Swinger's convention in the USA

There is one rule in swinger above all: no always means no. If someone decides not to join your company you must accept the answer without any further question, objection especially without criticism.

It also means you have to learn how to say no. I thought about these kind of skills when I wrote about the need of constant inner work earlier...

Open relationship

Open relationships are usually the ones where people consent to have "extra partners" beside their longtime mates - but without any connection between the "original" and the "new" ones.

open relationship rule from a reddit post
Stories from redditors about their lives in an open relationship.Oh, and did you know that many famous people practice ethical non-monogamy? Check out our list here!

Sometimes it can be a quid pro quo, meaning that one may let their partner have an other lover in exchange for the possibility to open for an other lover themselves, too. It can be healthy and unhealthy, too. The longterm outcome very much depends on the original relationship's values and strength.

Personally I believe that open relationships are most of the time just springboards to swinger or polyamory, kind of a "phase one", a starting point in the transition from a monogamous relationship to a more open lifestyle. It's because people are curious - and also knowing the other partners is a key to cope with jealousy.

Calming down after the first rush of opening a relationship you will ask yourself, why shouldn't we do it together? Why should I leave out from these experiences the one who I love so much? Why should I close out my significant other from any part of my life or personality?

In polyamory, we not just not try to avoid getting in touch with our significant other's other significant other, but we even try to establish a good relationship with them. There is even a word created for describing a person who also loves the one I love: this person is my metamour.

And it's great to (romantically) love somebody together! It's the energy is on the square. And why wouldn't I want the best for the ones I love?

And now let's move to a whole different world: let's talk about polygamy!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is polygamy-what-is.jpg
Kenyan man marrying two women on the same say. Maybe it's just a bad picture but they seem to be too happy

What is the meaning of polygamy?

"Polygamy is the practice of marrying multiple spouses. When a man is married to more than one wife at a time, sociologists call this polygyny. When a woman is married to more than one husband at a time, it is called polyandry." - meaning of polygamy from Wikipedia

While polyamory is more like a philosophy, a lifestyle, a consciously chosen way of living, polygamy is an institution. Literally: the tradition of having more than one spouse that is prohibited in Western countries.

Where is polygamy legal around the world?
The legality of polyamory around the world

Although polygamy is much wider spread than you would imagine, there is also a bad notion connected to the word.  Mentioning polygamy many associates to the exploitation of women, unbalanced, unequal relationships, unlawful behaviour and sometimes even sexual harassment.

I don't believe that polygamy by its nature would be a bad, necessary exploiting or immoral thing - although we see a lot of bad examples around the world. These don't come from the practice of polygamy itself, they are rooted much more in cultural traditions.

I'm pretty certain that in a million cases polygamy is exploiting and in million cases it is not - as it is always true about a generalization. I don't feel entitled and don't have the knowledge to make a judgement in this particularly sensitive question that also has nothing to do with our core topic.

But what we can know as a fact is that the Ethnographic Atlas (1998) noted 1,231 societies, from which 588 had frequent polygyny (having multiple wives), 453 had occasional polygyny, only 186 were monogamous and 4 had polyandry (having multiple husbands).

It means that 85% of the world's cultures are non-monogamous.

But if you look at the roots of our Western culture, you'll also find for example polygamy in the Bible reading the books about Abraham, King David or Solomon.

Isn't it shocking when you realize that most of the human cultures live different from the way we are told to be the only possible way of living?

Conclusion

Polyamory is a philosophy, a lifestyle, an ethical way to love more than one person. Polyamory is much more about love, about giving your attention and time then about orgies or sexual adventures. Women and men are equal: they both can have "extra partners", and consent is king.

There are as many forms of ethical non-monogamous relationships as many people live in them. We briefly talked about swinger (the most sex-centred and least emotionally inclusive) and open relationships (when people let their partners have other partners but they do not want to get involved in the new connections).

Polygamy is an institution, the practice of having more than one wife - but extremely rarely more than one husband. Polygamy doesn't have to be ethical or constructive and polygamy is even prohibited in most of the Western countries, thus it carries a bad connotation that you shouldn't stick on the similarly sounding polyamory.

Please don't interchange these two terms! Not just because they don't mean the same, but also because the "bad reputation" of polygamy could distort the listener's view of a fully ethical polyamorous person easily.