What’s The Difference Between Polyamory & An Open Relationship?

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By Kasandra Brabaw

So much of what we understand about relationships and love comes not only from the people we know, but the television characters we feel like we know. So when consensual non-monogamy started to finally get some screen time in popular shows like Broad City, more and more people were suddenly having conversations about polyamory and open relationships.

Unfortunately, examples of polyamory on television aren’t always accurate. After Ilana’s “sex friend” Lincoln hooked up with someone else in season three, she literally celebrated by jumping onto the roof of his car and yelling, “That. Is. So. Hot!” That moment sparked essays about how Broad City got polyamory right. But did it?

Sure, Ilana and Lincoln had a successful open relationship — at least until Lincoln revealed that he wanted to be monogamous and was keeping that a secret from Ilana. But the show didn’t show a polyamorous relationship. Even though they both fall under the umbrella of consensual non-monogamy, polyamory and open relationships are two very different things.

For many people, being polyamorous is an important part of their identity, not just a word to describe having multiple sexual or romantic partners at the same time. “Being polyamorous feels hard-wired to their love-lives,” says sexuality educator Aida Manduley, MSW. Meanwhile, people in an open relationship don’t necessarily think of non-monogamy as part of their identity as much as a personal preference.

Everyone’s definitions of polyamory and open relationships is personal to them, of course, and the “open relationship” label is commonly used in two different ways, according to Terri Conley, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, who focuses on sexual behavior and socialization. In most cases, it’s used to encompass all forms of consensual non-monogamy — like polyamory, swinging, and the narrower definition of an open relationship. When being used to describe a particular relationship, “open” generally refers to the idea that there’s a primary partnership of two people who have given each other permission to have sex with people outside of their relationship.

The main difference, then, comes down to commitment. For people in an open relationship, connections made outside of the relationship are usually just about sex. They’re not looking for another person to love or build a second relationship with, and they likely wouldn’t introduce the people they have sex with to their primary partner. “Open relationships are more likely to have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ rule,” Dr. Conley says. That means not talking details about the sex they have outside of their primary partnership, other than to make sure everyone is in good sexual health.

Meanwhile, the word “polyamory” literally means “many loves” and that’s a good working definition. Instead of just looking for sex outside of their primary partnership, poly people are often looking for love. It’s not about having one night stands with your partner’s permission, it’s about creating deep emotional and romantic bonds with multiple people and forming a tight-knit community. It’s more of a culture in that way, says Kate Stewart, a counselor and dating coach who works with polyamorous couples. The poly community in Seattle, where she lives, is incredibly close. “Everyone knows each other, they hang out together, they party together,” she says. That closeness creates a different dynamic in their relationships than someone in an open relationship would have.

So, why are the nit-picky differences between these two words so important? Because words have power in creating and finding community. That’s also why it’s important to have accurate depictions of polyamory on television and in other forms of media, because so many of us begin to understand who we are through what we see. If there’s nowhere for polyamorous people to see a love that looks like theirs (or at least, the kind of love they want to have), then it’s unlikely that they’ll ever find the community they need.

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