The majority prefer the familiarity and comfort of monogamy, but sexual adventurists of all stripes walk among us. Just think, while you’re haggling with your partner over the electric bill or Venmo’ing the same $30 back and forth to pay for weekly groceries, there are couples out there swinging from partner to partner, living in a committed throuple, or engaging in other alternative sexual and romantic lifestyles that fly in the face of tradition.
But what’s the difference between being polyamorous, being a swinger, and having an open relationship? Are there differing rules involved in each of these more free-wheeling approaches to romance and intimacy?
What are polyamorous relationships?
Popular conceptions of polyamory tend to conflate it with sexual promiscuity. This is totally wrong, as polyamory is really about consensual companionship, albeit with multiple partners at the same time. Nor is it anything close to polygamy, which is the practice of having multiple wives, sometimes practiced by those of a fundamentalist sect.
Psychologist Elisabeth A. Sheff defined polyamory for Psychology Today in 2018 as follows:
Polyamory is a form of consensual non-monogamy (CNM) with emotionally intimate relationships among multiple people that can also be sexual and/or romantic partners.
There are a wealth of misconceptions that follow the term—chief among them that it’s nothing but evidence of the practicer’s hedonism. According to the certified sex therapist Janet Brito, however, people in polyamorous relationships can indeed be very committed to one another, and their bonds are rooted in firm (and occasionally even rigid) rules that outline what is and isn’t allowed between partner(s).
The whole enterprise functions according to “shared agreements about sex and relationships” between the people who are polyamorous, Sheff wrote in a 2019 article for Healthline. “Polyamory is defined as practicing or being open to intimate relationships with more than one person,” she said. “Dating as a polyamorous person means you’re not looking for just one person to share a romantic or sexual connection with.”
Obviously, this dynamic necessitates a lot of trust, communication, and consent between all parties. If jealousy starts to arise, which is understandable for most people, it’s likely to erode the trust necessary for such an arrangement to function, so experienced poly people in successful relationships become great at communicating what they want and need from everyone involved.
What are open relationships?
Open relationships are a bit different, in that the term usually applies strictly to sexual endeavors. As the writer Valerie Fischel explained for Self in 2018, open relationships are another form of consensually non-monogamous relationships, and they vary from couple to couple.
The philosophy behind open relationships, at least in part, stems from a belief that committing is monogamy is futile as a life-long endeavor. Being in an open relationship makes some people feel free, yet, unburdened by expectations that might make their sex lives grow stale in the long run, more able to commit to their primary partner. Again, like those involved in polyamory, people in open relationships must put trust and communication at the forefront if the relationship is to succeed, or at least exist unencumbered by threats of lies and deceit.
Typically, open relationships function according to strict rules as well, and they vary across the board depending upon the preferences of those involved. For example, a couple could be in an open relationship in which only one of them actually explores intimacy with a third party; as long as the other partner remains in the loop and accepting, the therm still applies. In her article, Fischel described the relationships of a few of her friends, all of whom are in open relationships or marriages:
One married couple I’m friends with has a couple of girlfriends between them, and they also have their own partners (she has both male and female partners, and he has female partners). I have a good friend who lives apart from her boyfriend; she has several regular male and female lovers, while he travels the world, finding spontaneous sexual encounters along the way.
Though all of the sexual exploits inevitably vary, the good thing is people in these relationships typically choose paths that fit their sexual needs.
What is swinging?
Swinging typically involves a monogamous couple searching together for a sexual partner who isn’t involved in their relationship. As Amy Moors, a sexual researcher at Chapman University, told Insider in 2019, there a few manifestations of swinging, like when a couple has a threesome with someone outside the relationship, or when two or multiple couples decide to swap their partners for sexual experiences.
Swinging can be a lifestyle unto itself. And in fact, many of its adherents refer to it as exactly that: Sex expert Jess O’Reilly told Ask Men that the term “swinging” is somewhat outdated, and its more dedicated practitioners now like to refer to it as “the lifestyle.” While it definitely borrows some aspects from open relationships, swinging is purely transactional and, as a result, naturally thrives within its own particular communities.
“Swingers are typically heterosexual couples and individuals with a variety of forms of ‘swapping’ or exchanging partners,” Courtney Geter, a family therapist, told the website.
While all of these relationship categories are contingent upon the preferences of those involved, there’s one steadfast, overarching theme uniting them: Trust. It’s imperative to be respectful and get the consent of everyone involved in any relationship, no matter how many people are involved.