Some Notes on Polyamory Terms and Concepts
This document discusses in detail the most important terms used by poly folk, along with the concepts behind them. The goal here is only to cover commonly accepted and understood terms specifically related to poly discussions, but to cover these in some depth. They are grouped logically; for an alphabetic index, see the end.
For a more dictionary oriented approach (alphabetized short definitions of nearly every word even peripherally related to poly), see this language guide or this glossary . For internet poly discussion acronyms see Joe's list . For another short list of poly terms, see lovemore.com
Contact the author, Zhahai Stewart (zhahai(at)aphroweb.net), with corrections, additional info and suggestions.
Polyamory, Polyamorous. (Shorthand: Poly) The core concept of polyamory is being involved in or open to multiple loving relationships, in a context of honesty and negotiation. The word roots are poly = multiple, and amor = love (specifically the sexual/romantic kind of love). Not in the roots but very important is the commitment to honesty with all partners, and openly negotiated ground rules. (The term was coined in 1990 by Morning Glory Zell)
Monogamy, Monogamous. The core concept of monogamy as used today is of exactly two people in a sexually and romantically exclusive relationship. This relationship is substantially based on exchanged promises of sexual exclusivity - whether or not these promises are kept. A common form today is Serial Monogamy, wherein there may be multiple monogamous relationships over time, but the participants are supposed to have no more than one partner at a time.
The roots and earlier meaning of monogamy was "one marriage", referring only to a legally and societally recognized marriage. Today it applies to serious relationships with or without legal marriage. Our society now has some space for discreet multiple relationships (ie: not prosecuting them under adultery or fornication laws), but not for multiple legal marriages (which, called bigamy, is still illegal and enforced).
Polyamory is not the only alternative to monogamy, nor is it the "opposite".
Polyfidelity. A form of polyamory involving a closed group marriage (or marriage-like relationship), in which all adult members are considered primary to each other. As coined by Kerista community (1971-1991), this also included the expectation that all adults of compatible sexual orientations would be sexual with each other, but today many polyfides do not expect this..
Note that that in her 1996 book Lesbian Polyfidelity, author Celeste West uses "polyfidelity" pretty much as others use "polyamory", described above. This usage did not catch on much with the broader poly community, which by then already had the well-established meanings for the terms polyamory and polyfidelity.
Polygamy, Polygyny, Polyandry. These are anthropological terms, not much used within the poly movement. They refer respectively to multiple marriages in general, marriages of multiple women to one man, and of multiple men to one woman. Polygyny has been much more common among world cultures than polyandry, and many non-anthropologists have used polygamy to refer mainly to polygyny, for example among the Mormons. These have mainly referred to marriages recognized by the culture in question. Consider these terms background info, not very useful in today's poly subculture.
Sex. Is polyamory "about sex."? Yes and no. For most polyamorists, the core attraction is "amor" or "amour" -- love, albeit romantic/erotic love. Mostly the focus is on relationships. However, poly definitely involves sex as well, and it's the sexual aspect which distinguishes polyamory from monogamous couples with close platonic friendships.
Open Marriage, Open Relationship. A form of polyamorous relationship in which there may also be other lovers who are not partners in the given relationship. Most commonly, this refers to a primary couple who may have secondary relationships. The term "Open Marriage" was coined by the O'Neils in their 1972 book by the same name. The bulk of the book was about expanded options for self fulfillment in a less confining relationship, but one chapter explored the idea of this including having other lovers, and it is this aspect of openness to which the term refers today.
Open and Closed. This has expanded to a more general concept which can be applied to couples or multipartner primary relationships. An open relationship may allow partners to have additional lovers who are not part of this relationship; a closed one requires that members not be lovers with anybody not "inside" it. Some closed relationships make provision for others to potentially "join".
Primary and Secondary. These terms are very widespread, very important, and yet also very controversial. Some people try to avoid them entirely, for philosophical reasons. Others use the terms, but not always in quite the same way. There are two major usages.
The more common usage roughly describes types of relationships. A "primary" relationship is marriage like; see also "nesting" relationships. It typically involves living together, often involves sharing finances or child raising. Life decisions are often made jointly, eg: where to live; jobs or careers to take, build or depart; bearing or adopting children. Any of these may or may not exist in a given relationship considered primary by those involved. A "secondary" relationship is one generally not involving these things. Typically it involves living separately, having separate finances, and acting more as (perhaps very close) friends than as full partners in major life decisions. In this usage, one could have one primary, no primaries, or several primaries; and also zero or more secondary relationships. Some people have only secondary relationships by choice or circumstances; some have more than one primary. This usage is a description of the kind of interweaving of lives involved in a particular pairing. It does not necessarily reflect the relative depth of love or understanding.
A somewhat less common usage for primary and secondary is for ranking. The most involved partner is primary by definition, the less involved is secondary, etc. In this usage, one cannot have two primaries, or a secondary with no primary. Some poly folk tend to avoid these terms so as to avoid any implied ranking which they do not want to endorse, or do not identify with.
"Tertiary" is less commonly used. Some people distinguish still another type of relationship, with less interweaving of lives than a "secondary". There it however little consensus over the differences between secondary and tertiary, and many people don't use the latter term at all. You'll have to ask what an individual considers the difference to be. (Of course, for those using primary and secondary for ranking, tertiary simply means the third most involved).
Nesting. A nesting relationship means about the same as "primary" (the more common usage) - two or more people living together and building a closely shared life. This is preferable to some, to avoid the "ranking" implication. This eads to the obvious alternative of a non-nesting relationship (sometimes called secondary).
Triad, Quad. A triad is a three way relationship of some sort, often but not always referring to a primary relationship. Also "triadic". A quad would be a four person relationship. Five and six person combinations could be called pentads and hexads, but the higher the number, the fewer such relationships exist, so the terms become less commonly used or understood.
Dyad. Just another name for a pair or couple relationship, standalone or as one piece of a larger relationship. Often used as "dyadic".
Vee, Triangle. Three way relationships may be fairly symmetric with all three pairs being fairly equally involved (a triangle); or two of the pairs may be substantially more bonded than the third pair (a vee or V, think of the letter V). Of course, there is a scale between a fully symmetric triangle and a Vee with the people at the ends being very disconnected, with most triads somewhere along the spectrum. Also, some triads may describe themselves differently in emotional versus sexual connections, so it's quite possible for example to have a sexual Vee and an emotional triangle.
Some people talk about N's or Z's, and W's or M's; you can guess the configurations they have in mind by analogy with the V. There is no consensus about proper usage of these "letter shape" terms.
Hinge. In the case of a Vee relationship (or similar dynamics in a more complex relationship), the "person in the middle", more bonded to each end than they are to each other, is sometimes called the hinge. One can imagine a hinge being more widely spread the less connected the others are to each other. Without the hinge person, the others would often go their separate ways.
MFM, FMF, FFM, MMF, FFF etc. Sometimes the genders of a triad are given acronymically as a short description of some of the dynamics. If it's a Vee relationship, the hinge is typically in the middle. Obviously extensible to more than three, though less commonly.
New Relationship Energy, NRE. The surge of erotic and emotional energy in a relatively new relationship. Over time, relationships change to a more sustainable set of energies, or dissolve. NRE tends to be more overtly exciting by contrast, a factor poly folks need to take into account and compensate for. (Term coined in mid 80's by Zhahai Stewart)
Limerence. Limerence is a term for lovesickness or infatuation. It was coined by Dorothy Tennov, who wrote about it in her book Love and Limerence published in 1979. For the distinction between limerence and NRE see the NRE FAQ.
Compersion. The positive feelings one gets when a lover is enjoying another relationship. Sometimes called the opposite or flip side of jealousy. May coexist with "jealous" feelings. Coined by the Kerista Commune (San Francisco, 1971-1991)
Cheating, adultery, and many other names. The not-uncommon shadow side of monogamy involves making promises of sexual exclusivity but secretly not always keeping them. The dramas involved are part of the monogamous worldviews.
Swinging. Another variant or modification to monogamy, involving sexual exploration in an environment structured to contain it without damage to an otherwise monogamous relationship. Like polyamory, it involves honesty and consent. Unlike polyamory it typically tries to stringently avoid love, romance or relationships outside the existing pair (though friendships are OK), and is engaged in mainly by couples (though some groups allow single women as well; rarely are single men allowed). Lifestyles is another term used for this option.
The swinging subculture is generally very different from poly subculture, and almost nobody could fail to notice the difference in conferences, gatherings, parties, magazines, email groups or other manifestations of the two movements. Nevertheless, a few people are involved in both movements, or tend to operate in a grey area "in the middle". Human lives and hearts don't always fit neatly into a set of mutually exclusive boxes.
Responsible non-monogamy. Typically another term for polyamory, favored by Deborah Anapol.
Cowboy. Somebody who figures that these alternative relationships are unstable, and consciously or unconsciously tries to pull one of the partners off into a monogamous relationship with themselves. References "cutting a filly out of the herd".
Parrot. The parrot is a common poly "mascot" or symbol. Punning on "poly wanna X".
Mormons, Church of Latter Day Saints. The Mormons originally practiced a form of polygamy (specifically polygyny - multiple husbands was not OK, only multiple wives). A few renegades still do. This is culturally not part of the polyamorous movement; it's yet anther alternative to monogamy.
Stranger in a Strange Land. A science fiction book by Robert Heinlein (1962) which served as an inspiration to many poly folks before the term "polyamory" was even invented. Not as an exact model, so much as a breaking of the cultural assumptions. Also inspired the neopagan Church of All Worlds, which has been a long term poly hotbed (the term polyamory was coined by two prominent members).
Intimate Network. Sometimes poly folks are embedded in a network of relationships, with friends and lovers and ex lovers and maybe future lovers, who themselves may be friends, lovers, ex and future lovers with each other. Some may be couples, some may be single, some could be in larger groups. Deborah Anapol labeled this an intimate network.
- FMF, etc
- Heinlein, Robert
- intimate network
- MFM, etc
- New Relationship Energy
- open relationship, open marriage
- open vs closed
- parrot (mascot)
- responsible non-monogamy
- Stranger in a Strange Land
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