When you first decide to make the brave leap from a lifetime of monogamous relationships to the world of consensual non-monogamy (also known as CNM), you get asked a lot of…erm…interesting questions by friends, family, and pretty much anyone else who you knew up until that point.
Questions like, “isn’t that just cheating with permission?”, or “are you afraid of commitment?”, or my personal favorite, “does this mean you’re Mormon now?” All of which we’re happy to help provide witty and pointed scripted answers to in a future blog post.
One question that seems to still stump folks who have already begun their CNM explorations is about the difference between open relationships and polyamory. Labels and terminology are a big deal in the world of CNM in order to help demystify and make sense of an esoteric and utterly unfamiliar territory.
This blog post is designed to help define the labels of open relationship and polyamory in the simplest way possible.
What Open Relationships and Polyamory Have in Common
Before we understand how any two “things” differ, we must first understand where they are the same.Open relationships and polyamorous relationships share two vitally crucial common elements:
They are both not strictly monogamous
In each case, the expectation is that the relationship container is not 100% sealed to outside sexual and/or romantic interactions.
There is an incredibly wide spectrum of what that can look like, but in simplest terms, the partners have removed the one rule to rule them all in monogamy which is “just me and just you forever or at least as long as we’re together.”
They are both consensual
Regardless of how much information is shared about the open part of a relationship, ideally, each party has opted in and hopefully, there is definitive clarity that each partner is aware that the relationship is not closed.
Let’s be very clear here: the consensual part of non-monogamy is key. Non-consensual non-monogamy has a much more concise and familiar term: cheating.
Cheating and adultery is any situation where if someone told someone else that their husband was sexting other women (or men), this would land as a cataclysmic shock and instantly vaporize the relationship by a bomb of betrayal. This is not what happens in consensual non-monogamy. While finding out may not exactly tickle, but it wouldn’t be a surprise.
One nuance here is what’s unaffectionately known in poly land as OPP or OPV (one person’s penis / vagina).
This is when one partner imposes sexual exclusivity on another partner while being open themselves. However, we here don’t consider a situation where one person demands their partner’s exclusive sexual rights while sharing themselves to be fully consensual unless the other partner is 100% on board with that.
Now that we understand the similarities, we can learn the differences between open relationships vs. polyamory.
What’s the difference between open relationships and polyamory?
Now that we see where open relationships and polyamory overlap, let’s look at the distinctions by reviewing the standard definitions of these alternative relationship structures.
The definition of an open relationship is “an intimate relationship that is sexually non-monogamous.” Most often, open relationships are spoken of in the context of a primary, dyadic couple structure that consents to sexual flexibility with others.
What we believe characterizes open relationships is a degree of secrecy, where specific details of who, when, and where are kept under wraps from each partner. You know there’s extracurricular activity happening, but nothing more than that.
The tricky part is that one can argue that all non-monogamous relationships are open by nature because they are not closed. Here at Leveled Up Love, we use “open relationship” inclusively since its scope is currently broadening with ever-increasing interest.
Conversely, the definition of a polyamorous relationship is the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the informed consent of all partners involved.
Here are the most noticeable elements you’ll find in a polyamorous relationship vs. an open relationship:
In polyamory, there is full disclosure where partners share when new partners come in, who they are, and when they’re spending time together.
The veil of secrecy is lifted in many ways so that partners feel they don’t have to hide (as much) from each other.
Polyamory also emphasizes more emotionally-defined connection as well as ongoing.
Notice the subtle difference in language between open relationship and polyamory definitions: the former emphasizes the core couple structure with sexual freedom. The latter emphasizes multiple intimate (emotional and sexual) relationships without necessarily a couple structure.
So for many, open relationships are more about sex and secrecy, while polyamory is more about love and transparency.
Polyamory and the Metamour Relationship
Another prominent characteristic of polyamory that’s generally missing from an open relationship is something called the metamour relationship.
A metamour is defined as “my partner’s partner”, and it represents quite a delicate but potentially spacious container for love and healing.
It’s quite common in polyamory for metamours to meet, become friends, or even become lovers themselves! (Bonus!!) We strongly believe in this practice as it has almost always eliminated what we call the “boogeypartner syndrome”, where our idealized vision of our partner’s perfect love interest feeds our insecurities, fear of loss, or low self-esteem.
Interacting with our metamours, while albeit emotionally confronting at times, enables more reassurance and generous feelings than letting them remain as shadowy threats to the relationship (in our minds, of course).
A gratifying way we’ve practiced metamour relating is through what’s called “kitchen table poly”, where lovers are welcome to commune together. With the right partners, this can be an deeply enriching experience of expansive love, especially for children to bear witness to.
However, note that engaging with your metamours is not necessary to be in a polyamorous relationship. Many poly people’s partners never meet, and that works perfectly well for them.
Polyamory and Compersion
Polyamory also often involves the unique experience of something called “compersion.” This is a feeling of empathetic joy one partner feels for the other when the partner is experiencing joy with someone else.
Specifically, sexy-time joy.
Compersion enables certain people to feel a wash of gratitude and love for the love their partner experiences outside of their own container. It is an excellent practice for working with healing the often trauma-induced insecure tendencies characterized as “jealousy”. (I put that in air quotes because we at Leveled Up Love have a very different take on jealousy and how to definitively heal it.)
Compersion is often called the “cure” for jealousy because it is the antithesis of it and that you can’t feel both at the same time. However, this is an inaccurate and potentially discouraging way of looking at it; we humans are complex and often experience conflicting emotions simultaneously, and it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with us.
It is not instinctively the same feeling as sending your child off to a playdate, believe me. It typically emerges in relationship environments with profound inner security, attunement between partners, and clearly defined and respected boundaries and rules.
Many poly people feel compersion for their partners, and many people also don’t. Understand that if the idea of compersion activates you, you’re not alone. While it certainly helps, you do not need to feel compersion to thrive in a CNM relationship.
So even though one could argue that open relationships are inclusive of polyamory, the most prevalent perceptions of their differences are around the information shared between partners.
- In the open, you know there’s outside activity possible, but you don’t necessarily know the details of who, where, or when.
- In poly, you do know the details of who, where, and when, and potentially meet and establish relationships with outside partners.
Can you be in both an open and polyamorous relationship?
Now, here’s where things get funkdafied. Two people in one relationship can be in both an open relationship and a polyamorous one. Why?
Because each person should have the right and ability to craft their ideal experience of open relating. Let’s say one partner loves to hear all the titillating details of their partner’s sexual and emotional adventures, while the other partner’s nervous system crashes if they get sent barely clothed bedtime photos.
How information is shared does not have to match! Sharing alignment does make things easier to remember, but it’s not necessary. Rather, it’s when all partners demand congruent constructs for each other that trouble begins to brew.
Consent isn’t just about saying “yes” to other partners; each partner must be a “yes” to the blueprint of openness as well.
Phew! Lots of nuances, right? Well, welcome to the world that is open love. Once you take out the simple–and limiting–rule of “just you, just me, while we’re together”, you reveal a world of opportunity that is ripe for exploration.
And, it is a complex world at that. We understand that all of this can be incredibly overwhelming if you’re just considering opening up or getting out of the gate. Opening up peacefully and productively takes care, thought, and time, and having the right kind of open-informed and friendly support is crucial to your success.
Go deeper to find out how we can help guide that delicate process for you.
We hope this helped clarify what makes an open relationship different than a polyamorous one.
One simple scenario to help you visualize is this: In an open relationship, a woman might meet someone at a conference in a different state and have full-blown sex with him, and not share any part of that event with her spouse.
Whereas in poly, that woman may meet someone at a conference, have sex with them, come home and tell her spouse about it, who later invites him to their next family barbecue.
Final Thoughts on Open Relationships vs. Polyamory
The most important thing to understand here is that one is not inherently “better” than the other; there are infinite nuances and variables that go into creating a CNM relationship that works.
We just hope that in all cases, there’s extra emphasis on the “C”.
And remember, labels are helpful for triangulating your starting point in having a common understanding of something. And then, labels are best viewed as a diving board from which to jump off and explore the great blue deep.
Here at Leveled Up Love, we believe that rather than fussing over what terminology you use to label your CNM relationship container, it’s more useful to focus on crafting a relationship blueprint that works for you and your partners.
This is precisely what we can help you do in our Secure Poly Collective program, for identifying and overcoming jealousy and the other obstacles that stop you from enjoying secure and fulfilling CNM relationships.
You’ve got this, and we’ve got you –
Lea + Shai