The Difference Between Open Relationships, Polyamory and Swinging Relationships.

The Difference Between Open Relationships, Polyamory and Swinging Relationships.

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In my experience with ethical non-monogamy, both living the lifestyle and working as a professional relationship coach, I have learned that there is no one way to describe the term. This can be both liberating and confusing. Liberating because it gives everyone permission to actively create and recreate their relationships. Confusing because people may have completely different meanings for the terms they use to describe the kind of relationship they are in.

Here are a few simple definitions of the most common practices of ethical non-monogamy:

Open Relationship

Partners who are in an established relationship with each other and openly agree to see other people. They may do this together, separately, or a combination of both. The connections they make outside of their relationship may or may not be romantic, sexual or emotionally involved. It is common for couples to establish agreements on what they can and cannot do with other people. These agreements will vary from couple to couple and may change over time, depending on the needs and desires of all parties involved.


I?ve heard polyamory defined as the practice of loving more than one person and the practice of loving in many ways. What I love about polyamory is that it allows for everyone involved to be who they are and find healthy ways of being in a relationship with others. Like open relationships, polyamory will take on the form of the people who choose this lifestyle. Polyamory stands out from other forms of ethical non-monogamy in that polyamorous people are drawn to relationships that are emotionally involved (think ?in love?). People in poly relationships tend to view their relationships equally rather than assign labels like ?primary? and ?secondary?.


Swinging is a form of social sex. Singles and couples, called swingers, engage in different kinds of sexual sharing or swapping with each other. The degree of intimacy and sexual involvement differs with every encounter and is determined by clear boundaries and agreements with all parties. Swinging can be a great way to enhance sexual energy and connection in any relationship. As with any form of ethical non-monogamy, open honest communication is essential.

Polyamory means having multiple romantic relationships at the same time, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. An open relationship is a relationship where the parties are free to take new partners. The terms both fall under the heading of ?ethical non-monogamy,? but they are not synonymous. You can combine them or do one without the other. If your relationship is polyamorous and open, then it?s kosher for you to take new relationships, and you may fall in love with your partners. If your relationship is polyamorous and closed, then you have more than one partner but have agreed not to take any new ones. For example, you could have a closed triad, a group of three people who are only involved with each other and don?t get involved with anyone else. If your relationship is open and not polyamorous, then you may take new partners, but these connections are not supposed to be romantic. Swingers often have sex outside their main relationship, but keep it casual. If your relationship is neither open nor polyamorous, you?re probably monogamous.

Polyamory means having multiple romantic relationships at the same time, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. An open relationship is a relationship where the parties are free to take new partners. The terms both fall under the heading of ?ethical non-monogamy,? but they are not synonymous. You can combine them or do one without the other. If your relationship is polyamorous and open, then it?s kosher for you to take new relationships, and you may fall in love with your partners. If your relationship is polyamorous and closed, then you have more than one partner but have agreed not to take any new ones. For example, you could have a closed triad, a group of three people who are only involved with each other and don?t get involved with anyone else. If your relationship is open and not polyamorous, then you may take new partners, but these connections are not supposed to be romantic. Swingers often have sex outside their main relationship, but keep it casual. If your relationship is neither open nor polyamorous, you?re probably monogamous.

An open relationship is like a conventional relationship ? committed loving coupledom ? except that it includes non-relationship sex with other people.

Polyamory is relationship with more than two people. Either a relationship with three or more people, or being in multiple relationships.

Open relationships are committed but not exclusive in terms of sex.

Polyamory is committed but not exclusive in terms of love and/or sex and/or commitment.

The language of non-monogamy is rather beautifully alive and undecided at the moment. If a definition is a description of how a word is being used, then polyamory perhaps most stridently defies easy definition. We know it when we see it. We certainly know it when we are doing it. But ask 100 poly-people to define polyamory and you will get 100 slightly unique, finely nuanced answers. This isn?t a defect. All it really means is that we are rather democratically in the process of generating new culture, so you may as well appreciate the moment for what it is and trying to be before boxing it up for the sake of inflexible convenience.

One of the features of polyamory that I have always found intriguing is that the word is simultaneously used to describe people as well as relationships and that the two uses do not perfectly overlap. For example, it is a curious thing that a person can be polyamorous even when they aren?t dating anyone, i.e. not sexually or romantically involved at all, monogamously or otherwise. When a person describes themselves as being polyamorous, this does not necessarily imply either that they are presently in a relationship or, if they are, that the relationship is ?open? at that moment. You can be a polyamorous single or in a closed triad or quad for example, and yet the word is still perfectly intelligible and the meaning is more or less self-evident.

What this implies is that, when polyamory is used to describe people, it functions as either an indicator of something more akin to sexual orientation, ?I am polyamorous,? in that it asserts a stable, identifying quality about that person, or else as an indicator of something more like an action, ?I am/we are trying polyamory,? in which case nothing intrinsic to the person is necessarily being conveyed. These two uses are actually quite radically different in ways that have real, practical ramifications. When a historically monogamous person ?tries polyamory? say, at the behest of someone who ?is polyamorous,? the two people are likely to have very different experiences of the ensuing relationship.

In fact, at the moment, the dominant trend of the culture seems to be flowing towards embracing the active form of the word. As non-monogamy in general seeps ever deeper into the mainstream of public consciousness, lots of historically monogamous people are trying polyamory on to see how it fits. It is from this semantic branch that the distinction between polyamorous people and relationships comes into sharper focus. Many of the people involved with non-monogamy see polyamory as something that they are doing rather than who they are. It may be a semantic difference, but it is a still a fairly important one.

Whereas polyamorous person-hood may best be expressed in terms of ability, capacity, preference, values, and so forth, polyamorous relationships tend to relate more to organization, agreements, rules, activities, and other such practical matters. This is actually a fairly critical distinction to make, because all relationships, not just the non-monogamous ones, involve two or more people who will have different emotional capacities, sexual and romantic preferences, value systems, etc? An individual might value and desire, say, non-hierarchical relationship anarchy, and still end up dating someone who sees that relationship as primary, or who has no interest in personally taking other partners.

As for open relationships, the handy guideline I use is: am I available to start a new romantic or sexual relationship? If yes, the relationship is open; if no, closed. The nice thing about keeping this simple is that, it permits a bit more nuance. You can have a polyamorous triad where no one is taking new partners, for example. However, this method also leans very heavily on point of reference, in that it simply lets you speak for yourself. You might be emotionally or practically overburdened and not have the bandwidth for new relationships, and that may change in the future, but for now you aren?t available. One of your partners may not have the same problem, and may be perfectly happy to start something new.

Keeping with the running theme of ambiguity, I recognize that this is not how many people view open verses closed relationships. Typically, this refers to the presence or absence of a standing agreement or rule within a set of people whereby the participants are expected to conduct themselves as unavailable and eschew the formation of new intimate relationships according to explicit terms, i.e. a line is drawn somewhere between platonic friendship and physical or romantic intimacy or actions. The nice thing is that the question, ?am I available? covers most of your bases whether it refers only to you or to the entire set.

?I?ve Got Two Lovers, and I Ain?t Ashamed?

On spreading around love, butter, and happiness.

?I?ve got two lovers, and I ain?t ashamed; two lovers, and I love them both the same.? ? Mary Wells

?Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness is never reduced by being shared.? ? Buddha

?I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.? ? Bilbo Baggins

Polyamory has been criticized for spreading love too thin and thus hurting the lovers. In reply, one might compare love to happiness, which, as Buddha said, ?is never reduced by being shared.? In this sense, the heart can expand when you love more. Is spreading love around like spreading limited butter or like expanding happiness? The answer is not straightforward.

Polyamory and open marriages

?Some people ask the secret of our long marriage. We take time to go to a restaurant two times a week. A little candlelight, dinner, soft music and dancing. She goes Tuesdays, I go Fridays.? ? Henny Youngman

Polyamory, like open marriage, is a form of consensual non-monogamy. In sexually open marriages, the underlying attitude is that marriage is essentially fine, and the major problem is that of declining sexual desire. Hence, the solution is to occasionally add a sexual partner.

While declining sexual desire is also seen as a problem in polyamory, it is assumed to be part of a larger problem: the idea that one person can fill all our romantic (and other significant) needs. Thus, ?merely? adding a new sexual partner does not solve the problem; we need to add another lover who can also satisfy all our romantic needs. This is a more radical challenge to monogamous marriages.

If one person cannot meet all our romantic needs, it is reasonable to assume that one can fill the needs of more than one person ? otherwise, we shall be short of people who are able to satisfy our romantic needs. With this reasoning, however, we run the risk of spreading love too thin.

Love and butter: Spreading love too thin

?Ten men waiting for me at the door? Send one of them home, I?m tired.? ? Mae West

?I?m saving all my love for you.? ? Whitney Houston

Does loving two (or more) people necessarily mean loving each of them ?thinner?? This would be the case if love, like butter, is fixed in quantity ? then, spreading your love among two lovers would inevitably reduce the amount each of them gets.

Love requires lots of investment of time, effort, financial resources, and emotional availability. All of these are limited, and some, such as time, are also fixed in quantity. In this sense, love is like butter; you cannot spread it too thin and expect to gain romantic profundity, which requires for its development time and other resources. Indeed, when thinking about loving two people at the same time, we typically assume shallowness: Spreading your love over two lovers should result in less love to each. In this situation, the difficulty is not that we have too little butter or too little love, but that we have too much bread or too many lovers.

Here?s where things get interesting. Love is not an entity with a fixed energy, but a capacity that, when used, generates increasingly positive energy ? in the sense of ?using it or losing it.? Hence, there is no point asking someone (as various love songs do) to save her love for someone by not using it.

In any case, we can ask: Are people who have hardly loved more likely to provide you with greater love than those who loved? Often, the opposite is true. Although we may speak about a certain ?saturation? of sexual desire, in the sense that we just do not want to (and actually cannot) have sex now, we can hardly speak about a ?saturation? of love, in the sense that we cannot love now.

Love and happiness: The heart can expand

?The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love.? ? Samantha, from Her

The major way to deal with the idea of decreasing love is to argue that unlike butter, romantic energy is not fixed in quantity, but has the potential to grow. This is the case of shared happiness ? a single candle can light thousands of wicks.

A few basic psychological capacities might be involved in expanding the heart: (1) the broadening capacity of positive emotions, (2) the expanding nature of the self, and (3) the ability to be generous.

In her influential broaden-and-build theory, Barbara Fredrickson (2001) claims that positive emotions, such as happiness and love, broaden people?s momentary thought-action repertoire, which in turn serves to build their enduring personal resources, ranging from physical and intellectual strengths to social and psychological capabilities. Fredrickson further argues that positive emotions do not merely signal flourishing ? they also produce flourishing. Positive emotions are valuable not just as end states in themselves, but also as a means to enhance psychological growth and improve our well-being over time.

Another capacity facilitating the growth of the heart is self-expansion. The ?self-expansion model? holds that we are hardwired to expand ourselves through relationships with other people. This is because relationships enable us to incorporate the resources and perspectives of others within ourselves. Over time, and because of their interpersonal relationships, people can ?expand? by internalizing perspectives and resources that were previously unavailable to them (Aron et al., 2013: 95?98).

Both the broadening capacity of positive emotions and the expanding nature of the self are highly relevant for understanding how polyamory provides a context in which one?s heart can expand by participating in a few loving relations. Polyamory is a form of romantic life that is maximally self-expansive. This idea is consistent with the nearly ubiquitous references to ?personal growth? in descriptions of polyamory (Ben-Ze?ev & Brunning, 2018).

Romantic generosity

?For it is in giving that we receive.? ? Francis of Assisi

Another capacity that expands our heart is that of generosity. Generosity is the virtue of giving to another without expecting anything in return. Many religions and moral traditions praise generosity. This praise is justified: Studies show that generosity is good for us, physically and mentally. Generosity can decrease blood pressure, reduce stress, help you live longer, boost your mood, promote social connections, and improve the quality of your marriage (Whillans, et al., 2016).

Loving two people can be described as a kind of romantic generosity, which, like other types of generosity, increases the flourishing of the person. Generosity is positively associated with marital satisfaction, while the lack of generosity is associated with marital conflict and perceived likelihood of divorce (Dew & Wilcox, 2013). Indeed, when people are asked to name three negative qualities that would make them shun a prospective partner, stinginess consistently shows up.

Generosity is an essential positive framework for prosperous marital relationships. Extending romantic generosity from one person to two people can in principle further enhance one?s good feelings while expanding the heart.

Loving more

?What should the sleeping arrangements be in a mnage–trois? Is it polite to read while two people have sex beside you?? ? Adam Thirlwell

We know, then, that sometimes love is like happiness in its ability to increase our resources and spread additional care and love to people around us. What we do not know yet is whether polyamory is typically beneficial in increasing the extent of love.

It is hard to measure the extent of romantic love as it is determined by various factors, such as romantic intensity (momentary peak of passionate, often sexual, desire), romantic profundity (enduring positive attitudes expressed, e.g., in intimacy and closeness), and length of relationship. We may call the combination of these factors ?romantic robustness? (Ben-Ze?ev, 2019). Our question is whether polyamory enhances romantic robustness.

Loving two people at the same time clearly increases the overall romantic intensity, which is highly dependent on change. The change involved in having a new partner certainly increases one?s sexual desire. This is the ?Coolidge Effect,? in which people (males more so than females) enjoy greater sexual arousal when facing a new partner compared with facing their familiar one.

The greater intensity in polyamorous relationships, which is most evident when meeting a new partner, is described as the ?New Relationship Energy? (NRE) stage. In this stage, which is a kind of infatuation with the new partner, everything seems wonderful, and people feel that the world is opening for them; they feel more creative and energized about their projects and personal relationships (Barker, 2018; Sheff, 2014).

However, such additional new energy is often divided unevenly: The new partner receives the lion?s share of the individual?s sexual energy in a way that would even decrease the amount the current partner has received so far. Here, although we have more butter, the current partner may well get less of it. Moreover, as in the case of infatuation, the duration of the stage of NRE is relatively brief, about a year or so, after which the issue of limited (though not fixed) romantic energy becomes even more acute.

The relationship between polyamory and romantic profundity is multifaceted, mainly because profound love requires investing a lot of quality time. Whereas time decreases emotional intensity, time enhances emotional profundity. Accordingly, it is natural to assume that having a few romantic partners considerably reduces the quality time available for each. Nonetheless, polyamory increases complexity, which underlies romantic profundity. There is no doubt that polyamorous relationships are more complex than monogamous ones. Living in such circumstances requires a profound understanding of the other partners.

Loving longer

?If I could save time in a bottle, The first thing that I?d like to do Is to save every day . . . Just to spend them with you.? ? Jim Croce

The impact of polyamory on the length of a romantic relationship is also complicated, as it is determined by various personal and contextual factors. Generally, the above-mentioned three capacities ? namely, the broaden-and-build, the self-expanded, and generosity, which are dominant in polyamory ? seem to increase the quality and length of romantic relationships.

However, polyamorous relationships also include various difficulties that are negatively associated with enduring relationships. Two such difficulties are having an existential dependency on someone you have not chosen and the increased possibility of feeling that you are second best. Other problems include managing ?New Relationship Energy?; the potential pitfalls of ?choice fatigue? when faced with many potential partners; the dangers of ?compassion fatigue? in a life with competing demands; social stigma; complications in family life; and resisting the allure of unworkable polyamorous ideals (Brunning, 2018; Sheff, 2014).

The length of the relationship seems to be of lesser value in polyamory, which involve less commitment and expectations that a given relationship will endure for a long time. This is expressed in the attitudes of polyamorous people, such as lacking the expectation that the relationship will be lifelong, living for the moment, and taking breakups much easier. These attitudes are a sort of self-fulfilled prophecy. Accordingly, the above-cited moving song by Jim Croce cannot be part of the polyamorous ideology.

Although personal and contextual factors are decisive in determining the relationship length in polyamory, the above-noted difficulties seem to make polyamorous relationships briefer than monogamous ones.

Concluding remarks

?I reserve the right to love many different people at once, and to change my prince often.? ? Anas Nin

I have focused on one central issue in the dispute concerning polyamory: the charge that it spreads love too thin. I have shown that, in many circumstances, this charge is unfounded. This does not imply that polyamory is unequivocally suitable for all. As indicated above, it has its own difficulties. Nevertheless, some people ? currently about 10 percent in the US, 7 percent in Europe and Japan, 5 percent of couples in India & China and 2 percent worldwide ? deem polyamory the most optimal way of living and loving.

For me personally, I am polyamorous, and have been since before I knew the word. I have been single and polyamorous, in a monogamous relationship and all while being polyamorous throughout my life. For me the word describes a stable, intrinsic, probably permanent feature of my personality every bit as fixed in my own experience as my sexual orientation. The word is simply a placeholder for or map of something subjectively essential to my personality and state of being, which would remain without the convenience of definition. Nevertheless, I can easily recognize that when many people use the word, they do not use it to imply anything like the meaning I personally associate with it.

Ethical non-monogamy is becoming more widespread. The fact that people are talking more openly about their sexuality and sexual desires is incredibly exciting. Just having the topic on the table, whether you act on it or not, is huge. Relationships are hard work. I think what makes them hard, and what often contributes to their demise, is a lack of openness around sexual expression. If you are in a place where you feel stifled and you don?t know what to do next, please contact me. I would love to be a part of the conversation that helps you get clear on what?s next for you and your relationships.


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