Are Open Relationships And Ployamorous Relationships The Same Thing?

I was reading this week’s Savage Love (which, if you like The “Oh!” Face, you should definitely be reading every week!) in which Dan tried to untangle a reader’s misconceptions about non-monogamy. In this case it was in the context of cheating and cuckolding but I’m not going to go into that side of it. What I want to talk about is the many faces of non-monogamy and the ways in which they overlap. Non-monogamy in North America has been around since at least the Second World War when the first swingers clubs comprised of fighter pilot who at the time had the highest rates of mortality. They would have swinging parties with all their wives in the hopes that the pilots who survived the war would be more likely to take care of the wives of the deceased, having been intimate with them and hopefully having formed a deeper connection. Non-monogamy went in and out of vogue throughout the 20th century and is experiencing a resurgence of popularity today.

Non-monogamy takes many, many different forms and, one could argue, is unique for each partnership. I won’t go into detail about all of the different faces of non-monogamy because it would be about 300 pages long, but I will talk about the differences between a few of the more well known types of non-monogamy.

Open relationship is a term that is often used to describe non-monogamy, although it can be a bit of a misnomer sometimes. An open relationship is one in which the partners have some degree of freedom to pursue other sexual partners. Some open relationships allow for multiple boyfriends/girlfriends and others only allow for no-strings-attached casual sex or fuck buddies. But in general, both partners of the primary relationship have licence to seek out other sexual, and sometimes emotional, partners.

Then there are polyamorous relationships in which multiple partners, both sexual and emotional, are allowed. It essentially means having more than one boyfriend/girlfriend (or one or more of each!) or having a polyamorous triad (quad, etc.) of three or more people engaged in a single relationship. So why doesn’t all this fall into the category of an open relationship? Well not all poly relationships are open. Some triads are closed with no going out and seeking a fourth or fifth or sixth or… Some poly relationships are open but just because someone is in a polyamorous relationship doesn’t mean they are in an open one and, as I said earlier, just because someone is in an open relationship doesn’t mean that they’re in a poly one. Polyamory means multiple sexual and  emotional partners, multiple boyfriends/girlfriends not just friend’s with benefits.

Then there are what Dan Savage calls Monogamish relationships. These are mostly-monogamous relationships with a little outside action from time to time. These aren’t open relationships…except for when they are. This can include things like being monogamous except sometimes you have threesomes, or being able to have sex outside of the relationship when the other partner is out of town for long periods of time, or if the relationship goes long distance for a period.

As with any kind of relationship, non-monogamous ones require a good amount of work and a better amount of honest communication. Non-monogamy isn’t harder than monogamy if it’s what you truly want but it can be hard if only one person in the relationship really wants non-monogamy and the other one doesn’t. That’s where the whole communication thing comes in. If you’re interested in non-monogamy I would highly recommend reading the book The Ethical Slut, and Sex At Dawn is pretty wonderful too if you want to learn more about the history of non-monogamy, it’s much more common than you might expect.

Below is a ridiculously confusing ven diagram thingy that pretty much lays out all the different types of non-monogamy. It’s a little hard to wrap your head around but if you click on it, it will enlarge to a more readable size:

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