Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Relationship Forms and Styles

This article is the third in a four part series on polyamory and open and non-traditional relationships. The first article is about open and non-traditional relationships in general, the benefits, the dangers, and how to approach them. The second will discuss jealousy, envy and compersion and how to deal with the issues that opening a relationship could cause. This third discusses and defines various terms. The fourth article will talk about lessons that have been learned in the experience of the polyamorous community which can be applied to any relationship.
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There is a wide variety of relationship styles. The Venn diagram above shows a few of the more common concepts. The shapes are not to any particular scale. The sizes of the various circles are based on what I needed to fit inside them rather than any kind of population proportion.

Emily says: When I was monogamous, I was never comfortable with that relationship form, but, not realizing that there were any other options, I just assumed that there was something wrong with me.

Too many people believe that there is only one way to have a relationship. For some people it works, but for others, it does not. I happen to like steak, but if I were to open a restaurant, I would serve more than steak. Some people like it, others do not, yet others are allergic to it or have religious prohibitions against eating it.

It is the same with relationships. Different forms work better for different people. All are valid. It is simply a matter of figuring out what works for you. Below, we will discuss the various styles shown on the chart above. It is not an exhaustive list, and there are many overlaps from one style to another. Ultimately, remember, it is all about what works for the person involved. As long as people are being open, honest, and caring, they will probably end up on the right track..

Before discussing the forms, I would like to discuss the concept of a Relationship Contract

Relationship Contract
Every relationship has a relationship contract. This can be explicit or implicit, but, as a concept, it describes the expectations, limits, and rules under which the relationship functions. This will be discussed in much greater detail in a later article, but I wanted to explain it briefly because it is a very important concept for understanding many relationship forms.

Monogamy is the relationship style that most people in America practice. It is based on the concept that two people form a bond, ultimately seeking a permanent bond, in order to share their lives.

Candy says: I met a guy who told me that he was polyamorous until he found the right person. Sorry, dude. We call that single.

Single - Casual Dating
Many monogamous people will engage in casual dating. This is a matter of going out with various people. For some, this is a process designed to find a partner that they would like to get more serious with. For others, it is simply a way to play the field and satisfy their physical needs. This is one of the relationship forms that most often results in conflict, as people almost never discuss the relationship contract in play leading to various people having very different expectations of where a relationship is headed and the amount of communication that is appropriate.

Exclusive Relationship
This is the form of relationship that most of us are most familiar with. Two people have a relationship with only each other with the ultimate goal of forming a strong enough relationship to lead to engagement and marriage, children, etc. Even within this relationship form, there are variations. Some people believe that a couple should do everything together. Others think that it is good to have entire segments of their lives that are separate. Some feel that fidelity is a matter only of physical action, i.e. not touching other people. Others feel that fidelity is a matter of thought as well as action (e.g. Jimmy Carter sinning in his heart). Even though this is the "default" relationship form, one should not take for granted the need to communicate about expectations. Any statement that starts with "Everybody knows that...." is usually the start of or explanation for an argument.

Open LDR (Long Distance Relationship)
This is a common situation in the monogamous world where the principles of an open relationship will come into play. Acknowledging physical and emotional needs, a couple separated by great distance may decide that they can pursue casual relationships with local partners under certain restrictions. Sometimes this is a good stopgap solution for a temporary separation. Sometimes this leads to jealousy and conflict. As in any relationship, communication is key. As in any open relationship it is crucial that both partners be honest about their feelings, concerns, and jealousies, both with their partner and, more importantly, with themselves.

Open Relationships
An open relationship is any significant relationship in which one or all partners are allowed to have outside relationships of some kind within the bounds of the relationship contract.


This is the most free-flowing form of open relationships. Partners will engage in casual sexual contact with other people, but will not form serious relationships with them. This is a more comfortable form of open relationship for some because they do not have issues with their partner sharing their body with another person as long as they do not share their heart.

Polyamory is a neologism which literally means "many loves." In a polyamorous relationship, the participants may have emotional relationships with others. There are many different forms that this takes in application. In some relationships, new partners must be approved by other partners. Some people are allowed to have emotional relationships but are limited in physical activities. Others can do anything physically, but there are limits on emotional attachments. The key difference between swinging and polyamory is that swingers only engage in casual sex outside the relationship, while one who is polyamorous may develop deeper emotional relationships.

Primary/Secondary Polyamory (Hierarchical Polyamory)
In Hierarchical polyamory, some relationships are considered to be more significant than others. For example, a married couple in an open marriage could be considered to be hierarchical. The partners may have relationships with other people, but ultimately, the spouse comes first. It is in these situations where it is more common to find veto arrangements, where one's partner may approve or reject a potential secondary relationship. 

Non-Heirarctical Poly

Although philosophically very different, structurally, this relationship style is similar to what single monogamous  folks do. People develop relationships, generally dating as they like, although sometimes there are rules and limits placed from existing relationships. The key philosophical difference between this and single monogamous is that polyamorous people generally feel an obligation to their partners and their needs and 

concerns, while casual dating tends to have more of a caveat emptor approach. Of course, this is not true for everyone in either case, but it is the general trend.

Polyfidelity is a relationship structure in which multiple partners form a committed group relationship. This can be an exclusive arrangement, or it can allow for additional outside relationships.

Exclusive Multi-Partner Arrangements
This is similar to monogamy, but the closed relationship is among more than two people. The members of the relationship do not have relationships outside the group. Besides the obvious, the key difference is that, while monogamy assumes that one will be with one other person for the rest of their life and no other, it is not impossible that a new person could be introduced into the group. This tends to be a fairly complex and uncommon process, meaning that exclusive polyfidelity tends to be a fairly stable, unchanging structure, compared to other polyamorous structures.

Polygamy, meaning one person with multiple spouses who are exclusive to that person, is technically a subset of exclusive multi-partner arrangements. Polygyny is a single man with multiple wives, likewise polyandry a single woman with multiple husbands. Although new partners may be added in the future, by the nature of the arrangement, there will only be one man or woman depending on the type. Historically, this is the common form of multiple partner marriages and arrangements, mostly because, unlike a group marriage, it makes issues of heredity simpler. If the king has 10 wives, you can still tell who his first born is. If the king has 10 wives and 5 co-husbands, it is much harder to know who the first born prince is.

This structure is largely out of favor in most circles: out of favor in the monogamous community because it is so radical, and out of favor in the polyamorous communities because it is so sexually regressive.

Open Polyfidelity

In open polyfidelity, there is a group at the center of the structure, but various members of the group maintain their separate relationships outside the core group. Some groups let people date openly, others require group approval for any new relationships, and others have different arrangements. Like other relationships, there are as many forms for this to take as there are polyfidelitous groups.

This is just a brief overview of various relationship concepts. Trying to explain all of these ideas in one post is like trying to explain science in 700 words, but this gives you the broad strokes. In future articles, we will delve into many of these topics in much greater detail.


  1. One quick note on terminology, from someone into anthropology:
    Polygamy is any marriage practice involving a person having more than one married partner at the same time.
    Polygyny is the form of marriage in which one husband has multiple wives.

  2. You are entirely correct, and I have corrected the text. I will correct the Venn diagram, but that takes more effort so I will get on it later.

  3. your venn diagrams are terrible.

    i'm not trying to be a jerk, but the whole point of them is to cover ground, and overlap when there is overlap. how can you overlap monogamous relationship with polyfidelity? or polyfidelity (accent on the fidelity) overlapping with open relationships? a little more separation would be good, to keep your terms specific.

    also... i think you are being rather judgmental about a few things, most notably against monogamous people. by putting "casual dating" as a part of the mono circle, you're implying that "mono" is a type of person, not a lifestyle choice, wheras polyfidelity and open relationships are being defined as practices and not kinds of people. it's a choice, like the other two.

    i would also like to know... how does casual dating lumps in with "mono" if it can be dating many people? what a lot of valley people call poly is actually just self-important casual relationships or casual dating/sex, not the above-mentioned "many loves" (which, for the record, annoys me as a word given that it uses a greek and latin word-parts, making erudite outside observers take it less seriously).

    i would do two circles, a casual one and a committed one. within that, you could do a scale of less-to-more open as an x-axis. polygamous relationships can be far more closed and conservative than mono ones, and often when people talk about poly they are just self-justifying either casual dating or swinging (though moreso in the valley than anywhere else i've lived), so there needs to be some specific language to separate them, or an internal scale.

    as a final comment, usually open relationships are either open or closed, not both. many of them are closed, and automatically assuming that they would be open is a mistake many people make, but it's called cheating, particularly by the other person. perhaps it should be where the two interact?

  4. In the interest of brevity, I will only address one point you made in this comment.

    I am sorry that polyamory offends you by its nature of a classical compound. I imagine that you are also offended by such words as gigabyte, geography, thermometer, television, dinosaur, and rhododendron.